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4 Public Works of Art Gone Terribly Wrong

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1. Diego Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads”

The Moral: Never hire a communist to do a capitalist’s job.

During the Great Depression, Mexican artist Diego Rivera was on a roll. In 1931, he painted a massive mural for San Francisco’s Pacific Stock Exchange. And by 1933, he’d completed two more enormous murals of Ford’s assembly line for the Detroit Institute of Arts. But there was a disconnect in Rivera’s work. Although the artist was a vocal and committed communist, his art was decidedly capitalist. After a few friends pointed out the hypocrisy, Rivera decided to put his paintbrush where his mouth was.

Opportunity knocked in 1932, when the Rockefeller family hired Rivera to create one of his signature paintings in the lobby of the new RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. Their suggested theme for the work was “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future”—an allusion to the crossroads between industry and technology. Rivera’s final product depicted a crossroads, but hardly in the way the Rockefellers had intended. Instead, the sprawling 63-foot masterpiece illustrated two alternate futures: a communist heaven and a capitalist hell.

Rivera might have gotten away with his political statement if it hadn’t been for one detail—he painted his personal hero, Vladimir Lenin, into the piece. When building managers realized Rivera was filling their lobby with Red propaganda, they ordered him to cease and desist. To preserve the art, the Rockefellers asked Rivera to morph Lenin’s portrait into an unrecognizable worker. But when the artist refused (Rivera offered instead to balance the picture with a portrait of Lincoln), he was paid his full fee, then barred from the site. The mural was immediately covered, and months later, workers were ordered to destroy the piece altogether.

It wasn’t long before the artist got his revenge. Later that year, Rivera re-created the piece for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Only this time, he added a portrait to the capitalist side; it was of Nelson Rockefeller, holding a martini glass, under a swarm of syphilitic bacteria.

2. Robert Arneson’s “Portrait of George”

The Moral: If you’re going to put the Mayor on a pedestal, don’t build that pedestal with Twinkies.

In 1978, after mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated, the city of San Francisco wanted to commemorate its fallen leaders. Officials set about building a new convention center in Moscone’s honor, and held a competition for a proper memorial sculpture to be displayed in the lobby. Artist Robert Arneson quickly won over the selection committee with his proposal for a grinning, oversize bust of the slain mayor.

But when the sculpture was unveiled in 1981, it was met with gasps of horror. The audience wasn’t shocked by Moscone’s smiling head, but by its nearly 5-foot-tall pedestal, which was imprinted with five bloody bullet holes and graffiti that read “BANG BANG BANG” and “HARVEY MILK TOO.” Arneson even included an image of a revolver and a Twinkie—a reference to the assassin, Dan White, who’d tried to exonerate himself in court by arguing that junk food binges were to blame for his violent mood swings.

Arneson claimed he was trying to portray the totality of the crime, but San Franciscans wouldn’t have it. Mayor Moscone’s successor, Dianne Feinstein, denounced the work, and the city demanded its money back. 

A handful of people did appreciate the sculpture, though. A private collector purchased the piece immediately, and in 1997, “Portrait of George” resold for $155,000. Today, even Feinstein agrees the work would be “appropriate for a museum.” Just don’t count on it showing up in the Moscone Center lobby anytime soon.

3. Horatio Greenough’s “George Washington”

The Moral: Founding Fathers look less distinguished in the nude.

In 1832, Congress commissioned a giant sculpture of George Washington for the 100th anniversary of the President’s birth. They tapped artist Horatio Greenough for the job, and he seemed like a perfect fit. Not only did the Boston native come with a great reputation, but he’d also trained in Rome with the best European artists. Considering Greenough’s background, Congress assumed that his work might be classically influenced. What they didn’t expect was to see the Founding Father on a pedestal, naked as the day he was born.

To be fair, Horatio Greenough had good intentions. Inspired by ancient depictions of Greek gods, the artist wanted to portray America’s first president with the strength of Zeus, bestowing power on the people. But when Greenough unveiled his work in the Capitol rotunda, the audience didn’t get it. Instead of greeting the statue with thunderous applause, onlookers simply gawked and snickered at the half-naked George Washington. Wrapped loosely in a toga, the president looked out of character with his nipples and belly button exposed. Worse still, Washington’s arm was extended outward in a grand gesture, and many in the crowd joked that the embarrassed president was trying to reach for his clothes.

Congress was outraged. They tried to relocate the piece, eventually sticking it on the east lawn of the Capitol. By 1908, however, politicians had acquired a sense of humor about the sculpture, and the statue was moved to the Smithsonian. Today, it can be seen in all its naked splendor at the National Museum of American History.

