Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Soda Pop Meets Pop Art

When High and Low Culture COLLIDE!


There’s this guy from the mid 20th century you’ve probably never heard of before named E.T. Hall. If you have, that means you’ve probably a social science major, because his theories about “high and low culture” are pretty much unavoidable if you want to study sociology, philosophy or just about ANY flavor of communication.

Per this Hall fellow, popular culture - a term, by the way, that was introduced by a bunch of neo-Marxists in the early 1900s, in case you weren’t aware of it - consists of two incarnations. There’s “high culture”, which is the entertainment options preferred by the snooty and the upper class, and then, there’s “low culture,” which is the entertainment options preferred by the vulgar and the uneducated. That means that the socioeconomic elite would be into one form of entertainment, whilst the socioeconomic not-so-elite would be into a completely different form. And in today’s America, you know what? Such is indeed the case, albeit with some major, MAJOR caveats.

We all know the stereotype. The rich go to operas and horse races, while the poor go to cockfights and watch Country Music Television. Clearly, it’s a dialectic that Marx would be proud of, but in the America, where we temporarily have such a thing as a “middle class,” things aren’t so black and white. I think the argument can be made that in contemporary U.S. culture, one’s educational level is more or less his or her greatest predictor of entertainment preferences, as American popular culture seems more less divided on intellectual lines as opposed to socioeconomic ones. Pending you have awareness of certain referential points, it doesn’t matter how much money you have in your bank account - a well read stock boy can enjoy the works of Bela Tarr and Errol Morris, while a Harvard grad can enjoy getting hammered and watching some Ultimate Fighting down at the local bar and grill just the same.

The problem with Hall’s concept is that I don’t think anybody really believes that their preferred form of entertainment is some indicator of class status. Even so, with so much weaving and mixing going on culturally, to me, it seems like the only pop culture we really have is something of a middle culture - that is, a goulash of both proletariat and bourgeoisie interests, of interests pertaining to both the intellectual and the laity.

So would you call college football telecasts and Facebook high or low culture? How about Xbox Live and YouTube? Is a Nook an emblem of the elite, or the commoner? As you can see, modern culture has been so generalized by technology that it’s hard to tell whether or not something belongs to a specific class. Sure, Broadway and Dollywood may initially reference two seemingly different classes of peoples, but with some semblance of social mobility still left (like I said, some semblance), it’s not really that cut and dry of an issue at the current.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m something of a pop-culture dork. I’m also something of a social-science dork, so I like to talk…at length…about both matters, usually interweaving the two in some meandering, horribly misguided attempt to kill two proverbial birds with one metaphorical stone. I love sociology, and psychology, and history, and philosophy and art house cinema. But, at the same time, I’m also besotted by the so-called lesser interests of society, like video games, fast food, and public service announcements. As a general rule, I like to mishmash high and low culture at every conceivable opportunity, perpetually attempting to bring a touch of commoner insight into the high arts and a touch of forward thinking to the more mundane and banal aspects of modern existence. This entails fine dining and cage fighting on the same evening, thrift store shopping and off-Broadway musicals on the same night, and attending women’s lit lectures a few hours before watching Bloodsucking Freaks and I Spit on Your Grave. I’m not quite sure what the synthesis is supposed to be here, but I’m sure it’s going to be pretty awesome, whatever it turns out to be.

A few evenings ago, I had just such a syncretic afternoon, when I hit up two of Atlanta’s neatest attractions - The High Museum of Art and the World of Coca-Cola - back to back. One is the largest and most prestigious cathedrals of high culture in a 500 mile radius, and the other is an apparent tourist trap for amblers sans any worries about diabetes whatsoever. Empirical wisdom would tell you that the experiences would be markedly different, but as it turns out, there’s actually a lot more commonalities between the high and the low then one would initially think.


The High Museum’s current big attraction is this absolutely MASSIVE display featuring originals by everybody from Picasso to Jasper Johns. As a fan of post modernistic nonsense, I was really excited to check out some of the kookier, less-formless works of art on display. And boy oh boy, did I get some outstanding pretentious dreck by the boatload.


