Is a bottle of Gin a piece of art… and are distillers artists?
Are distillers artists and should we be looking at the products they make as “Oeuvre d’Art”?
If “distillation” is an art form – is gin comparable to pointillism, while today’s vodka has its ideology in minimalist-modernism? Alternatively, following on from Carlo Carrà’s Futurist Manifesto of 1913 calling for synaesthesia and the “interplay of multiple sensory inputs” in art – is distillation merely the logical conclusion of that sentiment and therefore something that artistically, could be attributed to its movement?
It’s a complicated area and one that is clearly not without controversy. “Gin as art?!” you scoff. Fair enough but think again and you may find that it is an idea that may have merit – even if just conceptually at this stage.
We believe that distilling is an art form with a complex and elaborate history, and that distillers should be appreciated on the same level as musicians, writers and other artists of our time. Part of the reason we feel it isn’t regarded as an art form is because it deals with ephemeral and sometimes invisible sensory constructs which are, let’s face it, much harder to place.
Aside from commentating on brands and on the gin category, we design and create gins that embody moments in time, that are evocative of specific environments and that are imbued with conceptual meaning, as well as flavour. Gin is our creative medium where we get to express our ideas and work through concepts. Regardless of the quality of the outcome – is this not directly comparable to the act of creating a sculpture, a film or a cunningly layered poem? More importantly, is distilling and creating a recipe just artistic in its nature or can the outcome qualify as Art too?
Some Context to set the scene…
If you are finding this concept both hard to grasp, and quite possibly a bit weird, it is worth delving into some art history for context. In 1917, the (now infamous) artist Marcel Duchamp submitted a work of art he called “Fountain” to be exhibited at the first New York salon to be held by the Society of Independent Artists.
Concept, meaning and descriptions of the artwork aside, “Fountain” is a porcelain urinal. Not “essentially” a urinal, not “made from” parts of a urinal or “reminiscent of the shape of a urinal” – it’s a urinal and that is it. It caused great scandal and the reverberations from Duchamp’s ironic and inflammatory gesture are still felt today.
By choosing an ordinary object and exhibiting it in the context of an exhibition, Duchamp radically changed the definition of the word “art”. It shows how anything can be a work of art, and that an artwork’s status is contingent upon the context in which it is viewed. Tracy Emin’s “My Bed” in 1998 shares some of its roots in the same idea too. Intentionally provocative art aside, so accepted is the idea that anything can be art, that there are many amusing clips on You Tube about people leaving objects by mistake in galleries, only to return and find that they are now viewed as part of the exhibit. There’s even an example where someone’s banana left during a build was encased with glass as the workers thought it was an exhibit!
To use Duchamp’s quote on the matter, “ The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
So if anything is art, are there any parallels that gin can be compared to?
Like any art form or design discipline, the creation of any good spirit, let alone world-class gin, is the result of experimentation and innovation. Yet, they are rarely appreciated as the artfully crafted designs they are.
It’s saying something when even perfume and cologne have more had more critical acceptance is artistic endeavours by media and have been subjected to more intellectual critique. They have even had exhibitions dedicated to them and to the category.
In researching this area and in writing this article, we’ve discovered that comparing making Gin to making art isn’t even an original idea. Former New York Times critic, Chandler Burr has already drawn much better and more informed parallels in the world of perfume. There has been a successful exhibition on this theme to boot, where he placed various specific perfumes in a school of art, such as surrealism, romanticism, modernism and minimalism.
Not only is Burr’s line of enquiry and his take on his subject matter similar to our own regarding the act of making distilled spirits, perhaps looking to Perfume is an ideal place to look at changing attitudes surrounding an area of creativity. Not only is Fragrance fast gaining mainstream acceptance as a possible art form, and that there are many similarities in how it is made, it also has many of the same issues to overcome as distilled spirits do, in order to be perceived in that light.
One of the more sticking parallels and an early indicator that change might be in the air, are attitudes towards makers. Thirty years ago perfumers were effectively the ghostwriters of their industry, in the same way that distillers were never glorified, nor revered. Even the malt masters of today with their uncontainably large egos will admit this. Today, perfumers and distillers are coming into the public view as creators (some may even say artists) on their own. Their personalities and their voices are being celebrated, their own styles are becoming apparent, their own sense of expression showcased and on occasion, even their tone of voice is being carried into the brand identity of the products they make.
