Tuesday, March 23, 2010

For what we are about to receive, may the lord make us TRULY thankful.

Yet another study attaching itself to art to grab headlines and promote the authors and their pet projects is all over the Internets this morning. This time, I'll admit, it is rather humorous. The Los Angeles Times' wrote it up this way:
The Christian faith holds several acts of "super-sizing" to be miracles accomplished by Jesus Christ -- a handful of fish and loaves of bread expanded to feed thousands; a wedding feast running low on wine suddenly awash in the stuff. Now a new study of portion expansion puts Jesus once more at the center.

In a bid to uncover the roots of super-sized American fare, a pair of sibling scholars has turned to an unusual source: 52 artists' renderings of the New Testament's Last Supper.

Their findings, published online Tuesday in the International Journal of Obesity, indicate that serving sizes have been marching heavenward for 1,000 years.

"I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or 'portion distortion,' is a recent phenomenon," said Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think." "But this research indicates that it's a general trend for at least the last millennium."

To reach their conclusion, Wansink and his brother Craig, a biblical scholar at Virginia Wesleyan College, analyzed 52 depictions of the meal the Wansinks call "history's most famous dinner party" painted between the year 1000 and the year 2000.

Using the size of the diners' heads as a basis for comparison, the Wansinks used computers to compare the sizes of the plates in front of the apostles, the food servings on those plates and the bread on the table. Assuming that heads did not increase in size during the second millennium after the birth of Christ, the researchers used this method to gauge how much serving sizes increased.

And increase they did.
I'm not sure how many paintings of the last supper one can find throughout history, but 52 sounds like a reasonable number on which to make some basic conclusions. USA Today, who also picked up the story, offered two paintings to help illustrate the trend:

Duccio, "The Last Supper," tempera on panel, 1308-11, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

Tiziano Vecellio Titian, "The Last Supper," 1557-1564, (can't find where it is...anyone?).

Of course, the problem with reporting on the studies that use art to make a point like this is that it's easy to conclude that the researchers have an agenda, and with the vast number of artworks available they can easily "prove" just about anything they want. Perhaps there truly is a trend, but the USA Today examples don't really prove it. Had a writer wanted to undermine this study they could very easily illustrate the exact opposite trend, by comparing the 1557 Titian to some more recent, more austere versions that would support that, such as

Nikolay Gay, "The Last Supper," 1863, oil on canvas, The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

or my personal favorite take on the theme:

Salvador Dalí, "The Sacrament of the Last Supper," 1955, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Personally, I feel that anything that makes people stop to think about how much they eat is a good thing, but I don't see definitive evidence of their findings that (as reported in USA today):
Over that 1,000-year period, the main course size increased by 69%, plate size 66% and loaves of bread 23%. The biggest increases in size came after 1500.
It seems to depend on where you look.

Labels: art appreciation, art criticism


Anonymous nemastoma said...

Phaidon Books shows this Titian as being housed in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Palazzo Ducale, Urbino, Italy.


3/23/2010 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad people might look again at the art but not sure I follow the logic.


3/23/2010 04:47:00 PM  
Blogger Adam I Zucker said...

Must be super sizing those meals, I am know noticing that certain characters in more than a few versions look sleepy...A common sign of food hangover! That article in USA Today was pointless...Your examples completely debunk their theories, and I am sure it took you far less time and energy...Also no agenda to sell whatever they are trying to push on us all!

3/23/2010 05:58:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters depicts five people sitting around a table in a dimly lit room sharing a plate of potatoes and a pot of coffee. It's enough to make you cry.

Re the Dali: Do I see Golden Arches in the distance?

3/23/2010 06:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not only lame and ridiculous in light of Ed's counterexamples, but here we go again with that old art-as-a-reflection-of-society b.s.

3/24/2010 09:28:00 AM  

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