Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Food of the People, by the People, for the People: Cooking as Public Art


What follows is a guest post by Andrea Baldini, Associate Professor of Aesthetics at Art Theory at Nanjing University, and Andrea Borghini, Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Milan.

In 2016, the American food magazine Bon Appétit named South Philly Barbacoa “One of the Best Restaurants in the Country.” First opened in 2014, this small and unassuming eatery quickly rose to national and international attention not only for the amazing quality of its barbacoa, consomé, marinated lamb tacos, and pancita, among others. For chef Cristina Martinez and her husband Benjamin Miller, who together run South Philly Barbacoa, cooking and dining are not only ways to delight one’s palate; they are also tools for speaking “to the larger immigrant experience whose labor is often exploited and forgotten.” Herself an undocumented immigrant who crossed the border from Mexico into the USA, Martinez turned a personal passion and talent for cooking into a political act. A culinary experience, in other words, becomes the occasion to stage an effective and far-reaching vindication of the pride and value of undocumented workers within the American economy – with particular reference to the food and agriculture business.


Tacos at South Philly Barbacoa (2019); photo courtesy of Anisha Chirmule

In the era of the of the super-star chefs, cooking and dining have been often turned into spectacles that many wouldn’t find difficult to consider art. Food is by now regularly found in museums or exhibited and showed like artworks. As philosophers such as Dom Lopes and Yuriko Saito have suggested, indeed, it is difficult to see an essential divide between traditional art forms and cooking. Yet, the example of South Philly Barbacoa suggests an artistic dimension of cooking and dining that have been heretofore largely overlooked by aestheticians and philosophers of art.

The more natural way to understand the artistic nature of food emphasizes its aesthetic value. Food can afford an aesthetic experience just like art does: the pleasure that a well-prepared bowl of dan dan noodles is comparable in principle to the joy accompanying the experience of a painting. From this perspective, the value and meaning of food are a function of an individual experience, whose significance depends on how a particular dish stimulates one’s palate. This is how, for individualistic models of aesthetic appreciation, the arts’ function: a painting’s significance is essentially tied to how its experience makes the viewer feel.

However, when considering an artwork such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or Pino Castagna’s Lo spino del filo spinato – a work dedicated to the Shoa – one witnesses something different: the arts’ capacity for generating meaning that transcends the individual dimension of personal enjoyment. Memorials, monuments, public performances, and other varieties of public art present a political undertone coloring our experiences. In these cases, art comes to embody and communicate a broader range of social and political meaning(s).

The political and social significance characterizing the daily deeds of Martinez, Miller, and their workers reveals, in particular, something analogous with food: the public dimension that sometimes cooking and dining can acquire. By emphasizing food practices’ public dimension, we want to suggest that sometimes cooking and dining count as forms of public art. What do we mean by it? That certain forms of cooking are not only expression of individual creativity within a culinary context; they are also essentially intertwined with our social life and with issues of political relevance. And, in cases such as South Philly Barbacoa, we argue, cooking and dining are just that: instances of public art.

Philosophical accounts of public art generally understand the peculiar nature of art by placing emphasis on matters of accessibility, theme, and response design.

Accessibility plays a crucial role in imbuing an artwork with public significance. Free or unrestricted access need not be a necessary feature of public artworks. In his work on the erosion of communal life, Michael Sandel offers a nice example. He shows how limited access to a public artwork can be further connected to issues of public interest and it need not deprive, for instance, a theater performance of its public relevance. At the same time, it is evident that the place where we can experience a public artwork, as much as the duration or the specific moment (season, calendar day, time of the day, etc.) must bear a special civic meaning. Public artworks are found in squares or buildings of civic interest, installed in sites of a meaningful event, or presented at a special moment, day, or week of the year.

Themes that are constitutive of public art typically bear a meaningful relationship to public institutions, to specific civic communities, or to events and symbols that concern such institutions and communities. Of course, due to the informality and unpredictability of public life, it is difficult – if not impossible – to list all the ways in which such meaningful relationships can emerge. Sometimes, public relevance is a function of funding or sponsorship; other times, the content of the work may very well be instrumental in establishing such a link. In general, what is important to emphasize is that, when public, an artwork becomes a vehicle through which civic society understands, shapes, and reshapes itself.