An appreciation of the maker does not make an art form however, you also need a space and a credible platform that can afford a discipline Art status. There was a handful of Perfume exhibitions in galleries across the world over 2014-16, and at that time “Fragrance” was being touted as equivalent to photography, which incidentally, up to the late 1960s was seen as a very different venture from Art.
Through the act of elevating Perfume and perfumers – their vocation and outcomes have now slowly managed to gain some traction in being considered another form of Artistic expression. To date there has only been one exhibition about spirits in a mainstream museum – The Barbican and that was almost entirely based around the art that was commissioned by Campari since the 1900’s, not the liquid itself. This begs the questions, is it time that curators were being lobbied by the booze industry?
While Perfume helped itself to move in that direction and that it’s clear that it takes a creative soul to make fragrances, what is often forgotten about in the focus to validate something as worthy of artistic adulation is our point earlier; we are in an era where some of the most successful artists are those who are good at marketing both themselves and their works – it’s art because they say it is.
With this in mind, is it up to us, the drinks industry to be the ones pushing it to be seen in the context of art? Should the distiller’s artistic manifesto include a call to action about this being the moment to stop thinking about pouring awful gin down a toilet and instead, elevate great gin to the point that they can replace Duchamp’s urinal on a plinth at the Tate Modern?
“It can’t be Art because it’s commercial and intended for consumption.” Think again.
It is worth asking whether it’s because Distilling is still entirely commercially lead that it is not considered Art? Will that perception only change once we allow more hobbyists into the fold and when more people are creating one off bottlings just for the sake of it?
Most distillers’ creations spring from passion, inspiration and enthusiasm and while 99% are for commercial purposes, there must be others who like us, occasionally make something for the pure creative release of doing so. Even if there were none however, it shouldn’t really matter so long as they are given a scope of creative freedom.
It is undeniable that the drinks industry has a similar confluence of craftsmen, designers and a similar combination of art and science, conceptual thinking and hard-edged rigorous practice that other accepted artistic practices have.
The commercial / non-commercial difference at the root of many an objection about what is Art, can be compared to film. Some consider cinematography only to be “artistic” because it is plausible to state the difference between a movie and a film. A movie can be seen as a commercial product while a film is a work of art, they say, and while the medium is the same the intent makes it different.
Surely this is too simplistic a way to look at the act of movie making and it is possible to be both commercially savvy and artistically minded. After all, when an artist is commissioned by a gallery to create something bespoke for an exhibition, or to respond to a specific brief by a collector, it is still art they make… no?
If it is not the commercial element that bothers you in considering gin and other spirits being art, perhaps it is the fact that it is designed for consumption. Putting perfume aside as an obvious link here… is performance art, installation art, interactive theatre or spoken word poetry not intended for a similar type of one off consumption? In our opinion they are intended as experiences in just the same way that a liquid can be consumed.
Does Gin need more intellectual critique to be perceived as Art?
If it is not attitudes towards commercial endeavours that block distillers being perceived as artists, is it because it is just too hard for most to understand Gin in that light? It’s booze, not a portrait… no?! Even if you did see past that – while aromas and flavours may indeed be a brilliant way of evoking memories, conjuring feelings and engaging the senses synesthetically, they are arguably the worst ways to convey intellectual content.
Forget the fact that consumption of it almost always happens in public spaces and social gatherings for a minute – regardless of this our reaction to booze is, for better and for worse, an emotional response and as such, the reaction doesn’t lend itself particularly well to in depth critical analysis…
This is definitely an issue, but underestimating people’s capacity to understand and process complex ideas because of an inherent emotional response is not something we accept as being insurmountable. It’s a challenge and a big one at that, but it has been our experience that people’s capacity to engage at multiple levels simultaneously is phenomenal. As for the social and public element – just go to any Michelin star restaurant and we feel that debate is over – it’s possible to have fun, be social and eat culinary artistry, so why can it not be done for drinks?
No one wants to have an existential and challenging experience each time they get a drink, nor are we advocating for this happen – but it is possible to be pushed to think a little while also having a fantastic time. We’d like to point out that many of the World’s 50 best bars are already doing this with their cocktails, so the idea of it being possible with spirit alone isn’t as far fetched as it may seem.
If it is Art, do we need Spirit galleries as well as bars?
One of the big obstacles in our opinion is the fact that the Art World was born through the creation of church-like spaces devoid of references to the outside. They are designed as temples for modern culture and congregation. Over the years Art has separated itself from the rest of society and positioned itself as able to provoke debate about what it says about the world we live in. Art is not just a snapshot of life, but a mirror for ideas, ideals and a vehicle to communicate carefully observed commentary about the world around us. For many other reasons as well, but it has become understood as such because of the distance it has had to be admired from.
