Observations on Masterpiece Cakeshop

by Tyler Survant. Published in Log 44 (Fall 2018).


Masterpiece Cakeshop, Lakewood, Colorado, 2018. Photo: Jeffrey Beall.

Responding to oral arguments made on behalf of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., the Colorado bakery that refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple for reasons of religious beliefs and free speech, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said: “So, in other words, Mies or Michelangelo or someone is not protected [by the First Amendment] when he creates the Laurentian steps, but this cake baker is protected when he creates the cake without any message on it for a wedding? Now, that – that really does baffle me, I have to say.”

 Masterpiece Cakeshop occupies a corner storefront in a drab EIFS-coated strip mall off Highway 285 in suburban Denver. A bulky parapet wall crowns the building, concealing rooftop HVAC units and covering a perimeter sidewalk. Ribbonlike, it rounds the corner instead of chamfering like the facade below. The cake shop is budget art moderne on the outside but spec office-meets-English-country inside. Fluorescent troffers, set into a standard two-by-four foot drop ceiling grid amid stained acoustical tiles, illuminate a green and beige interior appointed with patterned carpet, faux-marble laminate counters, ornate chairs upholstered in tan suede, and multiple species of artificial houseplants.

Arguing before the Supreme Court in December 2017, counsel for Masterpiece Cakeshop downplayed its challenge to public accommodations laws, saying that the artist (read: baker) may discriminate against same-sex couples because he engages in speech, whereas the work of other creative professionals, including architects, is not expressive. Unlike custom wedding cakes, counsel claimed buildings are “functionable, not communicative.” The Colorado Civil Rights Commission disagreed, but the Court’s narrow ruling for the baker, in June 2018, effectively tabled the debate. Evidently the aesthetics of politics – the link between political and visual representation, the fact that a struggle for equal recognition in society is bound up with the struggle over society’s appearance, over who or what can be seen – was also on trial in this case. ■


Tyler Survant, “Observations on Masterpiece Cakeshop,” Log 44 (2018): 10.