The NEW World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta. Photo: Deanna Sirlin

Have a Coke and a Warhol

By Philip Auslander 

It would be easy enough to critique the NEW World of Coca-Cola, in downtown Atlanta, where Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 and its corporate headquarters remains today. After all, the place is basically a walk-through advertisement for a mega-corporation. But the simple fact is that a recent visit on a busy Saturday was a lot of fun—two diverting hours that included film showings, beverage tastings, exhibitions of art and artifacts, and programs from Coca-Cola’s archive of innovative television commercials. In any case, the NEW World of Coca-Cola is right across a grassy mall from the Georgia Aquarium. And whereas that attraction claims an educational mission, it is in fact a Disneyfied celebration of a lesser corporate giant, Home Depot. The Aquarium’s official mascot, star of one of the films shown there and ubiquitous as a plush toy, is a suspiciously clownfish-like orange sea creature named Depo. Need one say more?

It seems safe to say that the NEW World of Coca-Cola does not exist to sell the company to you. If you’re willing to pay for admission, you probably have already bought into the idea that Coke—both the company and its products—are interesting and wonderful. That said, the venue does convey an unsubtle, yet somewhat contradictory, message: Coke is a universal experience common to all of the peoples of the earth that, potentially, could bring everyone together in peace. Remember that commercial: “I’d like to teach the world to sing/In perfect harmony”? The main contradiction is that Coca-Cola actually is not a uniform product throughout the world. It is well known, though not discussed at the NEW World, that the formula for Coke is different in different places to match local tastes. The company’s versatility is displayed dramatically in the tasting room, where one can sample products made exclusively for overseas markets: Beverly, a bitter chinotto-like soda for Italy; a melon-flavored Fanta for Israel, and so on. Whereas Coke ideology stresses unity through uniformity, its true motto must be: Think globally, act locally. 

Outside the tasting room, the emphasis is not so much on the products themselves as on their production, presented in a rather claustrophobic automated model production line, and marketing. Especially marketing. The NEW World is stuffed full of old soda vending machines and every other thing that ever served as a surface on which a Coke logo or advertising image could be placed. Coke has never been out of step with trends in visual culture. In the 1920s, Coke went Deco. In 1931, the company commissioned a painting from Norman Rockwell, Barefoot Boy, to be reproduced on its trays. An animated commercial from 1969 evokes Peter Max. By contrast, the entertaining animated film that is compulsory viewing at the NEW World, in which the voices of Coke employees emerge from the mouths of animals and other fanciful figures, is in the spirit, if not the visual style, of the British Aardman Animation’s Creature Comforts series. 

In the Pop Culture Gallery (get it?) one encounters, alongside a variety of collectibles and other artifacts, a small exhibition of Coke-themed work by Andy Warhol, on loan from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (some of the objects will be exchanged for others later in the year). Two are line drawings from the 1950s, when Warhol worked as an illustrator, in which Coke bottles serve as flower vases. There are two of Warhol’s Screen Tests showing on a video monitor: of David and Nico (the singer from the Velvet Underground), both from 1966. The remaining works are from the 1980s, including two small black and white photographs—one of stacked up crates full of empty Coke bottles, the other of piles of Coke logo T-shirts—reminiscent of his earlier rows of Campbell’s Soup cans. There are also two deadpan color Polaroids from 1984 of a spilled Coke can, dribbling its contents onto the floor, and two screenprints of the same subject. These were commissioned for the cover of Time Magazine to announce the arrival of New Coke, but the product was withdrawn and the cover never ran. It’s almost as if Warhol predicted its failure with his abject image of accident and waste. 

The Warhol showcase is probably intended to demonstrate the iconicity of Coke, its logos and classic bottles, an iconicity that transcended advertising and made its way into fine art through Warhol (among others), who had done the same thing himself. But the Warhols also resonate with other things on display. The philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto compares Norman Rockwell with Warhol: “he was not just a painter of recognizable things. Norman Rockwells were themselves recognizable things. They were part of the world. They were not just illustrations of reality. They were part of the reality of his times. Anybody in America could pick them out like stop signs or American flags. The only other artist of whom something like this is true is Andy Warhol.” Yet it remains much easier to accept Warhol as a “real” artist than Rockwell, despite various efforts at rehabilitation. The NEW World of Coca-Cola, a space filled with the kind of instantly recognizable objects that both Rockwell and Warhol took as their subjects, is an appropriate place to ponder the thin line between “fine” and “commercial” art. Rockwell, Warhol, and Coke all demonstrate that a signature visual style can be simultaneously cultural iconic and richly commodifiable. 

It’s a bit jarring to see Nico disaffectedly downing a Coke in her screen test next door to a host of sunny and, usually, sentimental commercials. The Screen Tests are a series of short, silent, black and white films for which visitors to Warhol’s Factory studio and members of his entourage would sit facing a stationary camera and try to remain motionless (in fact, Nico did not even try). This was the era of “Things go better with Coke,” a jingle sung by pop artists like Jay and the Americans and Petula Clark, a far cry from the Velvet Underground’s heroin anthems (though it is only fair to note that it was also performed by the grittier Ray Charles and the trippier Moody Blues). Moving between the Pop Culture Gallery and the Perfect Pauses Theatre, where the commercials are screened, one can see films celebrating the brightly colored, Coke-infused mid-1960s juxtaposed with others that emerged from the much darker, languid bohemia of Warhol’s Factory. 

To the left of the cluster of Warhols in the Pop Culture Gallery is a case containing objects of Coke-related crafts made by regular folks, and to the left of that is a wall featuring an assortment of Coke-themed images made by certified folk artists, including a pair of Howard Finsters (Warhol was a major collector of American folk art). We are presented with a range of possibilities for making art out of Coke and invited to ponder the similarities and differences. I was reminded of an article I once saw from a crafts magazine of the 1960s showing how to make your own Pop Art by lacquering a soup can. Where are the lines? What is the difference between Warhol’s uses of Coca-Cola bottles and logos and those of the hobbyists? Between the hobbyists and the folk artists? Is there some kind of continuum being implied? 

One of the first images in the collection of Warhols is of Andy himself—a large color Polaroid from 1979 in which he looks out at us with that patented deer-in-the-headlights stare. He is wearing two badges that identify him as a Visitor (to Polaroid, as it happens). This makes him one of us: like Andy, we are all visitors to the World of Coke, both inside the building and outside of it. I can’t help thinking that Andy would like the idea not only of being in something called a Pop Culture Gallery sponsored by Coca-Cola but also of sharing it both with the guy who made an Irish harp out of a large plastic promotional Coke bottle and the Reverend Howard Finster. 

The Pop Culture Gallery at the NEW World of Coca-Cola. Photo: Deanna Sirlin

Philip Auslander teaches performance studies at Georgia Tech.