Gluten-Free Hysteria Crystalized in New Digital Art Museum

A mysterious blog reimagines famous artworks as carb-free masterpieces.

d’après Johannes Vermeer

Over the last few years gluten, a protein found in wheat and many common grains, has been vilified as the cause of everything from weight gain to fatigue to acne. Last year, “gluten-free diet” popped up as one of the top 10 most-searched health terms on Google, and if you went by hyperbolic internet buzz alone, you’d wonder why the government hadn’t banned the stuff years ago. Gluten-free hysteria has become such a part of our cultural lexicon that it was even parodied on South Park. But now, for the first time, the fearsome gluten has gone high art with the creation of mysterious, anonymous blog Gluten Free Museum. The site’s enigmatic creator has painstakingly removed, via Photoshop, all traces of gluten from some of history’s greatest masterpieces. Grant Wood’s American Gothic loses its pitchfork, Vermeer’s The Milkmaid goes without her bread, and the impressionist pastoral wheat landscapes of Vincent van Gogh have been rendered barren. Currently the Gluten Free Museum contains only 20 works, each of which juxtaposes a before and after the great-gluten-rapture:

d’après Anna Ancher

d’après Jeff Koons

d’après Salvador Dalí

d’après Grant Wood

d’après Caravaggio

d'après Vincent van Gogh

d’après Sennedjem

d'après Giuseppe Arcimboldo

d'après Martin Parr

According to a recent article in The New Yorker, almost 20 million people in this country claim that eating gluten causes them health issues, while more than 100 million say they are currently working to eliminate gluten from their diets. “Gluten-free” has become shorthand for “healthy,” and widespread misinformation has led to a theory that most modern maladies can be chalked up to gluten intake. As Mother Jones noted, “According to the market research firm Mintel, sales of foods labeled ‘gluten-free’ surged 44 percent between 2011 and 2013, reaching an estimated $10.5 billion. TGI Friday's now offers an entire menu devoted to the category, complete with a burger served in a ‘gluten-sensitive bun.’” It seems the fringe has now become the mainstream.

The humor behind Gluten Free Museum is more than just its jab at the trend. It contains multitudes, hinting at both class elements that underlie the gluten-free fad and the protein’s intrinsic importance in our lives. Currently wheat is one of the globe’s most widely harvested crops, and a staple for a third of humanity—especially in the developing world. As Roberto A. Ferdman at the Washington Post points out: “Wheat, which contains gluten, is one of the cheapest foods known to man. It's also one of the most essential: it currently provides an estimated one-fifth of the calories people around the globe consume. Going gluten-free might make one feel better, but it's a luxury not everyone can afford.” The Museum is then a playful swipe at the same socio-economic group that has largely embraced the trend: affluent, culturally savvy, and lifestyle-conscious. As Ferdman continues, there is a preciousness to the gluten-free trend highlighted in the Gluten Free Museum’s creation: “There is a subtle brilliance in removing all traces of gluten from an experience as subjective as art. The removal of gluten from the pieces is an arbitrary stroke, much as one might argue removing gluten from one's diet is.” Ferdman accurately points out that unless you actually have Celiac disease, a rare condition in which gluten damages the small intestine, to remove gluten entirely from one’s diet is almost as arduous, and, in many ways, superfluous, as removing it from art. In Michael Specter’s recent New Yorker piece “Against The Grain,” he asked "How could gluten, present in a staple food that has sustained humanity for thousands of years, have suddenly become so threatening?" The truth is that it hasn’t, and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs without the spaghetti is just as incongruous as a Caravaggio without the carbs.

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