Fast Food: Don't spoil your appetite

Art and its relation to the museum may be seen in terms of the analogy of food passing along the intestinal tract. Looks at exhibitions like EAT 1998. Food is one kind of culture that is always in demand. Why not give the public what it wants. Eating in art galleries may break down the barriers of art as an exclusive kind of experience,

The Enlightenment idea of a museum was closely related to empiricist theories of the mind. It was strictly a head space; a temple to the intellect. In John Locke's 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding', written in 1690, the mind itself was "not much unlike a closet wholly shut from the light, with only some little opening left & to let in external visible resemblances, or some idea of things without". The capacity for converting sensation into knowledge, by permanently storing all the raw sense-data and interrelating it in various ways, was essentially what distinguished the human consciousness from a camera obscura (and in the days before photography, or before computers, such capacities seemed uniquely human). "Would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion", Locke thought, "it would very much resemble the understanding of a man". So the museum was, shall we say, invented as the 'mind' of Civilisation, and for centuries - as pre-eminent spaces for the exhibition of art - museums have continued to be dedicated almost exclusively to the holy union of intellect and eyesight.

Duchamp understood well that the secret to art's value lay in stopping just short of actual consummation. The space in which the readymade was snapped as art was still essentially the quasi-hermetic space of the Enlightenment's camera obscura. The phenomenology of Minimal art is based on the tabula rasa of a 'white cube'. Warhol, with his Campbells soup cans, produced the iconic image of preserved desire: a neat, self-contained product that seemingly triumphs over its own consumption; a sort of aesthetic Magic Pudding.

In this era of blockbusters and rampant marketology, however, the analogy of an intestinal tract might be more appropriate to the contemporary art museum. Art passes through it with a certain regularity, remaining in contact with the institution's walls just long enough so that it can be subjected to such digestive processes as are necessary to extract its juices and make its meanings available as nutrients for the social body. Art is fed to the audience with the assurance, "it's good for you". The museum is reconceived as fundamentally open - both to passing trends in culture and to the passing trade - even if it is largely reduced to the linearity of 'in one end, out the other'. With exhibitions such as 'EAT!' (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1998) the museum begins to speak the language of the food hall and the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, catering for the popular obsession with all things culinary. Food is one kind of 'culture' that's always in demand. Why not give the public what it wants?

Gone, it seems, is the conventional head/body split; the traditional boundary between vision and the other senses is apparently transgressed these days with ease and aplomb. At the opening of the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial, for example, held in the Queensland Art Gallery, hundreds of guests ate from paper plates whilst perusing the works in the exhibition. It seemed so perfectly natural, one almost forgot that combining food and art in the same institutional space was utterly unheard of until very recently. Artists too have been employing foodstuffs (or even serving food within the galleries) in their work during the past few years. The effect of breaking down the barriers between art as an exclusive kind of experience and a more universally human sort of lived, social experience may have interesting effects. Yet it remains to be seen whether, for art to be a thing of the future, we can simply have our cake and eat it too.