Off-Topic | Randall Szott

February 25, 2010 · Print This Article

Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Randall Szott as our latest guest with his post, “More Tailgating, Less Curating”. In his own words, Randall  “has described himself as a chef, a merchant marine, or a schmuck with some blogs.” When not spending part of his time at sea, Randall can be found at He Said, She Said.

More Tailgating, Less Curating

Randall Szott

I’m a cook. When I tell people this there are no quizzical looks or sheepish follow up questions. People get it and want to hear more. Sometimes the fact that I have two grad degrees in art makes its way into the conversation and things get awkward. This, to me is a problem, a fundamental problem that I’ve been invited to say a bit about here at BaS. What follows is my highly anecdotal account of why I believe the art world should strive to be more like the culinary world. It is rooted in my experience and obviously suffused with my values. If you don’t share those values (pluralism, flexibility, openness, egalitarianism, inclusiveness, conviviality, approachability, diversity, etc.), find those values misapplied or irrelevant to the context, or if you have had a radically different experience with the art or culinary world then obviously this account will be of questionable value to you. I am talking about the capital A art world – the one that BaS almost exclusively engages itself with – not the immensely diverse “real” art world of sidewalk art fairs, church craft shows, potters in Memphis, painters in Sedona, and the multiplicity of creative artists that work outside the “recognition” of the network of biennials, jet-set curators, international journals, art historians, big city newspapers, and elite colleges/universities.

I went to several art schools as an undergrad, but found them all incapable of or unwilling to answer some fundamental questions about art practice – Why is it important?  Who is it important to? And how does it fit into history, not art history? To put it another way, the schools seemed prepared to teach how to make art, but not why making art mattered to anyone beyond the campus. In fact, most evidence I encountered seemed to imply that very few people felt the type of art being made in art schools in the early to mid 90s mattered at all. For a discipline that prides itself on its capacity for self-reflection and critique, it seemed strange to me that asking what seemed like such obvious questions would be met with such incredulity and would brand me as a testy crank. Maybe I was destined for kitchen work all along given the notorious tempers of cooks/chefs. Maybe art types are the temperamental ones, especially when asked to provide some semblance of proof that what they’re doing matters to anyone beyond their circle of like minded art enthusiasts.

The cooking world doesn’t share this burden. People get it. Now don’t get me wrong, the foodie/wine connoisseur crowd can be as snobbish and condescending as the ArtForum/Sotheby’s set to be sure. But, despite this, what follows is my bullet point summary of why the art world would be better if it was more like the culinary world. To make it easier for myself, I’m going to limit my discussion of U.S. culinary culture as it is the one I know best and some limit in scope is necessary given the length.

Diversity of diffusion

The multiplicity of centers, or points of culinary interest are staggering in culinary culture. That is to say, in contrast to the art world, a much broader cross section of America invites exploration and discovery -  farmstead cheeses of rural Vermont, shrimp and grits of coastal Carolina, the various regional barbecue styles (Memphis, St. Louis, Texas, Carolina, etc.), seasonal Pacific Northwest menus, clambakes and lobster rolls of coastal New England, and on and on and on…You can find great food outside of the major urban centers, food made and consumed with great regional pride by people who do not look to national or international tastemakers for validation. If you want to experience art “that matters,” you have a very limited travel itinerary ahead – Los Angeles, New York, and *maybe* San Francisco or Chicago. Of course you can throw Miami in, but you’ll just be looking at stuff trucked in from the other urban centers.

Participation

Obviously this is related to the previous item. The main thing I’m looking at here is the range of individual participants, the variety of socio-economic classes, educational levels, race, (as per above) regional distribution, age, gender, etc. Essentially everyone cooks, and this means that the pool of available knowledge, approaches and practices is staggering. Because of its integration within everyday life, food opens up conversation rather than shuts it down (see my anecdote above). Of course food is politicized and has immense points of controversy, but if you were to make small talk with someone on a bus, in a taxi, at the gas station, the laundromat, the DMV, or the bank, aside from the weather, what easier point of reference would there be than food? To be able to talk about *something* deeply connected to history, identity, culture with a complete stranger is an amazing thing. Go ahead ask someone what their favorite holiday meal is, or what their grandmother used to cook, or (often funny) about their worst food experience. Then ask them about art and see where that conversation goes.

Star System

Again related to the previous item, is the way in which cooking “stars” figure in popular culture. Mario Battali is a well respected chef within the “high” culture of the culinary world (I use scare quotes because as this section hopes to point out high culture in cooking is not nearly as removed from low, or ordinary culture – unlike art in which they pretend such distinctions have collapsed, but the evidence to support the claim is basically nonexistent), but is also widely known among ordinary people. Let’s contrast this with say, Ann Hamilton whose resume is chock full of pinnacle achievements in the arts, but is basically unknown as a public figure. Perhaps that comparison isn’t fair, Thomas Keller is one of the most highly regarded chefs in the U.S. and remains obscure too. The fact remains though that many highly accomplished professionals in the field of cooking (Anthony Bourdain, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, etc.) are known to the public. Thus, the divide between those who are “experts” and those that are not is not nearly as steep at least in terms of a basic who’s who of the field.