4. David Černý's “Entropa”

The Moral: Not everyone appreciates racist, nationalist humor.

On January 1, 2009, the Czech Republic took over the revolving presidency of the European Union, and to commemorate the event, the government turned to Czech artist David Černý. For his piece, Cerný proposed working with 26 other artists, one from each EU member nation, to create a grand monument. But when “Entropa” was unveiled on January 12, the international community was scandalized. Rather than celebrating Europe, “Entropa” mocked each and every country.

“Entropa” is a huge map in which each nation is represented as a stereotype. Some are silly; others are blatantly offensive. Romania is depicted as a Dracula theme park; Germany is a network of motorways that resembles a swastika; Sweden is a large, IKEA-style box; Bulgaria is a collection of squat toilets. 

Upon seeing the work, the Bulgarian government immediately issued a formal complaint. The controversy grew when newspapers noticed that Cerný's “team” of international artists was nowhere to be found. Cerný soon admitted that they didn’t exist; his only collaborators were his two assistants. Outraged, Czech officials accused him of misappropriating state funds, but Cerný insisted that he’d always intended to return the money. Three days later, when the work was ceremonially presented to the public, Cerný formally apologized to the Czech government. He said his intention was “to see if Europe is able to laugh at itself.” Apparently, it can’t.

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Where Did The Easter Bunny Come From?
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Getty Images

The Easter Bunny is an anthropomorphic, egg-laying rabbit who sneaks into homes the night before Easter to deliver baskets full of colored eggs, toys and chocolate. A wise man once told me that all religions are beautiful and all religions are wacko, but even if you allow for miracles, angels, and pancake Jesus, the Easter Bunny really comes out of left field.

If you go way back, though, the Easter Bunny starts to make a little sense. Spring is the season of rebirth and renewal. Plants return to life after winter dormancy and many animals mate and procreate. Many pagan cultures held spring festivals to celebrate this renewal of life and promote fertility. One of these festivals was in honor of Eostre or Eastre, the goddess of dawn, spring and fertility near and dear to the hearts of the pagans in Northern Europe. Eostre was closely linked to the hare and the egg, both symbols of fertility.

As Christianity spread, it was common for missionaries to practice some good salesmanship by placing pagan ideas and rituals within the context of the Christian faith and turning pagan festivals into Christian holidays (e.g. Christmas). The Eostre festival occurred around the same time as the Christians' celebration of Christ's resurrection, so the two celebrations became one, and with the kind of blending that was going on among the cultures, it would seem only natural that the pagans would bring the hare and egg images with them into their new faith (the hare later became the more common rabbit).

The pagans hung on to the rabbit and eventually it became a part of Christian celebration. We don't know exactly when, but it's first mentioned in German writings from the 1600s. The Germans converted the pagan rabbit image into Oschter Haws, a rabbit that was believed to lay a nest of colored eggs as gifts for good children. (A poll of my Twitter followers reveals that 81% of the people who replied believe the Easter Bunny to be male, based mostly on depictions where it's wearing a bowtie. The male pregnancy and egg-laying mammal aspects are either side effects of trying to lump the rabbit and egg symbols together, or rabbits were just more awesome back then.)

Oschter Haws came to America with Pennsylvania Dutch settlers in the 1700s, and evolved into the Easter Bunny as it became entrenched in American culture. Over time the bunny started bringing chocolate and toys in addition to eggs (the chocolate rabbit began with the Germans, too, when they started making Oschter Haws pastries in the 1800s).

bunny-bilby.jpg

The Easter Bunny also went with European settlers to Australia—as did actual bunnies. These rabbits, fertile as they are, got a little out of control, so the Aussies regard them as serious pests. The destruction they've caused to habitats is responsible for the major decline of some native animals and causes millions of dollars worth of damage to crops. It is, perhaps, not a great idea to use an invasive species as a symbol for a religious holiday, so Australia has been pushing the Easter Bilby (above, on the right), an endangered marsupial that kind of looks like a bunny if you squint. According to some of our Australian readers, the Easter Bunny is not in danger of going extinct.

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Gregor Smith, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Men Behind Your Favorite Liquors
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Gregor Smith, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's hard to walk down the aisle of a liquor store without running across a bottle bearing someone's name. We put them in our cocktails, but how well do we know them? Here's some biographical detail on the men behind your favorite tipples.