Alexander Calder is one of the lesser known artistes on display at the exhibit, but I reckon he’s a good enough starting point. Calder was one of those guys that had a thing for “anti-art” - essentially, stuff that was supposed to be ugly, banal and inartistic as a statement about the deterioration of modern art quality. Now, on the surface, that seems like a really, really pointless and counterintuitive idea, but when you really think about it. . .well, no, I guess it still seems like a really, really pointless and counterintuitive idea. But digression, clearly that is.


I guess the in-joke with Calder’s work is that while his sculptures are pretty much butt-ugly, the shadows they cast are downright magnificent looking, thus a subtle, subtle jab at the nature of human artistry. You see, even though what we create is ugly, the totally inartistic nature of light creates art sans any effort, which I guess is supposed to remind us that our supposedly awesome works of art pale in comparison to the artistry of the intangibles around us.


If you’re ever in a hurry and you want to scope out the best the High has to offer, just purchase your ticket and take the elevator to the fourth floor, because that’s where all of the awesome modern art is housed. And in what simply COULDN’T have been planned, the view below gives you a clear glimpse at Alexander Calder’s sculpture from a bird’s eye perspective. Funny how things like that just sort of happen, no?



Also on display were some works by Marcel Duchamp, the undisputed king of pretentious early 20th century anti-art. Although his most famous work - a urinal - wasn’t on display, they DID have his famous snow shovel “artwork” hanging from the ceiling. Clearly, this is something you HAVE to see in high definition.


And of course, what crash course on non-art would be complete without an appearance by Andy Warhol? The High had his immortal “Campbell’s Soup” paintings on display, which I was lucky enough to score some tracking footage of.


Yeah, it wasn’t as cool as seeing “Trash” or “Bad” on an IMAX screen, but hey, that was pretty close to it, though.


Outside the museum, there is this amazing sculpture of a Mickey-Mouse like character weeping. For whatever reason, the thing kind of reminded me of the album of the Minor Threat LP, which is worth all sorts of bonus points as far as I am concerned.


I was a little surprised to see so many interactive displays at the High. I suppose my favorite was this little activity center that let you create your own Amish artwork. If anybody can figure out the cryptic message on display here, you win…something.



Honestly, I’ve never really been a big fan of classical sculptures, but this thing had to be seen to be believed. I have no idea how the artist was able to incorporate the translucent veil into the design of the statue, but it was one of the most beautiful, creepy and technically amazing feats I’ve ever seen. Bravo to you, underappreciated Italian guy nobody really cares about!


Here’s a really cool painting featuring a bunch of Centaurs fighting hyena-people. It’s got to be one of the most anarchic paintings I’ve ever seen, with hooves and knives and flayed bodies all over the canvas. Clearly, “Twilight” ain’t got shit on this stuff right here.


The American art section has possibly the most messed up looking stuff on display at the High. How freaky am I talking here? Well, bloody dinosaurs and folk art, prophesies of biblical apocalypse-on-a-trash-can kind of freaky, ostensibly.


Oh, and take note of that apocalyptic one, as it has an unusual connection to the World of Coca-Cola. . .


. . .and speaking of the World of Coca-Cola, here’s what the antechamber of the edifice looks like. There’s all sorts of international signage all over the place, including a couple of anachronistic vending machines and this blue, hardhat-wearing alien that, as it turns out, is one of the company’s less successful marketing creations.


One of the first really cool things I saw was this Japanese Coca-Cola machine.


There’s a lot of really neat discrepancies to note here, including the smaller can sizes, not to mention the fact that the products eschew the tried-and-true Westernized tab for a more mayonnaise-lid like design. The names are also mildly altered, too - for example, Diet Coke is called Coke Light, and Diet Sprite is called Sprite Cool. This, I suppose, is because in Japan, “Diet” is the name of the nation’s main legislative body, which, yeah, could lead to some confusion for soda enthusiasts, I assume. Also, one of the products that is HUGE in Japan is something called Georgia Coffee - which is, as the name suggests, brewed coffee, only served ice cold.


