Art or Offense

If you are part of any feminist or Pagan communities, you may have seen the recent furor over a beer label for Witch’s Wit ale from a California microbrewery, Lost Abbey, depicting a woman being burned at the stake as a witch.

Witch's Wit beer label depicting a woman being burned at the stake

A number of people, especially in feminist and Pagan communities,  are up in arms over this image, and there has been a broad letter writing and petition campaign protesting the label.

This is response from the brewery to one such petition:

Hello and thank you for your email.

I encourage you to look at all of Lost Abbey’s beers and consider them in context. Each of the Lost Abbey beers features a label which depicts a theme of Catholic excess — good and bad — on the front, and tells a moral story on the back. (Our founder is a recovering Catholic.)

In the case of Witch’s Wit, the back label is a story of the bad consequences of religious intolerance and oppression. The woman on the front is referred to as a “healer” on the label and accuses the Church of being narrow-minded and violent, threatening the same fate to anyone who would help the woman. The label ends with a note that this beer — a light, sweet and golden ale — is brewed in honor of that woman (and all those who died for their convictions).

Our other beers — Devotion, Deliverance, Judgment Day, Inferno, The Angel’s Share, etc. — all have similar messages of morality. Unfortunately, the people who started this meme either didn’t bother or didn’t care to actually read the label and simply chose to fan the flames of ignorance and intolerance — which, ironically, is what the beer is actually against.

Best regards,

:: Sage

My Pagan feminist friends were not mollified.

I’m perhaps the voice of heresy here, but I think Lost Abbey’s letter actually does justify their decision to create that label. Taken in context (several labels all condemning Catholic excess) and with the accompanying story on the back label, I think this is actually a rather interesting work of art. It’s unusual for a beer label to be the vehicle for delivering an artistic message, but imagine, if you will, that this were one of a series of canvases in a gallery, with accompanying text, as described in the letter.

One of the things that to me has always been a hallmark of great art, is art that provokes a strong emotional response. This piece certainly does so, as well as providing a context-setting story on the same bottle where the image appears.

You might argue that by virtue of being a product label — something commercial — this is no longer art, but I think the definition of art is changing. To me this is a subversive and welcome thing, to see art in the real world, not locked away in a gallery where only the few will see it.

Go check out their other labels. My only wish is that they offered the back-label text for each of the images on their website.


~ by Nezu on 16 October 2010.

10 Responses to “Art or Offense”

  1. I don’t know what to make of this one. I’m a Catholic, but I don’t see any reason to take offense at the label. The attitude of the founders could use a little adjusting to be less anti-Catholic, but it’s a free country and they are very free to express their opinions as much as they like. Freedom of expression isn’t for the matters everyone agrees on, but for those we disagree on.

    I’d like to see that blurb on the back of the bottle as an explanation just for peace of mind. I don’t like the glorification of violence regardless of who the perpetrator or the victim might be.

    For a historical context, there is also a bit of a problem in many cases of witch burnings of just who was setting the fire. In some cases it was the civil authorities instead of the church authorities. So, depending on how much history you know or where you are mentally setting the picture in your historical map, there are lots and lots of potential fire starters.

    • There was not much of a dividing line between church and state at that point in history. The Catholic Church certainly does a lot of good in the world and it’s sad it is so often drowened under the weight of wrongs (by the many or the few). I want to see the back of the label too.

    • I think the anti-catholic message is almost the point, judging by that letter, and am amused that it’s the Wiccan/Pagen groups that are up in arms about it.

  2. After reading their response I personally find the concept pretty brilliant. 🙂

  3. I love small brewery’s and the things they put on the bottle. Arrogant Bastard Beer’s usually have a two hundred word essay telling you in a variety of ways that if you don’t like their beer you’re a wuss and they don’t want you drinking it anyway. No one’s ever complained about that.
    My mom’s favorite wine is called ‘sin zin’. It’s sold in three packs with ‘Temptation’ and ‘Redemption’, but mom claims Sin is the best.
    I don’t know if it’s quite ART but it’s certain;y a social statement, (this particular beer) and I want some.

  4. I cannot agree with your post at all – as you probably suspected. I wrote a response to the whole issue on my blog instead of posting a long reply here:

  5. Hmm. I dunno. I mean, when they explain it I understand, and I like the idea. The problem is that they have to explain it; people walking past in the grocery store are only going to see the confirmation of ‘witches are evil and should be burned,’ rather than stopping to read the back label (unless they’re actually going to buy the beer and care about reading the back label — a small percentage, I’d say). I think it really does more damage, in that sense, then good, and if that’s the message they’re trying to get across then they might have done better with some villainous priests in the picture, at the very least.

    • This isn’t bud light. This is a microbrew and you’re not going to find it in most grocery stores. You’ll find it in beer shops that carry specialty brews and maybe stores like “World Market”. Also, most people who drink microbrews are beer snobs, and they most defniitely read the label.

      I find it hard to believe peole will see a picture of violence and their first thought is “violence = good, cause a microbrew has it on their label”.

    • I see your point, yes. It’s one of those things where if the context is sufficiently hidden, it loses its meaning.

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