March 21, 2011

Sex, Four Play, and the Burdens of Being Upright

If nudity offends you, you're going to want to skip this post. This is also a craft beer art blog, though, so you also might want to ask yourself why nudity offends you.

Some of you may remember Portland, OR's Upright Brewing's excellent art by Ezra Johnson-Greenough aka Samurai Artist, particularly the NSFW Four Play label from last year:

Right, well the new label's out, and it's caused a stir. Sigh. Sex always does, doesn't it? What's weird is that would have felt no need to disclaim this year's art:

I mean, is that really so salacious? The last year's art had nipples, for Pete's sake, and this is just a woman looking like she's having a good time. Worse stuff than this is on basic cable, so it can't be a big deal that it's on beer bottles, can it?

Apparently it can.

I think it started when Jeff Alworth did a mini-brand dissection on Upright and Four Play in particular. Jeff has tons of readers, and it's Portland, where liberation and oversensitivity can go hand in hand. So the storm ensued. People are offended, other people are offended that people are offended, and we have the usual morons that come with any Internet debate. Samurai Artist followed this up with a tongue-in-cheek post where he displayed some politically correct forms of the label:
Definitely, getting a Bible involved will help tamp down the kerfuffle.

Seriously, though, I was pretty stunned people were so offended. Look, the piece is not as good as last year's, in my opinion. It lacks the creativity and vibrancy that made the old label one of my best pieces of 2010. But if you're offended by that, then... seriously, I want to know why.

Is it that the woman is scantily clad? That she's having a clearly aroused moment? Aren't we past the point where these things are news? I suppose one could say that putting an attractive female in her underwear on the label is objectifying women, but, people, this is not a Bud Light ad with supermodels in bikinis. This is a realistic looking, if attractive, woman, rendered by a talented artist in what looks to me like an homage to sleazy poster art (a la Pulp Fiction). And yes, there's the use of sex and double entendre. I suppose the argument is that the artist would not have put a scantily clad man on the label, so there is some objectification, and I guess I can see that. What if the artist was a woman? Would that make it less problematic? What if the subject weren't enjoying herself? The cabal that rates movies is famously more offended by women experiencing sexual pleasure in films than men, so one can avoid an NC-17 rating if the heroine has sex, but only if it's bad sex. I'm joking, of course, but I wonder if part of the outrage isn't still an antiquated queasiness at the idea of women as sexual beings.

Still, when you're a young male artist depicting such things, this is a foreseeable issue. That's really where Upright as a business comes in.

Some of Jeff's best points came in regard to the branding decisions for Upright, which has in Four Play a run of bottles that will sell out no matter what. So one can argue that, knowing the potential sensitivity of the audience, this is a stupid risk to take for beer that will sell anyway.

The problem, of course, is that art and commerce are both communications. To be communicative, they need a sender and a receiver, and the receiver always has veto power over the way they interpret the image. Artists claim this is a type of theft, but it's inevitable. For businesses, the point is more freighted; if the receivers--customers--apply a different meaning than the brewery intended, there can be trouble.
A fair point. Upright's success and clientele might make them a bit more conscious of how to handle these types of releases in the future. Once you get more fans, you have more customers to consider. But I don't think this is damaging to the brand long-term. I would like to see Upright do more of the artistic, colorful styles that were more successful last year, or, at the very least, if there are sleaze send-ups in the future, remember to go over the top.

And, for what it's worth, I hope 2012's label art is a hunky man in his boxers or something; then we can all agree it's okay, or at least argue about whether Upright is objectifying men.

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