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A Matter of Taste

1 November 2013

The Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris (ENSBA) was the site of recent controversy over funding arrangements with designer Ralph Lauren. In an interview in Madame Figaro, Lauren – who has donated €1.5 million to the establishment – claims he doesn’t want to be seen as a patron, or as the organiser of grand parties. Slightly awkward then that his star-studded private event on 8th October, which shut students and staff out of their usual studios with little notice, led to student protests and a petition widely signed by ENSBA staff and students. While he claims to have found a sort of spiritual home in Paris’s Left Bank, it seems Ralph Lauren might be blinkered to French squeamishness over private money vs. patrimoine.

The partnership was fostered by school director Nicolas Bourriaud, who has also put forward the possibility of opening a restaurant in the school. There are mixed reports on the aim of this eatery, which would take over the atelier Vilmouth, one of the best-lit working studios. Whether the plain is to create a more convivial setting for students and teachers to share ideas, or to create a hip meeting place for Parisians and tourists to Instagram their cocktails, the project is on hold.

Art must imitate life however: a new exhibition curated by Bourriaud explores the art of the culinary process. ‘Cookbook’ is a four-part show including contemporary artists, historical works from the Beaux-arts collection, pieces by ENSBA students and a section devoted to the work of internationally renowned chefs.

Culinary art is ‘the last area not to have been explored in fine and applied arts’ says Bourriaud. ‘There are many artists who work with music, cinema, architecture or design, but culinary creation is still absent’. Ferran Adrià of famed ex-eatery elBulli was on the programme for dOCUMENTA Kassel in 2007 (he is also exhibiting in ‘Cookbook’), but his contribution was limited to cooking for a handful of lucky visitors.

In ‘Cookbook’ the chefs’ pieces expose what goes on behind the scenes, the before and after, the concept and even the performance of cooking. French chef Yannick Alléno translates the concept of flavour extraction into a three-dimensional sculpture and sound installation; Bertrand Grebaut brings an element of street art to the culinary process with a video of guerilla metro cheffing, and rising star Rodolfo Guzman likens his photographs of meringue-surfaces to the sensual experience of landscape.

‘Cookbook’ puts forward some interesting ideas about cooking’s position in contemporary culture. Introducing the show, Bourriaud noted that, in France, gastronomy is such an ingrained tradition that the French don’t see chefs as artists but as purveyors of a fine cultural practice. Like couture houses, cuisine is part of the French cultural landscape but the attitude is that its consumption shouldn’t encroach on the serious business of artistic creation.

Ultimately, art is meant to represent something nobler than just an object to be consumed. There is a certain vogue around international chefs that fits quite comfortably into the international contemporary art merry-go-round but doesn’t quite ring true with the traditional, and somewhat down at heel Beaux-arts setting.

This brings us back to the Lauren conundrum. Philippe Cognée (an artist and teacher at ENSBA) sums up the attitude shared by many students and teaching staff: ‘Patronage for the arts should bring another image into the school, not the world of luxury, which we don’t identify with’.

But at the same time, they need the funding. The meeting between students and Bourriaud highlights the ill situation troubling numerous French art establishments: their acceptance that culture budgets need to be augmented by outside means, but extreme reluctance to have private money propping up France’s great institutions.

Here’s hoping they can find a recipe to suit all tastes.

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