Conspicuous Consumption: Food TV and the Louvre Experience

“Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch” is an essay by Michael Pollan recently published in The New York Times Magazine.  I am the “couch” part of this article. Top Chef, Chopped, Iron Chef , Ace of Cakes, The Next Food Network Star, and Hell’s Kitchen are shows that regularly consume my time and conversations.  It is easy to justify this behavior with the notion that food television is educational; I am learning about the existence of ingredients, cooking techniques, and general food-related vocabulary. Not surprisingly, I rarely cook anything more complex than pasta with store-bought Cabernet marinara sauce.

Judging round, Burger Quickfire Challenge, Top Chef Masters (Bravo)

I learn very little from food television in terms of  actual cooking. The majority of my “participation” comes in the form of debating how the “Top Chef Master” will inevitably be Hubert Keller or the merciless inclusion of grape jelly in the Chopped appetizer basket.   Pollan’s article suggests I am not alone:

“What we mainly learn about on the Food Network in prime time is culinary fashion… these shows take the fear — the social anxiety — out of ordering in restaurants… Then, at the judges’ table, we learn how to taste and how to talk about food. For viewers, these shows have become less about the production of high-end food than about its consumption — including its conspicuous consumption.” (New York Times Magazine, 02 Aug 2009)

“Conspicuous consumption” implies a changed role of the viewer, who now behaves as a spectator or voyeur rather than as a direct participant. We are invited into the creative process, the eating, and the critical response.  The presentation of a final product once reserved for the end of a cooking show is now a constant focus across “reality”-based food television and often occurs multiple times throughout single episodes.  Aesthetics also takes an increasingly important role.  This is likely because the visual appearance of a dish is one of the only judging criterion viewers can participate in from a distance; taste is a lost sense in the television world.

Dessert round, Chopped (The Food Network)

Thanks largely to the editing process characteristic of reality TV, cooking is now a  spectacle with a narrative arc that more closely resembles drama than instructional education.  The Food Network is known for over-saturating the coloring of its programs to heighten the aesthetics of the food; why wouldn’t we want to turn off the lights in the room while watching?  Theater-level silence during judgment sessions on these shows is also key; it would be disappointing to miss criticism of the cooking demo that prevents someone from becoming “The Next Food Network Star.”  Most importantly, it would be devastating to be unable to relay one’s opinions about the outcome of the food contest in the office/among friends the next day, either in full support of or total disagreement against the winning dish that no one participating in the conversation has even tasted.  Such debates are ultimately ones of conspicuous culture consumption rather than actual food consumption.

The concept of “conspicuous consumption” resonated in my mind as I was reading “At the Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus,” the widely circulated New York Times article by Michael Kimmelman.  Kimmelman articulates a well-known concern regarding the amount of time visitors spend actually looking at and analyzing art while visiting a museum.  He postulates that the reasons tourists visit masterpieces are more about the self than the art:

“…tourists now wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have ‘done’ the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.” (The New York Times 02 Aug 09)

Entrance to the Louvre, Image from, by pointofnoreturn.

Quantity is a clear priority at the Louvre, to the  point that the museum acquiesced, to a certain extent, by providing a map with images of the museum’s best known works embedded within the gallery renderings; one can beeline to each without the aimless wandering that enables one to happen upon lesser-known pieces. While I agree that it would be ideal for Louvre visitors to spend more time looking at the art, I do not know that using the bourgeois Grand Tour of the 17-19th centuries as a model is useful during a time when world travel is accessible to a broader range of people, including those without the time and financial means to study the arts to the fullest extent.

As something that was once done primarily by slaves and servants, cooking has a history opposite that of art museums in terms of its relationship to the general public: visiting a museum was originally only available to the wealthy while cooking was primarily done by the working class.   Yet both disciplines intersect in the act of conspicuous consumption.  At the Louvre, culture is again selected for consumption over content.  The culture of the Louvre is the experience of going to a renowned arts institution, visiting popular culture icons and sharing that experience with others.

Flickr and Facebook are filled with images of art historical sights such as the Venus de Milo and the Parthenon.  In the same way that a non-culinary individual like myself talks about cooking through the vehicle of food television, those without a solid visual arts education use the experience of places like the Louvre as a way to talk about the more universal aspects of arts experiences.  Few would deny that the plexi-glass and guards surrounding the Mona Lisa are part of experiencing the painting; these are the reality of the work of art and its cultural status.  There is almost no way to avoid seeing the Mona Lisa this way, and consequently a common debate is whether the painting is as noteworthy as we learned in grade school or if we thought it was entirely too tainted by its present surroundings.

The Mona Lisa experience, The Louvre, Image from Wikimedia Commons, by Sergey Meniailenko

If social media has demonstrated anything, it is the current desire to share experiences and initiate a dialogue with others.  While those of us who work in art museums  encourage such discussions to be focused on the content of art, a conversation that provokes critical thinking and debate as a result of a visit to the Louvre should not be undervalued.  I do not think that every tourist who snaps a photo of the Nike of Samothrace is having a worthwhile discussion about the art, the experience of seeing the Nike, or otherwise.

The reality of the current state of arts education dicatates that most who enter the Louvre do not have a significantly more masterful grasp of  visual arts vocabulary than I do of Gordon Ramsay’s technique terminology; however, this does not mean those who do not linger at specific works are not having a meaningful experience, either.  Many Louvre visitors are there for the conspicous consumption of the experience of going to the Louvre. Likewise, I go to the Louvre to see and linger with specific works of art, even if it means I see almost nothing there.  Yet, I am on my couch to consume the dramatic battles of food television and argue vehmently, but thoughtfully, against others who speak this cultural language.