Eating Words and Hybridising Titles

Steven Poole’s article about ‘Foodism’ [] as a replacement for sex, drugs and religion, made me think about the boundaries of my TITLE(date) project. So far I have used only artwork titles. Part of my research question is to rethink the status of the art object, so what happens if I include titles which relate to objects that sit in the grey area of art and/or not art? Poole describes in his article the reading of restaurant menus as an aesthetic experience in itself, and as changing the experience of the actual consumption of food:

The French writer and nouveau romancier Alain Robbe-Grillet relates the following scene of lunch with his friend Roland Barthes: “In a restaurant, he said, it is the menu that people enjoy consuming – not the dishes, but their description. Lo and behold, he had relegated the whole art of cooking – which he adored – to the status of an abstract exercise of vocabulary!”

But Barthes understood more than his friend. The restaurant menu is not only a kind of poésie concrète, as well as an enticing promise of satisfaction, an IOU for pleasurable consumption in the near future; not just, as Barthes himself wrote elsewhere, the “syntax” of a given food “system”. It can actually alter how we experience the food once it arrives. The linguistic framing of a menu description has been shown to change what people report having tasted.

In an experiment, two psychologists gave different groups of people Heston Blumenthal’s “Crab Ice-Cream” while describing it differently: one group was told it was about to eat a “savoury mousse”, the other was expecting “ice-cream”. The people given savoury mousse liked it, but the people thinking they were eating ice-cream found it “digusting” and even “the most unpleasant food they had ever tasted”. The psychologists add that most food tastes “blander” without the “expectation of flavour caused by the visual appearance or verbal description of what is going to be eaten”. One is reminded of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, in which the plates of homogeneous brown muck at the restaurant are differentiated by the colour photos stuck in them and the savouring announcement of their names: “Numero deux, duck à l’orange”, “Numero une, crevettes à la mayonnaise”. (Slavoj Žižek calls this comic disjunction the “split between the food’s image and the real of its formless excremental remainder”.) The “exercise of vocabulary” in a menu, then, is never merely “abstract”, as Robbe-Grillet thought. You eat their words.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Affiche voor de roman Reine de joie, moeurs du demi-monde van Victor Joze, 1892, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Stichting)

A recent exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (Beauty in abundance, Highlights from the print collection of the Van Gogh Museum) had a section called “applied graphics” which showed prints that occupy/ied exactly the grey area we are talking about. It showed prints from Paris around 1900, that would be ubiquitous. Not only on the street as affiches and posters advertising the latest plays and concerts, but also as  restaurant menus and sheet music. All printed with the avant-garde art of the time. Crossing boundaries between different art forms; between art and “applied graphics”; between inside and outside of the gallery; between art and life. A text on the wall puts it like this:

“The Nabis in particular believed in the equality of all art forms and sought to integrate art into everyday life.  Although these young artists were motivated mainly by idealism they also had commercial reasons for presenting their work to the world in this form: with prints they could reach a much broader public. The success of their “applied art” aroused interest within the artworld, and such prints were soon being exhibited individually or published without text in collecters’ editions. “


Hermann-Paul (1864?1940) Affiche voor de Salon des Cent, 1895, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

This piece of text describes a way of dispersion of art that still operates today. Now it is not ‘prints’ any more but digital media. I wonder if the text is an accurate description or should we read it as historicising the past from today’s perspective. If we take it apart it is probably both. It seems to me to fit to well. The word “applied art” between inverted commas what does that mean here exactly? Was that word used in 1900? and was that distinction between applied and art the same in 1900 as it is now?



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