What the Hell Is Food Stamp Art Doing at Art Basel?

by Paddy Johnson and Whitney Kimball on December 5, 2013 · 34 comments Off Our Chest

Meg Webster's "Food Stamp Table," 2013

Meg Webster’s “Food Stamp Table,” 2013

Thanks to Paula Cooper Gallery, ABMB visitors have four more days to take in the most offensive artwork in the fair: Meg Webster’s “Food Stamp Table.”

The work comprises a daily variation on what you can get for the current food stamp ration, laid out on a Communist-Minimal wooden table. Today for $4.60, Paula Cooper will present one can of Campbell’s soup, one egg, one head of broccoli, and one pack of Ramen noodles. As an artwork, one meal is being sold for $12,000 as an edition of one.

The wall text seeks to remind us of the hardships faced by people on food stamps. “On November 1, 2013 the 2009 Recovery Act’s boost to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits ended,” the text reads, “resulting in cuts to every SNAP household.” It’s “the equivalent of taking away 21 meals per month.”

But who needs wall text to tell you about the hardships of the poor, when you can see the homeless RIGHT OUT FRONT OF THE CONVENTION CENTER. Money on that kind of back-patting self education would be better spent on the people who actually need it.


Will Brand December 5, 2013 at 12:27 pm

This is unfair. There might be homeless people right in front of the convention center, but they’re over behind the valet.

Brian December 5, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Not sure I get what’s so offensive about this. Art shouldn’t raise issues about poverty? What am I missing, and I’m not being snarky here, I’m genuinely curious. Plenty of things about Art Basel offend me (conspicuous consumption, media spectacle etc) but to say that art can only draw attention to issues of poverty and other “real world” issues in certain locations just seems wrong headed to me. At least this isn’t just another decorative object designed to be ignored at a cocktail party.

WhitneyKimball December 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I would rather have cocktail party art than collectors getting to luxury shop *and* look like they care about social justice. Talking about the problem doesn’t mean anything if the result is that people stay hungry, and the artist and gallery walk away with $12,000.

Steve Danielson December 6, 2013 at 1:21 pm

I agree with Brian that I don’t entirely get the outrage. It
seems the biggest issue is the price, because otherwise it’s not a bad concept (I personally wouldn’t call it art so much). While it is probably true that there are homeless people right outside, it’s also probably true that they are easy to ignore – sorry if that sounds harsh but we often get inured to misery we see every day – and so this display might be the thing that jars someone out of their complacency. To many of the people attending ABMB $4.60 is nothing and
it’s most likely less than a chocolate croissant at the concession stand, so seeing this could make them more aware of the plight people in poverty face. So that leaves the 12k price tag, and I wonder if this were priced at ten dollars or a hundred dollars would it be as offensive?

WhitneyKimball December 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm

The point is that decency, moral outrage, misery can be packaged and sold like everything else to the people who hold the majority of the wealth in this country, and who choose to pay a bounty to think about an imaginary starving family, rather than feeding an actual one.

BamBam December 5, 2013 at 6:43 pm

The point is that it’s tactless and offensive to produce a ‘socially conscious’ artwork that calculatingly profits from poverty. As Faith put it, It’s completely ineffectual as an artwork.

Here’s my idea for a more effectual artwork. Instead of making a highly rarefied sculpture about poverty, buy a full page ad in a national newspaper, post some facts about food stamps underneath a single photograph – and boom – you’ve successfully highlighted an issue to thousands of people….but geez, I guess that wouldn’t make me a profit.

Faith Holland December 5, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I think the point made by this piece could be nice (how often is this idea visualized? it actually speaks quite clearly), but its context, price tag, and the bank accounts we can assume that money is ending up in render it completely ineffectual.

Clark December 5, 2013 at 6:07 pm


BamBam December 5, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Yeah, the price tag is where they blew it

bmedge December 5, 2013 at 11:06 pm

If I had seen this IRL, I’d have rolled my eyes and walked away after 10 seconds. But reading it here forced me to consider it for close to a whole minute and now I’m not so sure it’s the absolute worst. Yes, on one level it’s a cynical cashing in on the misery of others. But it’s also a pretty concise demonstration of the lie of equal opportunity and the “freedom” of the market. The most charitable reading of its message is that $4.60 can be spun, Rumpelstiltskin-like, into a cool $12Gs—the magic of capital at work!—but only by those already granted access. Certainly, none of the homeless shivering outside are able to make that magic happen, but the simplicity and ease with which the artist and gallery can do it (well, who knows if any of these sell) can only be demonstrated by being demonstrated. The artist may not be a good person, but that doesn’t necessarily mean bad art. (Though it definitely doesn’t rise to the level of good art… I’m sure that writing this paragraph was definitely more effort than the work deserved.)

Jessica Snow December 5, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Agreed, the price tag is revolting. They should give the money to charity and redeem themselves.

