Before you read (if you intend to), here's the art, first on a bottle:
The story is this: Beer shopper Vicki Noble sees the bottle, is horrified that it is an image of a woman being burned at the stake, and mobilizes the massive power of social networks to draw attention to the fact that she finds this offensive.
Ms. Noble went home and wrote to her e-mail list. “Can we stop this brewer from their hate imagery?” read the subject line, in all capitals. “Can you imagine them showing a black person being lynched or a Jewish person going to the oven?” she wrote. “Such images are simply not tolerated in our society anymore (thank the Goddess) and this one should not be, either.”This catches on within the pagan community (one to which I happen to be sympathetic and in which I have some friends, in case you're wondering about my biases). They get to Tomme Arthur, head of Lost Abbey, and one of the co-founders, Vince Marsaglia. As you may imagine, some of the complaints are more constructive than others:
“We have been accused of inspiring violence against women, and we have been compared to the violence in Darfur,” said Sage Osterfeld, a spokesman for Port Brewing. “It has run the gamut from people saying politely, ‘This is offensive to pagans,’ to people saying we are responsible for all that is wrong in the world.”As you might imagine, the impetus behind the label was not to encourage people to burn each other, or to exacerbate the situation is the Sudan. Rather:
And far from being an attack on women, Mr. Osterfeld said, Witch’s Wit is in a line of Catholic-themed beers, like Inferno Ale and Judgment Day, conceived in the spirit of gentle satire by Tomme Arthur, another of the brewery’s owners. Mr. Arthur says he is “a recovering Catholic.”Just to make sure you get the irony: The label was designed as a poke at the Catholic Church, and ended up offending pagans. In the design industry, we call that an "oops," which is basically what Lost Abbey said:
[Marsaglia] wrote that he was “totally in favor” of changing the label and that he and his co-workers had been “ignorantly unaware of the mistake” they had made... Mr. Marsaglia also wrote, contritely, that he and his colleagues “would really like to have some kind of contest for a great label.” Mr. Arthur said the board would meet after Halloween to determine exactly how to decide on that new label.Okay, so now that you know the story, let's talk about the label.
First, all of Tomme Arthur's satire aside, I do want to make sure you're aware of the seriousness of the suffering caused by ignorance, because I frankly wasn't. One of my aforementioned pagan friends, Dave, in a quick discussion on Facebook, informed me that somewhere near 9 million women were killed for "witchcraft" (i.e. not being Catholic) in the various reactionary movements of the middle ages [Ed. note: The actual number may be much lower and around 50,000; see comments section below]. And, of course, it's not just ancient history (we've all seen Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"). So people did die, horrifically, because of prejudice.
Noble's analogy, then, is fair in that respect; we would not have label art of a lynching be considered in good taste (remember the problems Short's Brewing had when a rendering made "Hangin' Fred" label look a little tan). And, as a Jew, I think I can safely say that a label for the Birkenau Rauchbier would not go over well.
But those are a little more recent than the inquisition. And witches have a less sacred place in our culture than those other tragedies. In a week, lots of people will be dressed up as sexy witches for Halloween, and we don't think of that as the same as dressing up as a Holocaust or lynching victim. Monty Python satirized burning witches in Holy Grail, and a house falls on a witch at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, neither of which would have been tolerated if it was a burning cross, for example.
Okay, fine, but this label is actually showing someone burning, not a coed in her underwear and a pointy hat. That's got to be over the line, right?
I would say that, while I understand why Lost Abbey will change the label art (which is artistically excellent as usual, by the way, calling to mind Edvard Munch), I wish they wouldn't.
Art is supposed to make you feel something, and sometimes what it makes you feel is revulsion. That's the sign of effective work. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see Without Sanctuary, an art exhibit of lynching photos at the Warhol Museum. It was horrifying and repulsive and fascinating and brilliant. It was what art is supposed to be about. Even if this label started out as fun, clearly it has the power to evoke emotion and thought. And if I didn't believe a beer label was a suitable place to find art, I wouldn't be writing this blog.
I think Lost Abbey should have listened to the criticism, and then reached out to Noble and others and asked them to write a few paragraphs for the back and side label panels about all of the harm that was caused by witch burnings. Take the label and treat it as art. Tell people that if they're weirded out by the label, they should think about all the people who actually died because we allowed ignorance to dictate our policies once upon a time. Explain why it's offensive. Coordinate with museum in Salem for a fundraiser. Deliver a little knowledge to your market, along with delicious beer. Doing a good thing is cool, and you'll get enough PR exposure to make it worth your while.
Yes, I went to business school, and I understand that Lost Abbey has to sell beer, which might not be helped by talk of burning people. I get it. I also think that the craft beer crowd is generally more socially aware, and anyone springing for a $10 bottle of this probably is willing to think a little bit.
Am I glad that Lost Abbey is sensitive to concerns? Of course, and as I said I think it's fine and I'm anxious to see whatever label comes out to replace it. I know, I'm asking a lot for a thing that tells you about the coriander and orange peel flavors and alcohol by volume. But this label got me to learn more about how millions died for our ignorance in the past, and there aren't that many beer bottles that inspire someone to do that. It's hard for me not to feel a little sad that it won't be causing others to do the same.
This is one of those issues where I really would value some other points of view, so please leave a comment if you've got any thoughts on this.