Food has a powerful aesthetic, which can be consumed multi-sensorially. Gustatory perceptions involve all five main human senses (plus some of the others, such as thermoception), and food appreciation is a complex multimodal process that requires synaesthetic confluences. Meaning acquisition via food is something that occurs naturally throughout human lives, from birth onward. What ultimately distinguishes mere gustatory aspects of food consumption from the aesthetic experience of food is that the latter extends taste perception with cultural meanings. Somaesthetic appreciation of food (Shusterman 1999) through its taste, smell, sound, texture, or visual appearance is never neutral and is always inscribed with meanings related to the social context of consumption. Food has a strong symbolic meaning (Douglas 1972; Lévi-Strauss 1965; Mead 1970; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1999) that differs between cultural environments (Munn 1986; Belasco 1987; Allison 1991; Wilk and Barbosa 2012) and between historical periods (Coe and Coe 1996; Flandrin and Montanari 1999; Bobrow-Strain 2012).
Roman and Greek emperors enjoyed vain food frenzies during decadent orgies, elitist feasts that were open only to the highest class and served as a sign of an attendant’s social importance. Renaissance royalty organised opulent banquets famous for expensive, delicate meals, but also for great portions of food intended only for visual pleasures: enormous pies, food sculptures, and even whole ‘edible monuments’ were created purely to satisfy the aristocracy with a spectacular feast for their eyes. Futurist intellectuals came up with the concept of avant-garde cuisine and threw tactile dinner parties in which they enjoyed food mainly through the enhanced sense of touch (burying their faces into salad bowls), smell (dispersing flavoured scents throughout the dining room), and hearing (sounds of chef Marinetti’s signature dish, the ‘polyrhythmic salad’, were played during the dinners) (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1999).
However, the aesthetic experience cannot be reduced to a form of pleasure (Pryba 2012), and artworks employing food as an aesthetic or conceptual tool do not need to cause solely enjoyable stimuli. Employed in a critical way, food can serve as a powerful medium to deliver disturbing messages and embody various meanings. Thanks to its multi-sensory appeal, food used as a critical art/design tool has an ability to convey these narratives in a more legible – or rather ‘digestible’ – way.
Even if a relatively new discipline, food art has existed since the beginning of civilisation, from the primeval cave paintings of hunted soon-to-become-edible animals, ancient Egyptian paintings, or Arcimboldo’s food portraits and seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes, to more recent initiatives such as Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food restaurant, the International Food Design Society, or FoodCultura. Artworks that employ food can take many different forms and so-called food art thus represents a broad field. Linda Montano (quoted in Roth 2000: 145) summarised the possible artistic approaches to food as follows:
Artists have used food as political statement (Martha Rosler, The Waitresses, Nancy Buchanan, Suzanne Lacy), as conceptual device (Eleanor Antin, Bonnie Sherk, Vito Acconci), as life principle (Tom Marioni, Les Levine), as sculptural material (Paul McCarthy, Joseph Beuys, Kipper Kids, Terry Fox, Carolee Schneemann, Motion, Bob & Bob), for nurturance and ritual (Barbara Smith), for props and irony (Allan Kaprow), as a scare tactic (Hermann Nitsch), in autobiography (Rachel Rosenthal), as feminist statement (Suzanne Lacy, Judy Chicago, Womanhouse), in humor (Susan Mogul), for survival (Leslie Labowitz).