Is Art Meant to Be Eaten?

Food is sustenance and enjoyment, it is companionship and a sensory experience. But can it also be art? More and more often, edible materials are used in the creation of artworks. At the same time, food design and presentation have become increasingly elaborate. Where do we draw the line between the two? And if it is art, are we allowed to eat it? An investigation into the realm of edible art.

“Cooking is an art, but you eat it too.” This quotation is attributed to Marcella Hazan, one of the most influential cookbook writers of the 20th century. It addresses the idea that (gourmet) food resembles a work of art and that cooking is one form of artistic process – a widespread idea that is reflected in terms such as “the culinary arts”. But is a meal, even a gourmet meal, really comparable to, say, Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker? If something is created for the sole purpose of being consumed and, thereby, obliterated, can we really address it as an artwork? When Marcella Hazan phrased her thoughts on cooking this way, she probably did not have a debate on the nature of art in mind. Most likely, she wanted to stress that, in order to prepare an exquisite meal, one not only needs a high level of skill but also a spark of creativity – much like a sculptor, who needs to learn the proper technique to shape their materials, but whose work will not be considered extraordinary without that special something. Yet, Marcella Hazan’s quotation raises a lot of questions, touching upon the very definition of art itself: Can food be art? And if it is, are we allowed to eat it?


Gourmetmahlzeit oder Kunstwerk? Foto: Jay Wennington, CC0, aus Wikimedia Commons
Gourmet food or work of art? Photo: Jay Wennington, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tasting Art?

If you had asked the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770–1831), the answer to the question whether food could be art would have been a resounding no: In his influential Lectures on Aesthetics (published posthumously in 1835), he made it clear that art could not be experienced via the sense of taste, because tasting something would destroy it, and art, in his view, was something durable. In light of art forms such as performance art, this view seems outdated. But modern philosophy is far from done with the question, as more recent publications such as Dave Monroe’s article Can Food Be Art? The Problem of Consumption (2007) illustrate. Even if we do not consider consumption as a disqualifier, we have to ask ourselves where we draw the line between a work of art, which is created for the purpose of being appreciated aesthetically, and a meal, which is created for the purpose of being consumed and giving sustenance. In many definitions (such as George Dickie’s Institutional Theory of Art), intentionality plays a role in ascribing something the status of a work of art, the idea being that you do not accidentally create art. This raises the question of whether a meal, however skillfully prepared, qualifies as art if the intention of the cook is not first and foremost to create a piece of art but a meal. Surely, there is more than one opinion on this matter. And that is not all: Once we have dealt with the question “Can we taste art?”, there is still the matter of aesthetically pleasing food. Where does this factor into our perception of the connection between food and art?


The Art of Designing Food and the Art of Deception

With the rise of social media during the past twenty-odd years, the trend of showing (off) your food was born. What started as a way to let your followers partake in your everyday life, including your eating habits, has since become a competition for aesthetics. On Instagram, under the Hashtag #edibleart, more than 3 million photos are gathered, depicting creations ranging from elaborately designed cakes to painted slices of toast, each food item specifically designed to create a “wow effect” without the viewer being able to taste them. Thus, Marcella Hazan’s idea of food as art does not seem to apply to this particular form of food art. More than anything, the creations shared under the hashtag put an emphasis on aesthetics, not taste.

Tuba Geçkil, Pink Purse (Rosa Handtasche). Essbares Material. Foto: ©Redrosecake
Tuba Geçkil, Pink Purse. Edible Materials. Photo: © Redrosecake

One particular social media trend is a case in point: At the height of the Corona pandemic in 2020, Turkish artist and cake designer Tuba Geçkil went viral with her hyperrealistic cake creations, which made the internet question everything: Is this purse a purse, or is it cake? Thousands of videos of people cutting through seemingly mundane objects with a knife and revealing them to be, in fact, cake popped up under the hashtag #everythingiscake. The trend has by now even given rise to its own Netflix show, Is It Cake?. The success of Tuba’s idea can hardly be attributed to taste. Millions of viewers watched the cake reveals simply for that one moment when the masterful deception became obvious, when the purse was revealed to be nothing but cake. It is the performance and the optics that draw people in, not the quality or taste of the edible material. The cake, in this context, becomes less of a food item and more of an artistic material.

Samir Nemichi, Pralinenkreation. Schokolade. Foto: Samir Nemichi
Samir Nemichi, chocolate creation. Chocolate. Photo: Samir Nemichi

German designer Samir Nemichi views his material in a slightly different way. On his Instagram account, he stuns his more than 25,000 followers with skillfully created and artistically displayed chocolate creations, which are nonetheless meant to be eaten. Still, their visual impact plays a big role in Samir’s process. “ ”, he says. With a special technique including steam, he is well on his way to succeed – his creations already have a recognisable look. Samir is not an exception in his endeavour to unite taste and art, and without a doubt, his creations are the result of an artistic process. Yet, they raise the question: If they are made to be eaten, can they be art?

Gerhard Petzl, Eleganz (2003). Schokolade. Foto: © Gerhard Petzl
Gerhard Petzl, Elegance (2003). Chocolate. Photo: © Gerhard Petzl

Art is Art, and Food is Food – or Is It?

Sculpture Network member Gerhard Petzl, who has been working with chocolate as his main material for more than 30 years, is fairly clear on the matter:   The Swiss artist would not even begin to think about eating one of his elaborate chocolate sculptures. To him, chocolate is mainly a material, albeit a luxury material, that stimulates more than one sense. However, the problem of durability has been a steady companion in his artistic career. A chocolate sculpture is not meant for eternity, no matter how well prepared it is. When Gerhard took an art class 20 years ago and submitted a chocolate sculpture as his final project, he was met with raised eyebrows by his professors: “Why all this effort if it is just chocolate?”. Fortunately, he didn’t let himself be discouraged by this question.

Gerhard Petzl, Kubismus. Schokolade. Foto: © Gerhard Petzl
Gerhard Petzl, Cubism. Chocolate. Photo: © Gerhard Petzl

While the lack of durability can be viewed as a problem by artists working with edible materials, this particular quality can also become an integral part of the artwork. The performances of German artist Sonja Alhäuser revolve around the act of consumption. In her banquets, viewers are not only allowed but encouraged to eat the exhibited pieces made from all kinds of edible materials, from butter to red wine. Without this act of consumption, the performance wouldn’t be complete. After the night is over, the physical objects are gone – but not the mark they left on their audience. Sonja Alhäuser’s work is, therefore, by its very definition “edible art”: not only theoretically edible but meant to be eaten.

All these examples make one thing abundantly clear: thinking about durability and food as an artistic material challenges our definition of art. There is a fine line between artistically designed food and edible art, but where do we draw it? What defines whether we consider something art or just “beautiful food”? Is it the creator’s intention? The setting? Why do we call one perishable thing art, but not the other? Does it make a difference whether it perishes in a day, a month, or 10 years? There certainly are no hard-and-fast answers to these questions, but they might give some food for thought. In the end, art is often in the eye of the beholder.

About the author

Sophie Fendel

Sophie rediscovered her passion for three-dimensional art at the Sculpture Network office in Munich. She just finished her PhD and is now working as a freelance author and editor. Sophie enjoys immersing into different topics for her essays about sculpture and society.


Sybille Hayek

Sybille Hayek is an editor and translator. Since 2022 she has been supporting our team on a voluntary basis with her trained eye for detail and a great love of language.

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