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Abuse of Cakes

July 9, 2010

Take a good look–the precariously balanced pile of objects in this photo is actually a cake.  In recent years, whether in trendy bakeries or televised competitions like the Food Network Challenge, bakers have been developing increasingly elaborate cakes.  Now anyone capable of making something like this is obviously highly skilled.  But these creations appear more like sculptures than something I would think of eating.  And therein lies the problem.

Cooking is an art, but it is not the kind of art intended for the museum.  In other words, it is not what is often called “high” or “fine” art (art that is intended to be contemplated and appreciated for its particular use and arrangement of form, color, sound, or similar properties, independent of any practical purpose it may have).  Rather, cooking is a classic example of  a useful art, since everyone has to eat.  Cakes like the one pictured above appear to be an attempt to elevate it to a high art.  But is this something appropriate for cooking to become?

I do not have a final answer to this question.  But as Divinely-appointed stewards of the materials of the world, all those making art are obligated to make appropriate use of the materials available in the particular art they choose; this makes me doubt that high art cakes are a good path for cake-baking to take.

The reason cakes like this initially seem impossible is because they would be if the baker were working only with the traditional cake components of, well, cake, and various sorts of icings.  Such cakes frequently use plastic or metal structural elements to support themselves, and bakers have gone beyond fondant icing decoration to incorporate food materials like modeling chocolate or gum paste.  I generally find the taste even of fondant inferior to some other forms of icing, but I have never tasted the latter two materials (and I can’t consider anonymous internet accounts of their taste to be authoritative).  Perhaps they taste good, but since they are intended for making elaborate shapes and decorations, their taste is not a priority for their users.  I do not think any use of the cooking arts that ignores taste is making appropriate use of the food with which it is working.  Further, although objects from toothpicks to multi-layered stands have an appropriate place in the presentation of food, a cake that needs an internal support structure strikes me as an abuse of the art.

Whatever impressiveness arises from these cakes comes, I think, from their nature as a sort of high wire act.  The interest is in success at something difficult, not enjoyment of the result.  There are some arts where this feature might be appropriate, but cooking is not one of them, for cooking’s end is achieved when the food is eaten.  And in conclusion, which of these cakes would you really rather eat? 

Photo credits: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wikimedia Commons, and Needcoffee.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. James permalink
    July 11, 2010 1:52 am

    “But as Divinely-appointed stewards of the materials of the world, all those making art are obligated to make appropriate use of the materials available in the particular art they choose; this makes me doubt that high art cakes are a good path for cake-baking to take.”

    Can you explain why this is true: “all those making art are obligated to make appropriate use of the materials available…”

    The use of the word ‘obligated’ intrigues me the most.

    • Ben permalink
      July 11, 2010 3:11 pm

      Briefly: when God created mankind, he commanded them to subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28), and elsewhere it is made clear that man’s rule over earth is intended to be a proper managing of it and not destructive (Gen. 2:15, Rom. 8:20-21, etc.). As applied to making art, this means it is important to determine what appropriate use of each particular material is–that is, how to best develop its potential–in an art work. To force materials to do things that they were not intended to is to ignore the fact that our duty is proper managing of a creation not made by us; just because an artist can do something with a material does not mean he should.
      Obviously my position also depends on the belief that materials have particular natures, and are not simply collections of atoms that can be used interchangeably.

  2. James permalink
    July 12, 2010 12:28 am

    So could we carry the same idea to, say, cell phones? The 4G wireless internet, countless apps, touch screen, television capabilities, music player, and other limitless features can be found in a single cellular device. Is this forcing materials to do things that they were not intended to do?

    • Ben permalink
      July 12, 2010 10:02 am

      No. I do not think the physical materials of cell phones (plastic, metal, etc.) are being abused in most cases; I haven’t thought in detail about what would constitute the abuse of programming code, but the advanced operating systems available these days are designed to handle a wide variety of functions, and I see no problem with that so long as they maintain a phone function that works well. An example of what would be the abuse of materials in a cell phone is a phone that had so many devices inserted into a small space that it overheated and was too hot to hold in your hand without a separate insulator. Since it is of the essence of cell phones that they be held in order to talk into, this would be a clear abuse.
      Looking back at my original post, I was perhaps not sufficiently clear in some of the points I was trying to get across. I am not opposed to a work of art, useful or otherwise, having multiple functions. In the case of food, visual appeal is important as well as taste. What I am opposed to is essential aspects of a particular art form being lost because people are trying to transform it into something else.
      I hope this answers your question. In any case, this has helped clarify my thinking; thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  3. James permalink
    July 13, 2010 11:19 pm

    That helps immensely, thanks.

  4. Anna permalink
    July 15, 2010 6:52 pm

    Ben, thanks for this post – i’d never thought of this kind of “extreme caking” in this way.

    Two things:
    1) what if, like Duff, or Ace of Cakes, you are baking to fulfill two aims: a) a work of art created in response to stimulus provided by a customer (none too different from a commissioned painting) and b) a cake suitable for consumption that will presumably ensure a repeat customer. In the case of these two shows, it is apparent that the art and the taste of the cake are both very important and thus i would suggest are actually not an abuse of cake but a potential realization of the extent of its beauty?

    2) have you seen http://www.cakewrecks.com? doesn’t have much to do with your post except it presents real examples of the abuse of cake…

    • Ben permalink
      July 15, 2010 10:11 pm

      First, the easy question: I have indeed seen cakewrecks, and enjoy visiting it on occasion. It actually does relate to the last image I used, since the site had a field day with the bride cake that looked exactly like her (except for the red stripe down the side of the dress).
      You make a good point regarding the situation of a customer who commissions an extreme cake, since it could then be argued making it is a good act of service, as well as an artistic balancing act trying to maintain taste and visual impressiveness.
      An artistic debate I heard about some time ago, and have just now had brought to mind, concerns whether the artist should be more concerned to act for the good of the work or serve his neighbor. The former seems to follow the command to love God, as we should do all things as well as we can for his glory. The latter seems to follow the command to love our neighbors as ourselves by doing what they desire. But on occasion someone asks for a work of art the artist believes to be bad art, so a conflict arises.
      You will see some further thoughts on this issue Friday morning, because I think I have enough material for a post, and I didn’t have any other good ideas until now.

  5. July 15, 2010 10:33 pm

    ok, but to follow up on your point – i still think that Ace of Cakes, Duff etc model of excellence where they are artists who work with a medium that must also by its nature be good to eat (otherwise they have failed, no matter how good the cake looks….duff says this) will take an idea of a comissioner and create a work of art that is not merely meeting the base needs. it is not utilitarian.

    I think i am giving away the fact that i have watched way too much of these two guys…

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