Just the other day, as I sat tucking into a sandwich of gigantic proportions outside a café, a young, waifish boy with grey skin and a frown that clearly spoke his contempt for the world, sauntered past with dramatic flare. My friend scoffed loudly in his direction and declared, through a mouthful of food, “He’s probably a writer, or an artist or something like that”. “What about me?” I asked. “Don’t I, too, look as if I am concealing some profound literary career under this meticulously furrowed brow?” She guffawed, gesturing accusingly at my unapologetically large plate of food: “Your priorities are elsewhere, I think…”
I began to feel significantly less artistic. I had failed to sacrifice my material well-being in the name of my art; I was stumped at the first hurdle. Yet is it not just a romanticised notion that art is more legitimate if it is created by malnourished young men hidden away in their garrets, living an Orwell-esque existence, Down and Out in Paris and London style?
There is a longstanding idea that great art is born from dissatisfaction.While not everyone subscribes to this belief, there are certainly some fine examples that back up this theory: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks; Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye; the frustrated works of Van Gogh… all are raw indicators of some kind of suffering. We make art in an attempt to feed some part of our souls. We do it because it’s instinctual and necessary and in our gut. Creativity is fuelled by an insatiable hunger, and like an itch that can never quite be scratched it forces us to carry on creating. Until, that is, something comes along and makes the insatiable, satiable. Like food; food, glorious food.
Joyce Brothers insisted that you should only ever negotiate with the hungry, for people are “best persuaded on an empty stomach”. Hunger and deprivation of any kind makes us vulnerable. It exposes us and leaves us teetering on the edge of madness. So it makes sense that creative impulses are easily muted under the influence of an over satisfied stomach. As much as it breaks my heart to admit it, gluttony does not aid an artistic mind. Trying to pen something earth-shattering after a generous (and delicious) mound of spaghetti is a useless feat. The French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin made it potently clear, in the Physiology of Taste (1825), that it is dangerous to yield to a disposition for mental work after dining extravagantly. It is simply out of the question.
Alternatively, how is it possible to concentrate when the only sound that fills your head is the one rumbling from your gut? And how can you protest and retain fighting spirit when your empty belly renders you feeble and lacklustre? Surely hunger is nothing more than a distraction.
However you look at it, we seem to be so taken with the idea of art as a product of suffering that it has become less about creating art and more about creating the image of an artist. Or should we become modern day Hunger Artists, fooling the paying crowds into believing our dedicated fasts while hiding guiltily in cupboards just to chomp on burgers in order to survive?
I would suggest the solution be moderation, but art operates on constant extremes and always will do because moderation has never done anything even mildly interesting or offensive to anyone. Granted, eating like a Roman each day will not leave you loose enough to create your next masterpiece but it does have the ability to do other very magical things. Food can ground you. It can ease your adrenalin; it can squash the need to protest. It brings you back into the present moment and the present space. For brief moments, it can eliminate angst, heartbreak, anxiety and suffering and fill a space that, sometimes, just needs to be filled.
It takes courage to leave a table hungry, but it takes even more courage to put aside your artistic needs for a moment and eat yourself into oblivion. So pass the gravy, I’m feeling brave.