Becky Jewell December 6, 2013 at 12:09 am

Painfully bad. If the artist donates proceeds, ok, maybe.

friendship person December 6, 2013 at 12:18 am

What I like about this piece is that it reminds me to eat dinner tonight.. I ate pizza hut at 6pm but im going to probably get rallys since they dont close until late. Fortunately for me and not like the homeless bums who cant afford to eat, i eat out all the time.. 3 meals a week. paula cooper i applaud you for celebrating this kind of work at Miami beach, next year i’d like to see $12000 worth of food for sale for $4.60, so i can eat all night for cheap

Tiny_Elephant December 6, 2013 at 11:12 pm

I don’t understand what is wrong with “food stamp art” at the fair. Critical art is not a bad thing. Same Old Art agrees: http://sameoldart.tumblr.com/post/69229263407/meg-websters-food-stamp-table-at-art-basel-miami

Will Brand December 7, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Meg Webster, in the post you link to, asks a series of questions, the last of which is “Would the work have been better if it had not been for sale?”. The answer to that question is “Yes.”

There are many people reminding the fabulously wealthy that poverty exists. Very few of them are charging $12,000 for the service.

Tiny_Elephant December 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm

It would seem that the context of the piece being in the art fair matters a great deal to its meaning and any perceived offense that you have taken. Why is Webster’s installation any more offensive than a flashy painting that sells for tens of thousands of dollars? Why do you think that socially critical work does not deserve a place at the fair? This, to me, would seem to be a more relevant set of questions than your uncritical, knee-jerk reaction. Webster is not taking the piss out of collectors, as you seem to be implying: she’s calling attention to a real problem.

Paddy Johnson December 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Yeah, she’s calling attention to a real problem within a context that would allow her to do much, much more.
I’d expect that the sales from this fair alone could wipe out poverty in this city were they distributed evenly. You could call attention to the problem by using the same piece as iconography on an optional donation campaign when you buy your tickets to the fair. If it were connected to a campaign that attempted to address the problem, I, personally, would be much more okay with the retail price

Tiny_Elephant December 7, 2013 at 4:33 pm

“within a context that would allow her to do much, much more.” I would say to this: at least she is doing something, even if it might be offensive. I would argue that the exorbitant price attached to Webster’s work is part of its strategy: the fact that the price is obscene, in other words, is a crucial component of its critique. And I think you’re right that this can work both ways: i.e. you can be super offended about it on the one hand, AND you can confront the fact that “food stamp art” is being put into circulation as a commodity alongside glitzy, bling-bling, mindless art that buyers are gobbling up; this contrast calls attention to the complicity of collectors’ consumption habits vs. the consumption habits of someone on food stamps.

Viktor Witkowski December 7, 2013 at 7:09 pm

I agree with your suggestion to raise money for an organization or campaign that – for example – runs or funds soup kitchens. In such a scenario, it should be feasible to donate 1% of all sales made during Art Basel Miami for such a cause. But this is not the issue here.

If you are an artist who has a social conscience and who uses their art as means of pointing to these issues, then this particular artist could only do so – based on what you are saying – if it was within the context of a larger campaign. But a campaign is different from an art work. Of course you can use artworks and donate them, you can even re-purpose artworks for benefits and campaigns. But how can you possibly argue that if Webster makes such a work, she may not sell it. That it is even cynical. According to this logic, Thomas Hirschhorn should not be allowed to sell his collages, photographs and works on paper that are regularly featured in his installations. His work is often graphic, explicit, violent and one could argue that he is exploiting the miseries of others and the violence that they experience. But he is not and I don’t think that he and Webster are all that different in the strategies they employ.

When he showed his work “Hotel Democracy” at Art Basel in 2009, he could have (financially) promoted pro-democracy organisations in foreign countries of which there are plenty (just think of the 2011 White Ribbon Project in Russia). Instead, he decided to create an installation that functions as a visual embodiment of failed democracies – because that is how you engage with the world as a visual artist.

I do not think, after talking to Webster, that she has any illusions about somebody buying her work. How would you even purchase a work that is partly ephemeral (the egg and the broccoli will rot away)? Her work is a reminder of a critical issue within a context that does not care about works like hers. I believe, you targeted the wrong artist.

Will Brand December 7, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Webster’s installation is more offensive because flashy paintings don’t pretend to be anything higher. This is the same logic that keeps me from protesting the low educational value of a gangbang. I think it’s pretty okay logic.

Socially critical work can have a place at the fair, but I’d argue that part of making socially critical work is accepting certain moral strictures in exchange for an aura of nobility. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is a showstopping impossibility in Christian terms, but it’s obviously very possible to critique the market without trying to profit from it at the same time.

I don’t think she’s taking the piss out of collectors and I wouldn’t care either way.

Avery K. Singer December 7, 2013 at 2:04 pm

An art fair is definitely the wrong context for a work like this. It’s offensive.

Marie December 7, 2013 at 6:08 pm

That price could buy into the food stamp experience. The meal should be in an edition of 30 and arrive at the collector’s doorstep every day for a month. Let’s face it, this piece probably smells pretty rancid already.

A A December 8, 2013 at 1:38 pm

I for one am outraged that the writers of this blog are writing about art instead of volunteering all their time at soup kitchens.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 9, 2013 at 12:15 pm

You should all be volunteering at a food bank or soup kitchen or whatever instead of debating this shit. If you *really* cared…..

