Some of my favourite artists were alcoholics. Or rather, most of them were.
It’s no secret that social realist painter Gerard Sekoto battled with the bottle shortly after moving to Paris in the late Forties. About 60 years prior, in the neighbouring country of Belgium, Dutch master Vincent van Gogh was said to be addicted to the green fairy, otherwise known as absinthe. And let’s not forget creators such as Jean Michel-Basquiat, who added alcohol to the numerous substances he abused, and Mexico’s Frida Kahlo, who confirmed her connection to booze when she said: “I tried to drown my sorrows in alcohol but the bastards learned how to swim.”
As these are only a few of the many artists known for their association with the bottle, it would not be unreasonable to paint the relationship between alcohol and artist as long-lived and often troublesome. Because of this, alcohol brands have conveniently found themselves in the heart of the art scene, slowly sipping at the sap of those who create.
Some brands have gone to the extent of aligning themselves with the very artists who have grappled with alcoholism. Absinthe producers Absente created an ad campaign with Van Gogh at its centre, while Kahlo has a liquor product named after her: Frida Kahlo Tequila Añejo.
Relying on the notion that consumption and creativity go hand in hand, many advertisers and alcohol makers have used this to tap into artistic subcultures.
Selling liquor under the guise of art became a thing in 1986, when pop artist Andy Warhol created Absolut’s first art-commercial. Unlike a typical ad, the campaign was based on Warhol’s aesthetic and featured only the outline of the Absolut bottle shape and logo.
Ironically, the inclusion of the bottle within Warhol’s piece hardly looked out of place, especially as some of the artist’s most famous works incorporate commercial products, such as cans of Campbell’s tomato soup.
Later that year, legendary New York artist Keith Haring created his own Absolut ad, followed by photographer David Levinthal. Scores of other artists carried the campaign through to 2004.
Meanwhile, back home, the liquor industry relied on artists to distort the line between visual art and advertising.
This use of the art world as a way of tapping into culture and ultimately appropriating it is not a new concept for the Swedish brand. In South Africa, the brand used creatives as “an entry point” to selling alcohol to the public. With the recent launch of Absolut South Africa’s Facebook art competition, Ryan McManus of Native – the agency responsible for the campaign – openly stated: “Absolut needed to launch the brand into South Africa and the association with South African art was a natural entry point.”
Twenty years ago, British art critic Adrian Searle penned a piece on “the art world’s incestuous relationship with commerce” for the Independent, writing: “The merging of art and commerce now seems complete, and it is difficult to tell where art ends and the sell begins … Art’s flirtation with advertising is no longer the innocent affair it was.”
So as brands such as Jameson invite South African filmmakers to compete in a global First Shot Competition, endorsed by big-name actors like Kevin Spacey and Willem Dafoe, the affair might not be as straightforward as it appears. Their involvement in it only legitimises and roots the campaign in the film world, softening the whiskey maker’s intention, which is simply to peddle alcohol.
From the days of the “dop system”, which saw farmworkers getting paid in alcohol and ultimately becoming dependent on it, to the apartheid regime banning black people from drinking liquor, which saw the rise of illegal watering holes, South Africa’s relationship with alcohol has been long and tumultuous. And subliminally selling the bright side of booze to a culture of drinking, which has arrested the development of many of its people, has only strengthened that troubled union.
Alcohol advertising, according to Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, has not only fostered positive beliefs about drinking, it has also encouraged youth to drink sooner in life.
Speaking in September 2013, after Cabinet approved that a draft bill banning alcohol advertising in South Africa be gazetted for public comment, Dlamini said: “Alcohol advertising still glamourises and encourages the use of a product that causes serious harm to individuals and to society …”
The 2012 South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) also reported on drinking’s effects on the country, by highlighting that a “high social cost accrues from the behaviour that attends drunkenness: crime (murder, assault, rape and robbery) … violence, sexual offences against children, reckless driving (or walking) accounting for road traffic deaths … unsafe sex and sexual promiscuity with transmission of sexually transmitted diseases … foetal alcohol syndrome and child neglect … ”
As Dlamini’s words and the SAMJ’s report hits home, one might understand why blurring the lines between art and advertising could further damage an already alcohol-soaked nation.
In a 2009 talk given by Thelma Golden, the chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, she refers to the gallery space “the ultimate think tank” and the art exhibition as the “white paper: asking questions, providing the space to look and to think about answers”.
With alcohol ads being sold as pseudo-art and the commercial space attached to them as the pseudo-gallery, one wonders what these ‘art campaigns’ question in our society. Do they give us clues about or a platform for answers?
Uncovering the intention of the patron (the liquor brand) might be a good starting point to asking these questions. And figuring out whether or not the patron is perpetuating, alleviating or even addressing certain social issues, such as alcoholism, could provide us with the answers.
At the end of 2013, I visited gin brand Bombay Sapphire’s pop-up art gallery in Rockville, Soweto. The exhibition featured, among others, a young, up-and-coming photographer and her series of images critiquing alcohol abuse and tavern life in Mofolo, another Soweto suburb. Lungile Zaphi’s images portray the very real nature of alcohol dependency in South Africa’s townships.
During our chat, I questioned the irony of her touching on alcoholism in a show sponsored by a gin producer, which, like Absolut, has a long legacy of courting artists. Skipping the topic of alcoholism, Zaphi instead spoke of how Bombay Sapphire provided her with a platform and exhibition space, and paid for her prints and framing.
She also made a point about alcohol brands putting money in “poor artists’” pockets. English art critic Searle said that brands paying creators is the artists’ way of getting back at corporates: “ … [that] artists should start to get involved in advertising in order to get their own back is no bad thing”. “We forget that the Sistine Chapel was painted to order, on receipt of a chit from the Pope, as a biblical advertisement.”
But as the looming ban on alcohol advertising in South Africa draws closer, for how much longer can artists take advantage of a system that is taking advantage of them?
Liquor brand researchers and representatives told Parliament last year that the pending ban on liquor advertising could result in 12 000 people losing their jobs.
And in cities like Cape Town, where wine production contributes significantly to the economy, the ban could have devastating effects. But the harm alcohol inflicts on society, especially in the long run, surely outweighs the good it does to artists or the economy.
In an interview with the Mail &Guardian in 2012, Professor Melvyn Freeman, cluster manager for non-communicable diseases in the department of health, said, “We are not persuaded by the job-losses argument. We cannot afford to have jobs that are about promoting this. And when tobacco advertising was banned, other advertisers, for instance cellphone suppliers, filled the gap.”