Media

Take a quick look at all of the snarky hand wringing going on amongst the art chattering class (and its wannabes) regarding Bravo’s upcoming art reality series to see how important the traditions of rejecting the”masses” and the cult of genius remain in the art world. Reality cooking shows are everywhere and there are very few cries of “that’s not really cooking” or “those aren’t really chefs” among the food crowd. This relaxed, open, and fun orientation is another strength of the culinary world. On Top Chef, truly “top” chefs participate with little fear that it will hurt their credibility with some food intelligentsia. Even on the more campy and flamboyant Iron Chef top tier chefs eagerly embrace the opportunity rather than avoid it to maintain their “serious” cooking practice. Aren’t there oodles of essays about how distinctions between pop culture and art culture have collapsed? Ah, but in the culinary world we have living proof of this, not just some catalog essays and edited academic volumes. Where is the Art Network? Where is Top Artist? Each with accomplished artists participating in pop culture, not just commenting on it, or using it for source material? To continue this line of thinking, where are the copies of ArtForum or frieze at the checkout stand, the dentist’s office, the insurance office, or drug store? I have found Saveur, Gourmet (R.I.P.), Food and Wine, etc. in these places. There is a Food Network whose viewers are not just insiders (critics and chefs), but people like my mom and even my dad. Wouldn’t the art world be well served by having various media that at least approached the broad demographics of food media?

Participation II

Finally, I’ll leave you with a bit about cookbooks and the participatory ethos of the culinary world. One of the most inspiring things I found in my experience as a professional cook (in high end fancy pants restaurants) was the egalitarian attitudes of chefs I worked with. They often looked to street food (“common” cooking) not in irony, not merely as inspiration for their own more “refined” dishes, but as some of the greatest achievements in culinary culture. Most chefs I know believe that there are grandmothers the world over that are equal to, or greater in cooking ability to themselves or are at least capable of creating a few amazing dishes. I have rarely encountered artists who think that a housewife in North Dakota or a construction worker in Mississippi might have something to add to art, or that a sidewalk art fair in Oak Park even might have anything there that would merit attention. Yet, we have someone like the aforementioned Mario Battali releasing the cookbook “Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style” not as a wink wink “gesture,” but out of a real appreciation for, and respect of, the cooking practices of ordinary people. Not only that, but this creative back and forth between highly accomplished professionals in the field and ordinary people happens daily in newspapers, call in shows, street fairs, and cooking demonstrations. We have someone like Rick Bayless issuing cookbooks for you, me, anyone -  to make and alter his recipes. Now I know Fluxus adopted the recipe model a bit, but it is by no means mainstream in the art world. There are community cookbooks, chili cook-offs and other forms of ordinary cooking that chefs look to for crafting recipes. This dynamic, participatory ethos in which school teachers, mechanics, brokers, nail technicians, etc. rub against professional cooks and food critics creates a vibrant, dense, and democratic culture that the art world can’t do anymore than pay lip service to.

Now as I mentioned, this whole line of thinking is predicated on a certain set of values – that cultures are better served by: increased participation, broadly composed publics, egalitarian social relationships, power widely distributed across stakeholders rather than concentrated amongst a few elites, and shared points of contact/vocabularies. Let me also stipulate that there are highly specialized, and elitist practices in the cooking world as well – molecular gastronomy being among them, but this does not change my basic points. I’ll close with one of the major things I’d like to see the culinary world emulate from the art world. To experience the very top tier of cooking is insanely expensive. In the art world, you can stroll into any gallery free of charge. Similarly museums provide access to, and educational programming for, art free of charge (at least on certain days). The culinary world needs to figure out how to replicate this – create “museums” wherein people can taste food for free prepared not only by chefs, but also by home cooks and create programming that contextualizes it within broader historical/cultural currents.The culinary world is ahead on many counts by my estimation, but it is glaringly behind the art world in making its achievements available to those with limited economic resources. I might have veered onto a snarky path in parts of this post, but I truly offer this in the spirit of constructive criticism, and as someone who wants art to be relevant, to be able to talk as readily about it with my neighbors and the folks back in my hometown as I can about cooking. I want people to be as hungry for art as they are for al pastor, dal, pot roast, and fried chicken. That’s a huge, probably impossible ambition, but I’m a romantic through and through -  Bon appétit!

About the poster:
Randall Szott embodies the spirit of an old Dennis Miller joke in that he doesn’t know enough about anything to impress strangers and just enough about everything to annoy his friends. Or is it the reverse? He spent 11 years in college at 7 schools in 5 states and has 3 degrees. He has been cooking professionally for around a decade and has prepared everything from Thanksgiving dinner for over 300 to multi-course wine tasting menus for 12.His life is a series of three week cycles on land and three at sea working as a cook aboard the largest U.S. owned hopper dredge.
Inexplicably, institutions occasionally invite him to present his thoughts and activities in a public setting, even ones that should know better like SFMOMA, basekamp, The University of Houston, The California College of the Arts, threewalls, and The Skydive. There is no quick explanation as to what the hell he actually does or why anyone should care, but if you have some time, stop by He Said, She Said and he’d be happy to talk.
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