The Feminist in the Kitchen: Martha Rosler’s Politics of Cookery
The Venice Biennale opens on the heels of two events that mark the stark polarizations of our moment: the Met Gala and the Baltimore riots. In this context, perhaps the week’s most apposite meme consists of juxtaposed images of despair and decadence, one a scene from the riots emblazoned with the caption DISTRICT 11 (referring to the impoverished home district of the Hunger Games’s heroic duo Katniss and Peeta), the other an image of a gold-crowned Rihanna decked out for the orientalist costume ball in a lurid, fur-trimmed, 55-pound yellow dress with a twelve-foot train, captioned MEANWHILE IN THE CAPITAL (referring to the authoritarian control center of the dystopia depicted in the film). If Suzanne Collins’s story remains in some sense an apt mirror for the social inequalities wrought by media-driven late neoliberal capitalism, it is surely because, more than ever today, as Mark Fisher puts it, we are “kept hooked first with media circuses, then, if they fail, they send in the stormtrooper cops.”
Whereas Rihanna’s dress inspired a spate of pizza and omelette memes, Martha Rosler’s 1975 “The Art of Cooking” intervenes in the politics of food more critically and provocatively. Rosler’s text takes the form of a mock dialogue between Craig Claiborne—a prominent New York Times food editor, writer, and restaurant critic—and the chef, writer, and television personality Julia Child, whose popular cooking show The French Chef by 1975 had completed its decade-long run (1963–73) and was beginning the regular reruns that would continue into the twenty-first century. Child wrote, taught, and performed for what she called “the servantless American cook,” arousing the culinary ambitions of middle-class American women, both capitalizing on and fostering their desire to become more perfect housewives and thereby confirming their role in the capitalist division of labor. The same year Rosler wrote her text, Claiborne gained notoriety for using a television charity auction “dinner for two” prize provided by American Express to stage a 31-course meal for himself and collaborator Pierre Franey at Paris’s Chez Denis for the price of $4,000; this extravagant stunt, which was widely received as an offensive self-indulgence in light of world hunger, scandalized New York Times readers and even drew criticism from Pope Paul VI.
Rosler’s fictional dialogue is built around quotations she drew from cookbooks of the era and fashioned into a wide-ranging discussion of taste in art and in cooking and the relationship of art—“high” and “low”—to life. Over the course of the conversation, Claiborne champions cooking as a “high art,” whereas Child propounds a somewhat more inclusive vision of cooking as an art of the commons, one created jointly by “peasants, fishermen, housewives, and princes” alike. Artistic “genius” is also a theme; discussing Marie-Antoine Carême, an early practitioner of French grande cuisine, Child and Claiborne describe his rags-to-riches ascent, extolling his artistry, “the grandeur of his character,” and his noble precarity: “Money meant nothing to him. His art alone was important.” Like a cheerful housewife, Child weathers Claiborne’s occasional bouts of mansplaining with good humor, and ultimately the two agree more often than they disagree. Child is able to conclude that “for us, art is somehow separate from and perhaps even above the rest of life”—an escapist fantasy that allows us to turn our attention away from the conditions of everyday life.
Rosler’s own work does the opposite, of course, as a political engagement that addresses not the magical power of the artist as creator but the conditions of power that affect all of us. Rosler wrote “The Art of Cooking” in the same year she made what would become one of the most important works of 1970s feminist art, Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), a videotaped mock cooking demonstration in which, as she put it, “an anti-Julia Child replaces the domesticated ‘meaning’ of [kitchen] tools with a lexicon of rage and frustration.” Performing an alphabet of culinary utensils, Rosler criticizes popular television depictions of women in the kitchen, including the ideal housewife that Julia Child both helped create and built her career around. At the same time, Rosler intimates parallels between women’s art production and women’s food production, questioning the value assigned to both. In a video of the previous year, A Budding Gourmet (1974), Rosler explores food preparation as a means of self-definition and imperialism, particularly in relation to Western forays into non-Western cuisines; here, as in “The Art of Cooking,” pursuit of the “gourmet” lifestyle allows a middle class woman to accumulate cultural capital and express class distinctions. In a later video of the same period, The East Is Red, The West Is Bending (1977), Rosler extends her inquiry into middle class American appropriations of foreign cuisines, suggesting their roots in cultural imperialism.
What does it mean for e-flux journal to publish Rosler’s now-forty-year-old “Art of Cooking” as the first text in its special issue for All the World’s Futures? Rosler’s explorations of food and cooking as vehicles for the articulation of taste and class distinctions, as well as her evocations of the feminist revolt against maintenance and reproductive work, might make for an especially suitable opening at a Biennale in which Okwui Enwezor—recognizing that capital is on our minds more and more as it gradually asphyxiates us—has planned a live, nonstop reading of all four volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital (1867), to be followed by recitals of other works exploring capitalism. For as important as Marx’s magnum opus is to thinking through current conditions, Rosler’s work offers an important corrective, drawing our attention to feminism’s radical rethinking of Marxism. As Silvia Federici has shown us, Marxism has largely overlooked the significance of women’s rebellions against reproductive work in the post-World War II period, ignoring the gendered character of this work (including, literally, women’s labor) as well as the movement’s “practical redefinition of what constitutes work, who is the working class, and what is the nature of the class struggle”—in other words, its implications for everyone, not just for women.
Rosler’s dialogue feels contemporary in an environment characterized by increasing food inequality and economic inequality, where questions of the high and the low—the elite and the common, the upper classes and the lower classes, the 1% and the 99%—are of ever more urgent importance, as are questions of American cultural imperialism and militarism. Considered in the context of her related work of the mid-1970s, it is also resonant in a contemporary economic climate marked not just by gender inequality but by the feminization of labor, in which “affective labor,” precarious work, work for love, and work for free are routinely expected of many of us who operate as adjuncts, freelancers, unpaid interns, and underpaid or unwaged workers; alternatively, it could be seen as a historical anchor to what Nina Power calls the “laborization of women,” the processes according to which women today are often “cast as worker first and only secondarily as mother or wife, or any other identity position not linked with economic productivity.”
Rosler’s intervention into the politics of cookery extends and adds new dimension to her historically important body of gastropolitical work from the 1970s. How might it have acted then, and how does it act in the present?