Finally, public art can be characterized in terms of their response design, that is the type of response that the work is eliciting or aiming to elicit. Public art demands particular kinds of engagements such as mourning, celebrating, remembering, or reconsidering. These all are practical attitudes – or even better, forms of collective rather than individual agencies – that have something to do with constructing or problematizing the identity of a civic society. They do so by inviting reactions structured around dialogue and collective ceremonies.

Along these lines, Nicolas Wolterstorff has challenged the “grand narrative” of art, according to which a pure experience of beautiful forms is the standard mode of artistic appreciation. He recognizes that the arts have traditionally sustained a multiplicity of practical functions going beyond the pleasure that perceiving something beautiful can afford. Such functions are still present today and show us how certain art forms are essentially social when we look closely at their nature and meaning.

Wolterstorff examines a series of art practices whose proper modes of appreciation clearly exceeds the narrow boundaries of disinterested contemplation. These include art forms such as memorial art, art for veneration, and “art that enhances.” Of particular relevance to the case of cooking and experiencing food is what Wolterstorff calls social protest art. Examples of this art kind, according to Wolterstorff, engages socially situated networks of appreciators, whose responses in turn promote favorable conditions for social change.

Instances of social protest art are capable of presenting in the medium of artistic transformation imaginative worlds that are unjust. When successful, these artworks are capable of generating in appreciators an empathic reaction towards those suffering from wrongdoings and to then transfer these empathic reactions towards victims of social injustice in the real world. This “transference,” as Wolterstorff calls it, set conditions of possibilities for actual social change.

For Wolterstorff, in effect, works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the murals of Italian street artists Collettivo FX count as social protest art for the following reason: they employ artistic means of expression to convey a particular message of social protest. This message is constitutive of their identity as artworks insofar as one would not understand part of their meaning qua art while ignoring their struggle for social justice.


Collettivo FX, Attenti non ha i documenti (“Beware, paperless person”) (2018); photo courtesy of the artist

This brings us back to South Philly Barbacoa, our initial example. The small venue is not simply one of the best places where to eat barbacoa in North America. With Cristina Martínez “the personal becomes political […] Her personal story speaks to the larger immigrant experience whose labor is often exploited and forgotten” (Cabral 2018). The meaningfulness of a meal at South Philly Barbacoa rests also on its capacity to foster, through a culinary experience, a confrontation with the culture and values of Central American immigrants and, more broadly, for undocumented workers in the United States. As Cabral putts it: Martínez’s “existence as a woman in the culinary world and an immigrant is an act of rebellion.”

Wolterstorff’s analysis of social protest art provides us with the conceptual resources for understanding South Philly Barbacoa as an instance of public art. For customers dining at this small Mexican eatery, the social injustices that afflict undocumented immigrants in the US are not matters of direct experience. However, the sufferings of these individuals are represented through the creativity that informs their cooking and techniques of food presentation. The dining experience offered at South Philly Barbacoa – remarkably delicious for the seeming simplicity of the food and the decor – serves to reconsider the rank of social values that permeate American society.  The universe of meaning offered by Martinez’s culinary creations serves as a stage; through their culinary experiences, diners can operate the transfer of meaning from their tables onto the city streets and beyond.

By entertaining the question of whether cooking is a public form of art, we can advance the conversation on the aesthetic worth of cooking and experiencing food and beverages in new directions. We can, for instance, think about new strategies for promoting and sustaining the public function and value of food. It is interesting to emphasize that cooking and dining, which are the most basic and universal practices of meaning-making, have no dedicated public venues in modern countries: visual art, music, and even sports all possess dedicated public venues where people can experience their social and political values. The creation of a public space devoted to cooking and dining, where food truly becomes of the People, by the People, for the People, may very well provide better conditions for understanding the social and political value of eating practices. Cooking and dining can do much more than fulfill the biological needs of our bodies or the hedonist desires of the glutton: they can replenishing that “esthetic hunger” that significantly shapes our public lives.

Notes on the Contributors
Andrea Baldini is Associate Professor of Aesthetics and Art Theory at Nanjing University and Director of NJU Center for Sino-Italian Cultural Studies.
Andrea Borghini is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Milan and the coordinator of Culinary Mind, an international network of scholars devoted to the philosophy of food.

Edited by C. Thi Nguyen

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