Duff said: Art vs Politics

14 May, 2019

Wall wars on cocktail menus leave Philip Duff pondering the context

Cocktail menus exist in a strange netherworld, don’t they? On the one hand, elaborate menus are described as ‘works of art’, and indeed they frequently are. But it’s not expected to be art that challenges or confuses or discomfits us. We have no Banksy, no Hirst of the menus. Cocktail menus, it seems, can be stripped down or swagged and gilded and brocaded; they can be obtuse or effulgent, cryptic or chatty, but they cannot be controversial. Or can they?

A few months ago, there was a Facebook storm in a teacup when someone in a predominantly US-based bartending group asked if anyone else would be offended by a cocktail he had seen on a menu named Over The Wall, using, apparently, hot chocolate, mezcal and Ancho Reyes. Well, you can imagine what the responses were. Pleasant, sensible people who are allowed to vote and who hardly ever lick windows piled on competing to be the most outraged and the most disgusted, pleading with the chap who posted originally to share the name of said bar so that they could “call it out”. No amount of sensible people pointing out that the name could very well be a teasingly anti-Trump reference (given strength by the fact two of the three ingredients are Mexican) changed the mind of the online mob. ANY cocktail referencing the Wall that the current US president is desperate to build is unacceptable, they said, feverishly ‘liking’ one another’s repeated assertions over and over.


As I write, the US government is in shutdown mode as of a week or so, meaning there are a lot of government employees who aren’t getting paid, especially in Washington DC.

DC’s Capitol Lounge (motto: “No Politics. No Miller Lite”) acted quickly, offering $5 cocktails to federal employees from a shutdown cocktail menu including such gems as the Border Wall Banger (tequila, Galliano, orange juice) and the Mexico Will Pay For This (blue tequila – which is apparently a thing – orange juice, and grenadine). The bar appears to have received a lot of universally positive coverage for this – and the social media sphere has been silent. What’s the difference with the Over The Wall? I think it’s framing. The Over The Wall was introduced with the question: “Is anyone offended by this?” Sounds innocent, no? But it’s powerfully framing to use the word “offended” in a supposedly innocent question, just as merely saying the words: “Don’t think of a pink elephant” will have you thinking of that rose-coloured tusker.

Framing, then, defines how we experience bars. We don’t go to bars and restaurants to be challenged or discomfited in the way we do when we visit art galleries or museums or indie band nights. Our default setting in a bar is relaxation, indulgence and conviviality.

The real world, the harsh winds and sleeting rain, the trials and tribulations, our bloody history and our certain, inevitable decline and demise – these are all outside. Inside, our frame is to enjoy, to be welcomed, to entertain and to be entertained.

And on that note, I wish you the very best for 2019; may all your dreams – and KPIs – come to pass, may all your problems be small ones, and your drinks large ones.

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