The Artist and the Critic: a Culinary Love Story (Abstract)

Cuisine is expressive, performative and sometimes divisive. Not all diners and chefs agree on the aesthetic/gustatory/nutritional merits of a dish. Often, in the culinary arts, the critic is also an artist. Food critics have the added vulnerability of experiencing the experimentation directly (by ingesting the artistic work) thereby hazarding their own health. Despite these risks, effective critics give feedback delicately, sensitively and diplomatically. Navigating the complex needs and desires of the artist and the critic in the culinary arts is akin to navigating the complexities of a romantic relationship. 

“The Artist and the Critic: A Culinary Love Story” layers personal narrative (describing my husband and I’s conflict and growth as chefs and critics) with ideas from artistic thinkers like Pater, Arnold, Morris, Benjamin and Sontag. It also involves culinary/performing arts commentaries from Despain, Finkelstein, Gratza, Pruiett and Robertson. The essay parallels the vulnerability of a chef and diner with lovers presenting their true selves. It explores the role of the critic who, according to Sontag and Pater, needs to be the gentle and passionate. The paper explores how the culinary arts meet William Morris’ ideal of being romantic and pragmatic (Harvey and Press). Through my interview with Jian Hui Cheng (a local chef in an award winning Vancouver restaurant), the paper explores the challenges of receiving critique in Vancouver’s culinary scene. Cuisines carry great emotional, social and political weight. “The Artist and the Critic: A Culinary Love Story” describes the paradox that food, like love, is divisive and unifying.

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Removing the Primary Horizon in Canadian Culture: MNY and Wyman

In his talk on May 16th, 2017, Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas’ proved that an artist, no matter how globally celebrated, could be authentic and accessible. He expressed worry that the art might lead art gallery patrons to feel diminished because of the literal scale and figurative power of the art. Arguing for dialogue between artist and audience, he gave us permission to remove the artist’s authoritative position. He argued for the removal of a primary horizon in art.

Yahgulanaas’ attempt to undermine a primary horizon is best expressed in the interactive “Bone Box” piece he exhibited at MOA. This piece’s playful form mirrors its playful content, since it encourages interaction while featuring the Trickster character and visual puns. Still “Bone Box” addresses the dark colonial realities of cultural appropriation and desecration of graves, since the material likely held the looted remains of First Peoples. Yahgulanaas finds the thin edge between playfulness (which he believes is primary to artistic engagement) and serious issues of colonialism; he allows us to have works with multiple horizons and multiple tones.

Yahgulanaas’ consistent iteration that some stories are his to tell and others are not, acknowledges the issue of appropriation which has become a key concern within and alongside the Aboriginal communities. Throughout, Yahgulanaas continually acknowledged the coexistence of multiple cultures within Canada.  He expressed worry that Haida art’s scale might diminish observers as though they were visiting a cathedral. His egalitarian and irreverent approach to art was a huge relief and profoundly charming. His ability to acknowledge privilege and exclusivity, while also discussing the display of his works at the British Museum and MOMA dampened my cynicism.After reading our excerpts from Wyman’s The Defiant Imagination, I noticed a distinct contrast to Yahgulanaas’ tone. While Yahgulanaas and Wyman both address society at large, Wyman’s text evokes the Royal We. He seems conflicted in his aims- at once trying to inspire unity (and cultural allegiance against the American “threat”) and dignifying the diversity of voices within Canada (23). Unfortunately, in Wyman’s work this paradoxical stance is not identified, and thus the text’s approach appears muddled.

Some of the assumptions upon which the The Defiant Imagination relies are plain inaccurate. When Wyman claims that Canada is a society “built” upon “compassion and shared values” (8), he perpetuates Canada’s identity as a nation of peace, order and good government. The characterization of Canada as a cooperative bastion in a sea of human rights abuses is simply historical revisionism. Participating in these narratives, dismisses the myriad groups who have been mistreated and abused throughout our history, and upon whose suffering Canada was built. In contrast, Yahgulanaas’ talk acknowledged the paradox of commonality coexisting with individuality. In his narratives, he addressed the ugly underbelly of his own heritage arguing that he needed to own the fact that his own ancestors traded slaves. Rather than historicizing fascism (as Wyman does) Yahgulanaas acknowledges Canada’s current fascistic tendencies. Wyman’s overarching aim may be cultural inclusion, but positioning Canada inaccurately may have the unintended effect of further alienating Canadians who feel marginalized from the arts. In contrast, acknowledging historical wrongs and conflicting identities offers a more authentic entry point into cultural expressions.

 

 

Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: Grief and Metatheatre

Dorothy Dittrich’s, The Piano Teacher: Lessons on Life and Love posits several questions about grief including: how do we continue to perform our lives after shattering loss?

The Piano Teacher explores this question through the relationship between Erin and Elaine, which initially seems absurd (even to the characters). However, Megan Leitch and Caitriona Murphy’s portrayals made the idea of a piano expert needing a piano teacher credible. In Act I, Erin is crippled by her “traumatic loss,” while in Act II, it is Elaine whose spiral into anger becomes debilitating. The conflict escalates between the characters, as the piece, like any composition, needs to be “pulled apart” and (re)arranged. Tom’s integration seems a convenient plot device, but I was willing to go along with it because Kamyar Pazandeh’s charming performance adds necessary levity to the story.  However, Tom’s patience and affability in the face of Erin’s outbursts makes him seem flat and less inauthentic.

David Roberts’ minimal set design allows the characters to feature in the space. The grand piano’s singularly dark presence on the muted colour palate of the set, reinforces music’s centrality in the play. The strings stretched from floor to rafters create a maze of tactile threads, which nod to the play’s musical theme. As the play unfolded, I found myself wondering about the function of the strings, at times to the point of pulling me out of the story. In Act II, I began to see a correlation between the strings and each character’s emotional stance. When characters touch the strings, they confront their feelings, when they avoid their feelings, the strings become obstacles.

One area where The Piano Teacher falters is in the exclusive musical references. At times, the discussions of music seems like an inside joke. While many of the names dropped are familiar and the discussions are snarky (Beethoven is called a “bastard”), the meaning was clearer to audience members with a musical background. Augmenting the references with by clips of some compositions alluded to in the play, could elucidate meaning for patrons with limited musical fluency.

Comparing music to language and relationships, The Piano Teacher explores the music’s expressive powers and limitations. Relationships, language, and music each have the capacity to contain (but not suffocate) sufferers in periods of profound grief. However, sometimes that capacity is not realized. Sometimes grief mutes all expressive powers.  In The Piano Teacher, the most authentic lines compare grief to getting off at the wrong stop and then “having your head blown to bits and handed to you in a paper bag.” Even as Erin, utters these words, Leitch’s performance underlines how inadequate the analogy. No analogy would suffice, since grief causes such disorientation.  The Piano Teacher addresses the paradox of mourners who are compelled to speak the unspeakable.

In its best moments, Dittrich’s play use metatheatrical devices solve the problem of how to survive grief; sometimes mourners need the “space not to play” at least until they can “be in the space” with their grief.