And speaking of international oddities, here’s a Coke machine from the MIR space station! No, really, that’s ACTUALLY what this thing is. I can only fathom the amount of taxpayer dollars squandered in an attempt to provide astronauts with soda options, but what the hell ever…


The wall of international and discontinued sodas was worth the visit alone for a nostalgia junkie such as myself. I’ll just let you check out the video footage, so that you can weep in silence for what could have been.


Oddly enough, this display reminded me of Surge for the first time in several years. . .and in a most horrifying notion, somehow, I’ve totally overlooked the fact that this stuff has been discontinued for almost a full decade here in the States. WHY WERE YOU SLEEPING, AMERICA!


I scoured the place for quite some time trying to procure any New Coke propaganda. The only New Coke stuff on display , unfortunately, was inside this small glass coffer, which played a video that…well, let’s just say revised history a little.


But, it was pretty nice to see Matthew Frewer’s beaming face again, though!


Remember earlier, when I said there was a connection between the apocalyptic trash can art at the High and the World of Coca-Cola? Well, here it is - can you believe that the same guy that did crazy ass Book of Revelations street art was the same guy that designed THIS advert art for Coke?


Anybody who has been to the World of Coca-Cola will be quick to tell you that the tour highlight HAS to be the soda fountain room, which allows visitors to try out a good 60 plus beverages from across the world. Some of the stuff on display, like South Africa’s Bibo - is downright delicious, while others, such as the Italian import Beverly - are. . .well, I think my expression tells the whole story here.


As an added bonus, the Coca-Cola people were even handing out samples of an experimental Coca-Cola product entitled Gingerbread Coke. Just remember: when this stuff gets mass-marketed next Christmas, I got to try out a full year before the rest of you. Soda elitism, bitches.


The big news was that the building recently become the new home of the Coca-Cola secret formula. To commemorate the new arrival, the entire place was redesigned, and a new display - highlighting the history of Coke’s development - was erected.


Honestly, I thought the Vault addendum was pretty weak. A lot of the stuff on display had just been moved over from the history section of the museum, and although there was a lot of high-tech, interactive media integration, I really can’t say that it improved the experience by any great margin. I mean, come on guys, what are you going to do three years ago when the Microsoft Kinect doo-hicky is completely outmoded?


And yep, it’s here: the secret formula for Coca-Cola, allegedly, is contained right here in this very vault. The room has this 360 video screen, which simulates what it’s like to be in a cup of soda. Oh, and Donald Sutherland provides the V.O. for the lecture. Needless to say, you probably shouldn’t drop acid before waltzing into this one.


Of course, due to time constraints, there’s a lot of stuff I have to leave out. As much as I would like to go on and on about the graphite etchings in the High basement of tigers and leopards mauling naked people and the “4D” movie theater that jams a metal rod into your back at the World of Coca-Cola, I have to conclude this entry by discussing the similarity in experiences I, well, experienced, with the two “museums.”

I suppose one can say that a trip to a museum of modern art constitutes a “high culture” experience, while a trip to a museum of soda pop history is most likely a “low culture” one. The thing is, the crowds at both museums seemed to be of the same social and class structure…that being, an internationally-tinged goulash of just about everybody in the middle. I didn’t see a single top-hat sporting aristocrat at the High, nor did I see anybody wearing burlap sacks at the World of Coca-Cola. I did, however, see a wide cross-section of just about every other kinds of people at both venues, from Japanese tourists to birka-clad Palestinians to wheelchair-bound Hindis.

We can bitch and moan all day about cultural imperialism and class warfare, but at the end of the day, I think the entire mass of humanity doesn’t give a hoot about where their “art” stems from, whether it’s expressionistic paintings done by stuck-up Frenchmen or mass-marketed trinkets churned out by a Fortune 500 super duper-conglomerate. At the end of the day, it ultimately doesn’t matter if something is “high” culture or “low” culture - as long as you enjoy it, and you get something meaningful out of it, it remains art, regardless.

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