Paddy Johnson December 9, 2013 at 3:53 pm

You’re quoting me on twitter Francis. Frankly, I do think that’s a more productive use of one’s time.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 11, 2013 at 11:31 am

Great minds think alike, eh Paddy??? I don’t even “follow” yr twatter!!!

Will Brand December 7, 2013 at 11:05 pm

I don’t understand why you’d want to have it both ways, though. Either we’re wrong to be offended and we’re misunderstanding this wonderful work of art, or else we’re playing into the hand of the all-knowing artist and helping her make her (noble) point. If you truly believed the latter, why would you feel the need to correct us?

BamBam December 8, 2013 at 12:09 pm

“I would argue that the exorbitant price attached to Webster’s work is part of its strategy”.

What you’re essentially referring to is the use of ‘irony’ in contemporary art. It’s a work of art about poverty being sold at an art fair – so it’s ironic – It’s excusable because it’s just part of the work’s strategy.

Irony is, and has been for some time, the most abused tactic in contemporary art. Irony is awfully convenient in this case. For me, it’s a cheap way for artists to absolve themselves of accountability/responsibility. Art is too often treated as exceptional – something which takes place in a special vacuum from reality. This is simply disingenuous, and frankly, the artist could have raised the issue of poverty in all sorts of inventive ways, many of which could have been less self-serving. There’s nothing wrong with making a living as an artist – just don’t pretend your work functions in some sort of higher realm that is detached from reality.

Another example that sprung to mind. If the director of a major charity paid themselves a hefty bonus – people would be rightfully pissed off. He/she is meant to be serving a higher cause. But when an artist makes a work about a similar cause, and then (potentially) makes a huge profit from said work – it’s ok because it’s art??

Tiny_Elephant December 8, 2013 at 10:27 am

I’d like to have it both ways because I think the work demands it. I do think you’re wrong to be completely, knee-jerkingly offended, which is why I commented on the post.

WhitneyKimball December 7, 2013 at 11:06 pm

I don’t have any problem with the artist’s intent. In theory, it’s spreading awareness of hunger to the people who are most empowered to change it. In practice, though, this work explicitly profits off suffering, and only serves the rich, conceptually and financially, and will continue to do so over the years. This piece sends a message that responsibility begins and ends with being aware of the problem. I understand that we all need to make money, but at least Damien Hirst doesn’t get to go down as a good samaritan at the end of the day.

And I didn’t see Hotel Democracy, but the difference between this and, say, Hirschhorn’s community-based installations, is that Hirschhorn’s offering art to everybody. I hope to see more like those works.

Will Brand December 7, 2013 at 11:10 pm

It’s also unreasonable to act as though physical sales to wealthy collectors are the primary funding model for socially-conscious art, or that Thomas Hirschhorn is anything but an abberration. Artists in that field (compared to painters, say) disproportionately fund themselves through grants, fellowships, institutional buying and nonprofit projects. I think a large part of this discussion could be boiled down to “we like it that way.”

Viktor Witkowski December 8, 2013 at 11:14 am

Hirschhorn has done several community-based installations, but most of his work is shown within the gallery, fair and museum context – and so has Meg Webster. Two examples of her projects are the so-called “Free Food and Nature Park” first proposed by her in 2003 (you can take a look at it here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/h14m9dpx9mn0w3y/kD1xkkKCEV/my%20public%20file/FreeFoodGarden-NaturePark.pdf) or her work “Kitchen Garden” from 1993 which was installed at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas: http://www.greenmuseum.org/c/aen/Images/Ecology/kitchen.php

I do not follow your argument that Webster’s work profits “explicitly off suffering.” Again: you could say the same whenever Thomas Hirschhorn makes money off his collages. But what is more important is that Meg Webster does not expect her work to sell (it is partly ephemeral and therefore would not survive as work) and even if it were to sell, she has said that she would donate the money.

If I had money to spend on art and if I would attend Art Basel Miami in order to buy art, I would prefer her work over any other work at the fair. But if you believe that the only type of person at the fair to actually buy art is rich and wants to make himself/herself feel better by investing in socially conscious art, then there is something wrong with this fair. Your line of argument says: Webster’s art does not belong here, because it is only the ignorant rich who are shopping here anyway (which I actually agree with, because there is a gap between who looks at the art there and who is capable of purchasing it). But what does this tell you about the fair then and why is that not part of the overall coverage? Art has become this commercial, because it does not dare to be critical of anything in particular and when it does, it is declared “offensive.”

WhitneyKimball December 8, 2013 at 7:12 pm

This is a great point.
I agree, the problem is less with the artwork than what the art market does to it, and what it does to art in general (this is a particularly scary example). And after watching all that work fly off the shelves, I also can’t blame anybody for taking what they can get. I guess I just hope that people who show, sell, and buy art will hold on to the sensitivity that creates art like this, and not just in the sales pitch.

Paddy Johnson December 9, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Agreed. Well put.

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