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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Beer, Art, and the Art of Beer

Note: post updated; see links at the end.

Kant described it this way: “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication.” Kant was wrong about most things, and he gets it wrong here. At least he was trying to move beyond simple aesthetics. Heidegger comes closer to the mark. He abandoned the notion of simple aesthetics, recognizing that context was critical. It is the act of giving “humanity their outlook on themselves.”

We're talking about art, of course, that ineffable, indefinable act. Certain pieces we recognize and agree immediately: this is art. Van Gogh's Starry Night, Beckett's Waiting for Godot. But what about Cage's 4'33" or Malevich's White on White? In a recent New Yorker, Alex Ross argues that although Cage's 4'33" was dismissed as an absurd stunt, it revolutionized the way we understood music and the possibility of music--and ultimately paved the way to ambient music, sampling, and sound art. Even if we carefully construct a definition that captures the scope and breadth of artistic achievement, we will have to deal with those pieces that inevitably stand as pointed rebuttals, puncturing our clarity.

Okay, Cage is in. But what about industrial design? What furniture-making? What about beer? To which point do we stretch the definitions of what qualifies as creative endeavor and what is just merely skilled craftsmanship? I know writers who won't tolerate the inclusion of beer in art: it's cool, but it's just a craft. Include beer and you have to include it all--computer coding, masonry, pie-baking. These are fine things, they're just not art.

But one could also suggest that, just like any form, most examples are dreck, but a few can be consider masterpieces. The beer world certainly functions like the art world: brewers constantly strive for reinvention. Innovations spread and as soon as they become imitative, breweries are on to the next thing. Beer fans, like art fans, watch the developments with evident pleasure. And brewing even has its stunts. Recall BrewDog's stoat-coated bottles? A stunt worthy of a performance artist.

Is beer art? Tomorrow, the Portland Art Museum has an installation that will, if not answer the question, at least add a little gasoline to the fire:

Art and Beer
Portland Art Museum
October 15, 6pm - midnight, $12 (beer's free)

Art & Beer (2010) is the second event of it’s kind, brought to you by Eric Steen and the Portland Art Museum. Art & Beer combines beer, one of Portland’s most well known crafts, with experiencing art. For one night only, you can sample three new beers from Coaltion Brewing, Hopworks Urban Brewery, and Rock Bottom Brewery at the Portland Art Museum. Each brewery received a tour of the museum’s collection, selected an artwork and will make a beer inspired by that artwork. The selected artwork and the beer style will remain a surprise until the night of the event.

The Brewers:
Coalition Brewing: Bruce MacPhee and Elan Walksy
Hopworks Urban Brewery: Christian Ettinger and Ben Love
Rock Bottom Brewery: Van Havig
I have no special insight into the beers or art--it really does appear to be a well-kept secret. I am entertaining high expectations--especially for Van Havig. For those of you who may have missed it, Van is Oregon's resident performance artist. At the Oregon Brewers Fest, he followed up the bogus info he'd given to organizers (he labeled the style of beer as "Flemish Brabant"), by handing out homemade "brochures" at the Fest. Purportedly from the tourism department of the city of Oud Heverlee, they were incredibly crude, photocopied jobbies that, like the best Onion articles, wore the barest veneer of possibility. At the Fresh Hops fest, he listed his beer's style as "Integrity Style." (It was, for the record, the year's best fresh hop beer.) Like any good performance artist, he commits to his work--I wasn't sure whether the good people in Oud Heverlee were seriously misguided (and cheap) or if Van was pulling my leg.

In any case, pack your deep thoughts, your Heidegger (but leave that hack Kant at home), and go have a look.

Update. Whoops! I missed Angelo's post from last week, wherein he not only discusses the beer but shows the artwork. That was supposed to be illegal, but it goes to show who has the real juice in this city. In any case, it confirms my sense that Van Havig is going to have fun with this:
Rock Bottom’s acclaimed brewmaster Van Havig veered toward Abstract Expressionism for with which he states that “beer shares a strange commonality.” Havig explains that “both are easy to describe verbally on a superficial level but a true description of the creator’s intention is much more difficult to put into language.” The brewer recognizes the struggle in using language as a shared means of understanding and determining relativity. There’s an acute yet subtle ironic connection that provokes deeper cognition from the brewer’s statement. Havig’s inspiration was conjured from William Ivey’s 1959 untitled painting for which Havig paralleled “a struggle between British and new American brewing.” The result is a sharply hopped pale ale filled with fruity esters. Well, its more than that, but we’re just using words and language here.
(h/t to Jason.)


  1. I actually side with Kant's philosophy on art. ;)

  2. Hey Jeff-

    Fun post. Just an FYI on the beer styles: Angelo has a great post on the event including descriptions of each beer and how the brewers were inspired by the artwork they chose as inpiration.

  3. Well, Matt, there always has to be one. Give me dada or give me death.

    Jason, thanks--I can't believe I missed that post. I've updated copiously.

  4. In 2008, the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, in Reading, Pa., featured 14 breweries in a show of bottle-label art called "Design, Drink & Be Merry." (One of my local breweries, Ska Brewing, was featured. Their art is done by Dorn Roberts of Portland).

    An article I wrote about the show and bottle-label art is online here: