Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Just what is it that makes today's culture so different, so appealing? Anticipating Richard Hamilton by four years, Hank Williams first uttered the term pop art from the stage of the Grand Old Opry in 1952. Hank could see stretched out before him a future in which art would inextricably entwine with advertising. It was not an unappealing prospect, and Hank embraced it, envisioning museums filled with Brillo boxes and Ken-L-Ration labels and Goodyear Tires winged feet. He had always considered such works on a par with the output of the top European modernists, and all the more engaging because they had been devised by ordinary Americans without pretense, who got their hands dirty and enjoyed the song of the meadowlark at sunset.

He could imagine taking that song and fitting lyrics to it that would tell folks about Cities Service gasoline and Wheatena breakfast cereal, things he himself loved, and in return the gasoline people and the cereal people would put his name on a pump and his face on a box. It was all about people helping each other out, and it was also about the clean, uncluttered thrust of American imagery. He never quite understood why it was that when he visited a picture gallery, the paintings of streets never showed the Dr. Pepper signs and the Coppertone billboards and the barns were bereft of their Chew Mail Pouch in big letters. He thought it was a lot like pretending that people never had to go to the bathroom. It was like visiting somebody's house who had made a fortune running burlesque theaters and finding it full of plaster copies of Roman statues.

It was on the night of January 1, 1953 that he had his final vision. Racing from Knoxville to Canton, Ohio in the back of the big Cadillac, pumped full of morphine with a side of B12 to keep his eyes open, Hank kept sliding under the surface of this life, seeing things he didn't entirely understand. He seemed to be visiting the future. He saw people of all ages walking around with product names on their clothes. He saw a man with a beer label tattooed on his arm. He thought he understood that people were paying money to companies to help them spread their advertising. He saw movies that turned out to be commercials, and commercials that turned out to be movies. He saw what looked like advertisements but couldn't tell what products were being advertised. He thought he understood that advertising and art had traded places in this future world, that advertising walked by itself and didn't stand for anything in particular. He understood that everything in life was a product, and probably always had been, and thought that now advertising was no longer about trying to get folks to buy products. It was more like hymns in church, which you sang not in order to believe but to stay on God's good side. He was trying to focus this thought when he died.