Therein lays the major road block to this situation and one of the reasons Gin and other distilled spirits will never really attain level status as Art – their very existence and the delivery of their message occurs in the act of consuming them.
To be understood they need to have no barrier and no pedestal to separate them from the recipient as they literally need to be consumed for the “experience” to begin. There can be no distance. It is akin to temporary performance art performed upon nosing, tasting and imbibing – but this is happening in locations that are not intentionally destinations that frame the experience like that. This “spiritous performance” occurs not in the equivalent of amphitheatres, arenas, galleries, museums – but in bars and people’s homes. Much like those artistic Michelin-minded chefs, it’s considered high concept food, not quite Art because it occurs in a restaurant. Spirits aren’t really about providing “commentary” either, more transportive moments of escapism, but that’s an argument for another time.
Is distance and mass-availability an issue?
To illustrate the issue of not having distance and the problems of having a commodity or artform that is available to all, a parallel can again be drawn with photography. Photography, incidentally, took decades to reach its level of accepted status as an artform and even still, it is not considered by some as equal to painting or sculpture as a medium. In today’s great digital revolution where anyone can be a photographer, the artistry may be better understood but it is less valued. The lack of distance and space to be appreciated, revered and contemplated from (i.e. hung in a gallery); as well as the extent of the ubiquity of the medium in our daily life has corroded the intrinsic value people place upon it as an art form.
To therefore need no distance between viewer and art as a prerequisite in order to ingest let alone appreciate distilled spirits, and to have no tangible object other than a drop of liquid – means the intrinsic artistic value is much harder to weight accordingly. This is not sculpture that can be gazed on and debated over and this basic fact will always make it a leap too far for some.
It is not an impossible barrier to transcend, given music overcomes the same issue in numerous ways, but it demonstrates the uphill challenge one might face if looking for wider adoption.
With this wider context of distance, value through availablity and commercial status in mind, if distilled spirits are ever to be considered as Art, they must rise above their status of mere commodity and free themselves of the rigid attitudes that define them currently. They must challenge where they are being consumed, as well as overcome only having commercially lead industry outcomes alone. With the number of independent makers growing and contemporary artists seeking areas to nurture their self-expression in under-explored artistic mediums, it may eventually be possible. It’s unlikely sure, but possible.
Ok so it is not art yet, but could it ever be?
If such a movement did occur – they would need to get spirits into galleries as exhibits, and for the spirits themselves to be making potent commentary on society, as well continue to be excellent landscapes of places and portraits of moments in time. Gin and other spirits need to be talked about in the way that music is debated and critiqued and while the every day spirit can continue to thrive, for distillers to be considered artists, we will also need the equivalent of Haute Couture lines to sit alongside the high-street offerings.
It is in plucking best practice from all these artistic disciplines that we will be able to contextualise distilling as Art, and find sufficient endorsement to make it credible.
We’ll accept that the spirits made may never be placed on equal footing with the likes of works by Pollock or Rothko nor be descended upon by hoards of culture vultures, quietly contemplating every nuanced detail in white washed galleries – but that’s okay. A more reasonable aspiration might be to ask if Ernest Beaux, Chanel No5’s inventor deserves the same adulation as Bob Dylan? It is not a masterpiece that has affected many people in profound ways? If so, surely there are also a handful of exceptional distillers that might, in time, also earn their right to be up there too through what they have made.
While we may already consider some of the best distillers to be artists and that we may like to consider what we do as makers when unshackled from brand constraints and purely distilling for our own sense of discovery to be artistic – we’ll also accept the reality that this idea will probably never be widely accepted.
For now, distillers will be at best regarded as flavourists first and once proficient, masters at capturing the essence of an agricultural product. We will be designers of flavours and the best of us eventually elevated to master craftsmen (assuming that term is not eroded already). We’re proud of all of those terms and gladly embrace them.
This may mean we’ll never be able to sell our own or someone else’s one-off-bottlings for the same price as Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy Cabinet. However, for the joy of drinking Gin, a disdain for how ludicrously pretentious the Art World can be and a love of other’s “Spiritous Art”, the fact that not calling it Art means what is made will simply continue to be enjoyed by many. This may well be a much better outcome anyway.
Copyright © Gin Foundry