Robert Williams: Bitchin’ Art Crusader?

As artist Robert Williams grew up in his often dysfunctional, divorced home in the 1940s and 1950s, his mother wished he’d become a cowboy. After seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s 1935 film The Crusades (rereleased in 1948), however, young Bob decided on a career as a crusader instead. With a lion’s heart, fiercely wide-ranging intellect, and outsider’s eye, Robert Williams dreamed of a holy land where his unique brand of art would one day gain acceptance. Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’, now available on DVD and digital platforms, tells the story in Williams’ own words and pictures of that long, often lonely crusade to make art true to his experience that defied the mores of society at large and the art world in particular. Entertaining and enlightening, Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’ offers the rare chance to see the real-life good guy win in the end.


For an artist with so many accomplishments (and possibly the leader of a “movement” or “school,” although he’s leaving that up to posterity), Williams strikes you with an astounding lack of pretension combined with a profane disregard for the rules. During Mr. Bitchin’, Williams rides a bicycle and a unicycle and manages to fall off both. Watching him ride with the joy of a young boy, I couldn’t help but think of that great picture of Albert Einstein on his bicycle. I’m not calling Williams an Einstein, but I do think that there’s a connection between playfulness and genius that can’t be denied. Neither took himself too seriously, which freed them up to fail enough times to succeed in the end.

Williams’ irreverent lifestyle and art come straight out of the Southern California environment he’s steeped in since moving there in 1963.  He credits the hot rods, outlaw bikers, psychedelic posters, underground comics, porn industry, and tattoo culture as all having an influence on him. “The West Coast was holding all the cards,” Williams says in the film, while the Midwest and East Coast held onto the “constipated” 1950s mindset. After art school, Williams resisted the limiting branding of “illustrator” and continued to follow his own path, stumbling eventually onto his “dream job” of working for Ed "Big Daddy" Roth studio and producing images for the SoCal hot rod crowd. Continually at his side was his wife, Suzanne Chorna Williams, also a working artist and hot rod enthusiast, but more importantly a kindred spirit with wide-ranging interests and ideas to help feed Bob’s visual landscape.

Throughout Mr. Bitchin’, you always feel a kind of challenge in Williams’ voice—are you capable of keeping up with him? Standing before one of his many “Super Cartoons”—meticulously painted works that portray an entire story in one panel—Williams is at one moment making you think about the Piltdown Man hoax and the general nature of deception, then the forgotten world of board track racing and the death of three racers at the Beverly Hills Speedway in 1920 and the nature of mortality and fame, and then King Farouk of Egypt as an  embodiment of self-delusion. A great deal of thought goes into each of these works and, as several scenes show, a great deal of craftsmanship. For someone with little regard for rules, Williams respects the craft of painting deeply, stretching his canvas and sneering at those who use staples instead of tacks and reminiscing when “being a technical craftsman used to be part of being an artist.” The results can be mesmerizing, as in 1968’s In the Land of Retinal Delights (detail shown above), which smacks of Salvador Dali, but never surrenders, as Dali sometimes did, the idea of communicating an idea, however difficult or however obscure.

Williams finally found a larger audience when he joined ZAP Comix, an underground comic born in the anti-establishment age of anti-Vietnam War protests and the youth movement. Along with artists such as R. Crumb and Victor Moscoso, Williams’ comics became the gateway drug for many to come to accept his paintings as “real” art. “When I came into art,” Williams explains in the film, “cartoons were not considered art. But the cartoon is really the point where you can do the most exaggeration and really test and strain your imagination.” For Williams, the art found in E.C. Comics and pulp magazines contained an “energy that’s been lost in abstract art.” The stifling conformity of canonical art short-circuited art itself for Williams. “There’s a thing about ugly and distastefulness that’s really an aesthetic in itself,” Williams believes and then proves in the calculated ugliness and distastefulness of his work.

That ugly aesthetic brought Williams his biggest fame and infamy when Guns N’ Roses placed his painting Appetite for Destruction inside their album of the same name. Amid cries that the painting “glorified rape,” Williams responded that he was simply portraying the desires of actual life. Williams, who elsewhere painted a series of sexually potent women posed atop food items, recognizes human hungers of all kinds and puts them in his pictures, which can be read as exploitive, but which he (and his supporters) see as powerfully human.

By the end of Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’, you’ll be cheering for the artist, who not only never compromised on his ideas, but also gave back to like-minded artists by founding Juxtapoz Magazine, which publicizes “low brow” art in opposition to the more mainstream art magazines. Thanks to Juxtapoz, today’s generation of “outsider” artists can exhibit in galleries and survive without feeling the loneliness Williams’ did during his earlier career. When Juxtapoz co-founder Greg Escalante tearfully compares the impact of Robert Williams on modern art with that of the Beatles on modern music—and how both are unfairly discounted by history—you feel some of the tragedy of Williams’ struggles, but when you hear Williams say now in all honesty that he’s happy, you’ll feel better about life and art and believe again that the good guys, the true crusaders, sometimes do win.

[Image: Robert Williams. In the Land of Retinal Delights, 1968 (detail).]

[Many thanks to Cinema Libre Studio for providing me with a review copy of Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’, available on DVD and digital platforms starting July 30, 2013.]

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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