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Monday, November 23, 2015

Context for common content

This is a reworking of a post I wrote this past August 6th, Andy Warhol's birthday, and the same week of my visit to the Whitney Museum in its new location. I had been to the old one a few times,
including once for a special Hopper exhibit.

The MoMA houses some of his most iconic works, which includes the Campbell's soup cans. But what Whitney has is his Green Coca-Cola Bottles pictured here. The museum's description begins as follows:
Green Coca-Cola Bottles was created the year that Andy Warhol developed his pioneering silkscreen technique, which allowed him to produce his paintings through a mechanical process that paralleled his use of mass culture subjects. Here, the image of a single Coca-Cola bottle is repeated in regular rows, seven high by sixteen across, above the company’s logo.
. Instead of stressing the monotony inherent in repetition and mass production of consumer goods, Warhol stressed that there was a great equalizing effect in offering everyone the same Coke, no matter how rich or poor they may be: “'A Coke is a Coke,' he explained, 'and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.'”

In the card next to the work in the  museum the description actually was even more positive, as it also included this statement, "All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good." I looked up the quote and found that it's part of a full paragraph from  The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again). Here it is:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
Objectively, we know that the  sugar-loaded, caramel-colored drink is not a really good choice for nutrition or dental health. But there is something reassuring in the sameness and the fact that the exact same quality of the product is within everyone's reach. Coke puts consumers all on equal footing.

This becomes even more fascinating in light of  Horace M. Kallen's "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot" published in the Nation on February 25, 1915. Contrary to the general spirit of the age that promoted the assimilation of immigrants into a more uniform American culture, he defended the differentiation of ethnic identities what only came into vogue many decades later. Nevertheless, he maintained that a certain amount of assimilation is inevitable.

A certain uniformity occurs with no conscious agenda through fashion or what he calls, the "process of leveling up through imitation" that is promoted through "'standardization' of externals." This was the age in which people came to be more alike in terms of consumption:  "In these days of ready-made clothes, factory-made goods, refrigerating plants, it is almost impossible that the mass of the inhabitants of this country should wear other than uniform clothes, use other than uniform furniture or utensils, or eat anything but the same kind of food."  Certainly, Coke fits into that category.