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The Rites of Dionysus

Life is suffering and then you die, according to the wisdom of Silenus, the mentor of Dionysus in Greek mythology. Nietzsche argued that art was invented as a response to this pessimistic view of human life. We dream, invent, seek rational order and symmetry so that we can escape the dark night of this terrible vision. A world of suffering is redeemed by a world of illusion, reality wrapped in a veil of beautiful appearances.

But art that embodies only these Apollonian elements will be merely pretty, superficial, what we today call Kitsch—a deliberate avoidance of the realities of existence. For Nietzsche, a genuine affirmation of life must involve the judgment that what is terrifying and painful in life can nevertheless be good—a celebration of reality’s incessant process of creation and destruction into which the individual disappears in moments of intoxicating ecstasy, taking pleasure in the sheer changeableness of things.

Genuine art requires both beautiful illusion along with an ecstatic affirmation of suffering life, via Dionysian revelry. There is something right about Nietzsche’s merging of the Apollonian and  Dionysian because great art is not merely pretty but involves taking pleasure in what is painful,  overwhelming, horrific or fearful.

This Dionysian element is an obstacle to the notion that culinary preparations can be works of fine art. We will eat only what tastes good. We don’t want food that is horrific or fearful. We cover up the fact that food originates in death, destruction, and endless toil and prefer to dine while entertaining Romantic fantasies of far-off exotic places, in happy, conflict-free communion with family and friends. A good meal is a sensuous delight devoid of thoughts of pain and suffering. It partakes of the Apollonian only, unless Dionysus arrives with an excess of wine.

The artist Zev Robinson’s new project (h/t Elatia Harris) promises to disrupt our exclusively Apollonian approach to eating.

In collaboration with local chefs, caterers and Spanish restaurants, tapas and sit down meals would [be] consumed surrounded by art, photography and video installations that gives the experience a cultural and geographical context – the faces, hands, toil and plants and animals that enable us to eat. Traditionally, it has always been that way when people produced their own food, and only in modern urban life have the two – food and agriculture – been separated. The Art and Politics of Eating is an experience in bringing the two back together. It may be somewhat disconcerting to some, but it is a thought provoking experience and glimpse into a reality to which urban living makes us oblivious.

Nietzsche’s idea is not that art must be ugly or painful to view. Rather, his idea is that the illusion that is the work of art must be presented in a way that dissolves the illusion, that reveals its rootedness in the creative destruction of the material world, and that allows us to experience the joy of absorption in that world. As Robinson points out, our modern way of eating obscures that relationship. Recent attempts to reconnect food and agriculture through farm-to-table dining and locavorism are attempts to pay homage to Dionysus, and Robinson’s project is an interesting way of reinforcing that connection.

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