‘Is this piece of cake?’ builds on a long tradition of visual deception | Arts & Culture

Burger or pastry?

I doubt even Netflix expected “Is It Cake?” be so successful.

The premise, if you haven’t abused the TV series already, involves professional bakers trying to trick the judges into creating cakes that don’t look like desserts but instead seem like everyday products – purses , toys, fast food.

But while most critics see this as just another iteration of dumb TV, I see “Is It Cake?” as deeply tied to a cultural moment in which deception – and learning to recognize it – became part of everyday life.

A show like “Is It Cake?” offers viewers a safe way to test their ability to spot a fake. This may seem like overkill; cake and conspiracy are hardly the same thing.

Yet, as an art historian who studies the history of visual deception, I have noticed that throughout American history, moments of social anxiety around truth tend to escalate. accompany similar pop culture phenomena, from PT Barnum pranks to a painting. technique called “trompe l’oeil”.

Guessing games

In the closing decades of the 19th century, as the art world fell in love with Van Gogh and Matisse, middle-class Americans became obsessed with trompe-l’oeil paintings – hyperrealistic still lifes that feature life-size everyday objects. They looked so real that people would have tried to grab painted violins and dollar bills off the wall.

Even suspects could fall victim to this, as the paintings were displayed without frames and in unusual settings such as pubs, shop windows and hotel lobbies. In these quintessential urban public spaces, being tricked has become a collective social experience, much like in “Is It Cake?” Not only do viewers rejoice at the failure of the on-screen judges, but the judges themselves must also deliver a collective verdict after 20 seconds of debate.

One particular painting of 1890 stamps is remarkably reminiscent of a piece called “Cash or Cake” that closes each episode of “Is It Cake?” The painting, by Jefferson Chalfant, unpretentiously presents two Lincoln stamps side by side, one painted, the other real. Below them, a painted clipping invites viewers to decide which is which.

'Is this piece of cake?'  Builds on a long tradition of visual deception

Jefferson Chalfant’s 1890 painting “Who’s Which?”

Brandywine River Art Museum

In the show, the winning baker faces this predicament when offered the chance to win a bonus cash prize: guess which of the two containers overflowing with cash is real cash and which is a cake. The purpose of the confusion exercise is to show that even the most talented illusionists can be tricked.

Conscious humor was also at the heart of the trompe-l’oeil. Rather than signing their names as artists are likely to do, trompe l’oeil painters often painted their own photographs or letters addressed to their studio into their still lifes as an inside joke.

In the past, what fascinated Americans in trompe-l’œil was not just that they could be deceived by talented performers, but the how and why of their deceptions. The Secret Service interviewed a painter named William Harnett after he painted a crumpled five dollar bill.

Another, John Haberle, had one of his paintings examined by a panel of experts who observed it under a lens and even erased part of the painting.

This investigative bent explains the curious genealogy of “Is It Cake? The show has its roots in a series of viral Instagram videos from 2020 that featured cake illusionists at their moment of denouement.

Most viral videos don’t become TV series, but this one does because the esoteric process of creating the illusion is equally fascinating, even if viewers have no fondant-driven aspiration.

'Is this piece of cake?'  Builds on a long tradition of visual deception

William Michael Harnett’s 1886 trompe l’oeil ‘The Old Violin’.

National Art Gallery

A sweet allegory

Trompe l’oeil is an ancient art form, but it exploded in the United States, and nowhere else, in the 19th century because deception was a new and uniquely American problem.

Cities and industries were growing faster than ever before, and many Americans leaving rural areas faced urban anonymity for the first time. Cities were teeming with shady opportunists, from con artists to counterfeiters – the Anna Delveys and Tinder Swindlers of their day. Trust was a tricky issue.

In this environment, trompe l’oeil had a social function. It gave Americans a way to test their discernment in a manageable and enjoyable way.

So it doesn’t surprise me that the gravitation towards a show like “Is it Cake?” comes at a time when more disturbing deceptions lurk in the media landscape. There are even times when the show veers in dark and suggestive directions. In one episode, the bakers collectively attempt to educate host Mikey Day by teaching him the term “tiltscape,” which they explain has to do with the balance and weight distribution of baked goods. After Day used the word in his assessment of the candidates’ work, they later revealed the term was a hoax all along — a sugary allegory for socially fueled misinformation.

In a time when we’re often unsure if what we encounter on our screens is trustworthy, it feels good to ease those anxieties with a show in which the only consequence of being fooled is cutting off a shoe we assumed be a cake. .

Maggie Cao is the David G. Frey Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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