Bad news for Michael Bliss: It looks like he won't be invited to join the Wiserhood any time soon.
For more than two years now, the Wiser's brand of whisky has been running commercials celebrating what it calls the Society of Uncompromising Men, a make-believe cadre of cads who practise small acts of rebellion to maintain their manhood: In one spot, a fellow rips a hole in a sweater his wife has given him so he can get out of wearing it without having to actually tell her it's ugly; in another, a man dejectedly regards an electric turkey carver before putting it aside and grabbing a large and intimidating knife instead. All of the spots, which have won a number of awards for the Toronto creative agency John St., end with the protagonist being treated to a slow clap by a quintet of men who are off to the side, one of whom hoists a highball in his honour.
But Mr. Bliss wasn't in the mood for a drink when he recently caught the latest Wiserhood spot , which has been running on sports programs. The ad shows a fellow so desperate to escape an afternoon of gallery-going boredom with his art-loving girlfriend that he runs his hand down the canvas of an abstract painting, in pretend thrall to its beauty. As a security guard kicks out him and his girlfriend, the Wiserhood guys in the corner begin to applaud.
Though he has never before publicly complained about an ad, Mr. Bliss, a historian and author who is considered one of this country's most honoured public intellectuals, shot off a letter to Corby, the Wiser's distillery. He said the commercial was "tasteless, ignorant trash - at best sniggering juvenilia," and suggested its encouragement of the desecration of art contravened the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.
Patrick O'Driscoll, Corby's president, replied in a letter to Mr. Bliss that the ad was intended to be humorous, and in any case he didn't believe it contravened the Code. He also went to some length to outline the support Corby has shown the artistic community, including past sponsorships of the Shakespeare Festival in Prescott, Ont., an outdoor wall mural commissioned from an Argentine street artist, and funding for Toronto's Mercer Union art space.
All of which apparently only served to stiffen Mr. Bliss's resolve. "I believe you owe an apology to every public art gallery in the territory reached by this commercial," he shot back in a letter to Mr. O'Driscoll, "and if there is the slightest truth in your claim actually to support the arts you'd realize this."
He continued: "I suppose it would have been equally lighthearted to have had your Wiserhood applaud the man if he had gotten himself thrown out of the gallery by urinating in a corner. But even your advertising people would have vetoed this on the grounds of bad taste," he wrote.
Indeed, physical contact with art is a highly sensitive matter for museums. Last week, a woman visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., attacked the Paul Gauguin painting Two Tahitian Women, banging on its surface and trying to tear it off the wall before she was restrained. The $80-million (U.S.) work, which had a protective Plexiglas cover, was undamaged, but the woman was charged with second-degree theft and destruction of property. As of our deadline, it wasn't clear if she was hoping for admission to the Wiserhood.