Latte Art: A Manifesto

Latte Art: A Manifesto

A minor controversy recently erupted in the highly-caffeinated Mission District of San Francisco. The work of photographer Varese Layzer was prematurely removed from the walls of Ritual Coffee Roasters, a café that regularly exhibits artwork. Layzer posted online an e-mail from Eileen Hassi, Ritual’s owner, explaining the censorship. The works in question are innocuous photographs of suitcases, dogs, and windows, but there was an accompanying artist’s statement, which related these images to the death of the artist’s mother. Hassi, who was out of town when her soon-to-be-fired curator installed the photographs, claims in the e-mail that Layzer’s work is “too serious for the cafe.” She then proceeded to tell Layzer, and thus the world, what is appropriate art for a café: “The art that belongs in a cafe is fluffier stuff, stuff that doesn’t make people think about the tough questions in life.”

The drama unfolded further over a multitude of blogs and Facebook pages. There are differing accounts to what actually happened, but that is far beyond the scope of my concern here. It is Hassi’s declaration that café art should be thoughtless that still rings hollow to me. It is difficult for me to imagine someone actually typing those words. But Hassi, to be sure, is not alone. I would be foolish to call her a philistine of the arts. Conversations I had following the affair taught me that this was a belief held by some in the art community as well. Some argued that ideally art should not even be in cafés or other pedestrian establishments. This has propelled me to pen this defense of art in cafés.

We can start by asking who benefits from art being shown in cafés. The two primary groups of my concern are café patrons and artists themselves. A recent study suggests that people who go to museums and concerts are more satisfied with their lives, regardless of age or education. The authors of the study conclude that “cultural participation” is independently associated with good health and low levels of depression. Another recent study states that viewing art activates the region of the brain that rewards individuals for making good decisions. Countless other studies have shown a strong correlation between the viewing of art and mental or educational benefits.

But why cafés? Cafés, unlike museums or galleries, are places we go to fulfill some of our most primal needs: eating and drinking. On top of this, they are places of both socialization and work. Cafés are places we go to be human. Museums and galleries, on the other hand, are highly classed institutions. The Museum of Modern Art in New York charges $20 for admission. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the de Young Museum, also in San Francisco, both charge $25 for admission to their current blockbuster exhibitions. This makes a trip to these institutions rare or unaffordable for many. Though there are free museums, and galleries are most often free, a 2010 market research survey of 40,000 American museum-going households found that 82% of all respondents earned more than the median U.S. income. Furthermore, 86% of respondents held a bachelor’s degree and 93% identified as white. The lesson of this study is that museums attract an overwhelmingly white, college-educated, and middle-class or wealthy audience.

Varese Layzer. Lazy, 2010.

My research failed to find comparable statistics for coffee shop patrons, but nevertheless, they are establishments of an incredibly more everyday nature. Cafés (and restaurants, which seem to be increasingly exhibiting artwork) cater to a wider segment of society. Those that wish art out of the café are thereby wishing to relegate those mental health benefits of art viewership to a select (read: white, educated, affluent) few. If I am to be a provocateur — and I am — I would say that this thinking constitutes a class war. Those that believe cafés should exhibit only thoughtless, fluffy art, steal the experiences that the critical and serious artwork may have and reserve them for that select few. If one believes that an artwork can have the power to challenge, provoke, or alter its viewers, why would she wish this audience to be restricted?

In my experience, an admittedly unscientific survey, the artists shown in cafés are often those that lack traditional art world visibility. The social Darwinists amongst my colleagues might claim that this is because these artists are simply not good. But lest we forget the reality behind scene, I will remind you: MFAs aren’t cheap to attain. It will require over $77,000 to get one from the California College of the Arts, over $80,000 from New York University, and another $80,000 to get one at the Rhode Island School of Design. None of this counts the rent and food these students are somehow expected to pay for. Despite the mortgage-like quality of these degrees, they are often gatekeepers to the fiefdom of the art world, offering access to those that can make ones career. The new but growing phenomenon of PhDs in studio art threatens to even further cement this divide between the wealthy (or disturbingly indebted) and those that may participate in the art world.

The café offers a reprieve from this economic reality. It allows artists who are not a part of the entrenched gallery and grad school circuit to show their work to the world. Once again, to say that serious, thought-provoking work should not exist within these walls is to limit the pool of practicing artists to those that have the connections of funds to play by the rules. Layzer, it is to be noted, holds a PhD, but this is often not the case.

I have heard complaints that coffee shops simply slap a few paintings on a wall and give no more thought to their use of the works. Undoubtedly this is frequently the case. But I increasingly witness cafés with actual curatorial programs. A recent Bay Citizen article listed several such cafés in San Francisco. Most notable were Ritual Roasters’ neighbors The Summit SF and Four Barrel. The Summit’s Peek Gallery focuses on works of design and craft, often marginalized by the art world. Four Barrel’s curator is the owner of the gallery next door, Michael Rosenthal Gallery. Rosenthal pulls from his own artists for Four Barrel, giving those who may never walk through his doors an opportunity to witness works from the same artists. This is a positive trend that takes café patrons seriously, valuing their intellect and discernment.

It is my belief that, for many, the exhibition of art in cafés and restaurants defiles the glamour and mystic of the art world. After reading all those books on postcolonialism, consumerism, and Marx, it seems so definitively unsexy to see the fruit of these labors hanging between the fire extinguisher and the poster for the local elementary school’s reproduction of The King and I. But call me an idealist: I firmly contend that art can change the world. Sometimes art does this in a museum, but sometimes it needs to go to the places of everyday life. Like graffiti and street art, café art is populist. It doesn’t need the elitist ideology of the art world to survive. And that is why it is never fluffy stuff.

Photo: Varese Layzer