1. Captain Morgan

FromSandToGlass, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Captain wasn't always just the choice of sorority girls looking to blend spiced rum with Diet Coke; in the 17th century he was a feared privateer. Not only did the Welsh pirate marry his own cousin, he ran risky missions for the governor of Jamaica, including capturing some Spanish prisoners in Cuba and sacking Port-au-Prince in Haiti. He then plundered the Cuban coast before holding for ransom the entire city of Portobelo, Panama. He later looted and burned Panama City, but his pillaging career came to an end when Spain and England signed a peace treaty in 1671. Instead of getting in trouble for his high-seas antics, Morgan received knighthood and became the lieutenant governor of Jamaica.

2. Johnnie Walker

Kevin Chang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Walker, the name behind the world's most popular brand of Scotch whisky, was born in 1805 in Ayrshire, Scotland. When his father died in 1819, Johnnie inherited a trust of a little over 400 pounds, which the trustees invested in a grocery store. Walker grew to become a very successful grocer in the town of Kilmarnock and even sold a whisky, Walker's Kilmarnock Whisky. Johnnie's son Alexander was the one who actually turned the family into famous whisky men, though. Alexander had spent time in Glasgow learning how to blend teas, but he eventually returned to Kilmarnock to take over the grocery from his father. Alexander turned his blending expertise to whisky, and came up with "Old Highland Whisky," which later became Johnnie Walker Black Label.

3. Jack Daniel

LeeRoyal, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel of Tennessee whiskey fame was the descendant of Welsh settlers who came to the United States in the early 19th century. He was born in 1846 or 1850 and was one of 13 children. By 1866 he was distilling whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Unfortunately for the distiller, he had a bit of a temper. One morning in 1911 Daniel showed up for work early and couldn't get his safe open. He flew off the handle and kicked the offending strongbox. The kick was so ferocious that Daniel injured his toe, which then became infected. The infection soon became the blood poisoning that killed the whiskey mogul.

Curious about why your bottle of J.D. also has Lem Motlow listed as the distillery's proprietor? Daniel's own busy life of distilling and safe-kicking kept him from ever finding a wife and siring an heir, so in 1907 he gave the distillery to his beloved nephew Lem Motlow, who had come to work for him as a bookkeeper.

4. Jose Cuervo

Shane R, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1758, Jose Antonio de Cuervo received a land grant from the King of Spain to start an agave farm in the Jalisco region of Mexico. Jose used his agave plants to make mescal, a popular Mexican liquor. In 1795, King Carlos IV gave the land grant to Cuervo's descendant Jose Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo. Carlos IV also granted the Cuervo family the first license to commercially make tequila, so they built a larger factory on the existing land. The family started packaging their wares in individual bottles in 1880, and in 1900 the booze started going by the brand name Jose Cuervo. The brand is still under the leadership of the original Jose Cuervo's family; current boss Juan-Domingo Beckmann is the sixth generation of Cuervo ancestors to run the company.

5. Jim Beam

Jim Beam, the namesake of the world's best-selling bourbon whiskey, didn't actually start the distillery that now bears his name. His great-grandfather Jacob Beam opened the distillery in 1788 and started selling his first barrels of whiskey in 1795. In those days, the whiskey went by the less-catchy moniker of "Old Tub." Jacob Beam handed down the distillery to his son David Beam, who in turn passed it along to his son David M. Beam, who eventually handed the operation off to his son, Colonel James Beauregard Beam, in 1894. Although he was only 30 years old when he took over the family business, Jim Beam ran the distillery until Prohibition shut him down. Following repeal in 1933, Jim quickly built a distillery and began resurrecting the Old Tub brand, but he also added something new to the company's portfolio: a bourbon simply called Jim Beam.

6. Tanqueray

Adrian Scottow, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When he was a young boy, Charles Tanqueray's path through life seemed pretty clear. He was the product of three straight generations of Bedfordshire clergymen, so it must have seemed natural to assume that he would take up the cloth himself. Wrong. Instead, he started distilling gin in 1830 in a little plant in London's Bloomsbury district. By 1847, he was shipping his gin to colonies around the British Empire, where many plantation owners and troops had developed a taste for Tanqueray and tonic.

7. Campari

Michael, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Gaspare Campari found his calling quickly. By the time he was 14, he had risen to become a master drink mixer in Turin, and in this capacity he started dabbling with a recipe for an aperitif. When he eventually settled on the perfect mixture, his concoction had over 60 ingredients. In 1860, he founded Gruppo Campari to make his trademark bitters in Milan. Like Colonel Sanders' spice blend, the recipe for Campari is a closely guarded secret supposedly known by only the acting Gruppo Campari chairman, who works with a tiny group of employees to make the concentrate with which alcohol and water are infused to get Campari. The drink is still made from Gaspare Campari's recipe, though, which includes quinine, orange peel, rhubarb, and countless other flavorings.

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