What is a Gesamtkunstwerk?
One of my favorite words from art history classes is Gesamtkunstwerk. This German word is a combination of 3 words: gesamt meaning ‘total’, kunst meaning ‘art’, and werk meaning ‘work’. Total art work? Not quite! A Gesmtkunstwerk is a type of artwork that’s “greater than the sum of it’s parts”. Though its unknown who exactly coined this term, it was first used in 1827 by K.F.E. Trahndorff and brought to popularity by the artist Richard Wagner of the Vienna Secession during the early 1900s. What it refers to is a type of synthesis whereby an artwork utilizes multiple artistic disciplines, all united for a common purpose i.e. the artistic message behind the work. This word can be applied to many different types of art. One discipline that I haven’t yet heard this word used to describe, however, is the culinary arts.
Food as a Total Work of Art
Though the term is usually used in regards to architecture, I believe that culinary experiences can also be considered a Gesamtkunstwerk.
Sure, the term Gesamtkunstwerk is often used to describe architecture, theater, and other more encompassing art forms, but I find this term to be absolutely perfect for culinary arts. Why? Well especially when going out to eat, a good culinary experience appeals to all 5 senses. The culinary arts are already an art form (it’s in the name!) and when taking all things into consideration, I see no reason why a good culinary experience wouldn’t count as a Gesamtkunstwerk.
This is, of course, not a great time to be writing this piece. I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but Seattle is still on lockdown, so eating out isn’t really an option unless a place offers patio seating. It’s nice, patio seating, but it can get cold this time of year! But I digress.
Gesamtkunstwerk for the Senses
In regards to theater and architecture, a Gesamtkunstwerk piece takes every detail into consideration. The props, lighting, music, or the wallpaper, flooring, and even door handles. The same can be said about going out to eat!
Restaurants and food trucks alike typically put the same sort of thought and consideration into the details of their business, from the menu design and dishes served down to the type of utensils used.
Even disposable utensils add a specific flavor to an experience! (Not a literal flavor, of course. I think you know what I mean😉).
The music, too, is often chosen to fit the atmosphere of wherever you may be at. A taco truck is going to be playing something much different than, say, a Parisian cafe, for example. Some street food vendors might not have any music playing at all, choosing instead to have sounds of the city in the background. It’s all a part of the experience! The food itself can also make sounds. Just think about KitKats! Or one of those sizzling cast iron plates, or the clinking of ice in a glass.
As mentioned before, the atmosphere of a place adds a lot to the overall experience. Aside from the place itself, the presentation of the food is art! This one’s just a no brainer.
I don’t remember where I first heard it, but a couple years ago I came across the Japanese idea that people should eat with their eyes before actually eating. After a quick Google search, I found this article on Japan Times that talks about this concept a little bit, as well as the rising trend of plastic food in Japan. Instead of just showing pictures of their menu items, many restaurants in Japan have started having plastic copies of their food made to present in the store at all times. These plastic foods look identical to the real thing, and are oftentimes considered by the people who make them to be considered works of art. I’d have to agree with the artists on that one!
What do you think of when you think of the arts? I’m willing to bet you think of the visual arts, right? Food is no exception! Does that mean I think that all food should be meticulously prepared? Heck no!
What’s more beautiful than a heaping slop of toppings on a plate of nachos from a little stand in the park? Not much! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.
Culinary arts have a lot of things that paintings lack. For example, smell! Generally, food smells good, right? There are some exceptions, like onions, or durian. and even though those smell bad they still add a lot of good flavor to a dish. Sure, being in the Palais Stoclet is like an immersive art experience because everything was designed with artistic intent, but does it have a signature scent, too?
Theaters, likewise, don’t tend to be filled with the warm, delicious scents that restaurants have. They’re also lacking in regards to touch. Sure, you can sit down, but what else is there? A pamphlet about the play? Unless it’s the Rocky Horror Picture show, there’s not gonna be much of a tactile experience at all. But food? There’s crispy veggies and flaky pastries, handfuls of burritos and sandwiches and cozy warm mugs to hold. All of that is before even taking a bite! Then there’s the texture of the food while you’re eating it, which can’t be imitated by any other art form. Paintings can imitate photos, movies can imitate plays, but nothing is quite like a good meal.
Last but certainly not least is the most obvious sensory experience associated with the culinary arts; taste!
Being in a comfortable atmosphere, listening to fitting music, enveloped in yummy scents, seeing beautifully prepared dishes, and feeling the textures of the food before actually eating are great, but what’s the reason people usually go out to eat? To eat, of course! See how eating can be considered a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art? It satisfies all 5 senses!
This doesn’t apply to just eating out, though. Prepare your food at home as if it’s a Gesamtkunstwerk, taking time to set up your dining area in an intentionally artful way (even if it’s just the couch). Put on some music, and have some good company over (socially distanced if necessary), and enjoy! Art and food alike are both best when shared, after all.
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