The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art

Celebrated conceptual artist Tom Marioni’s San Francisco studio is transformed into a beer salon, for art’s sake, on Wednesdays.

Dear Tom Marioni, you had me at FREE BEER.

That it’s being served as part of a museum exhibit, wherein imbibers become components of a living art installation celebrating the power of my favorite social lubrication? Certainly a bonus.

But again: FREE BEER.

If your reaction to that phrase — and/or the overarching concept — is anything akin to mine, then mark your calendars: Marioni’s “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art” opens Saturday at the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs for an eight-week run featuring weekly “salons,” 5-6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, with gratis suds served by a guest bartender to those 21 and up.

“Beer with Friends” is a collaboration between the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College and the Downtown Partnership’s Art on the Streets public art program. Think of it “like a symphony,” with Marioni as the composer, the bartender as conductor and the drinkers as the musicians, said Marioni, a San Francisco-based conceptual artist who will be on hand to tell jokes and meet the players on opening night. Attendees also can buy a copy of his 2004 book, “Beer, Art, and Philosophy.”

A big part of appreciating a brewski, like appreciating art, comes from understanding the context, expectation and intent of its creation. Marioni’s work delivers that message in a user-friendly way, but what visitors see and experience depends on the role they chose to play, and — not least of all — the timing.

“When it’s open and they’re serving a beer, everyone’s a participant in it,” said Marioni, a native of “famous German beer town” Cincinnati, who first staged the beery event for friends at an Oakland, Calif., museum in 1970.

Non-Wednesday nights of the week, visitors get to see what a bar looks like in the prelude and aftermath of its cultural flashpoint moment.

“There are the basic elements — yellow lights to warm up the space, which is a signature of mine, and music, and a refrigerator and bar with a table and chairs and a shelf with ... bottles of Pacifico beer on it,” said Marioni. There’s also a vertical screen or monitor that shows a video of a beer filling up. It’s all part of the whole piece.”

Those early, raw stagings, with an invited audience in the 1970s, established the heartbeat of the exhibit, which later moved to Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art, as well as other locations around the country, and continues as an "artist club" at the creator's San Francisco studio. 

Almost five decades later, audiences remain thirsty.

“Beer is an aid to communication,” said Marioni, who was inspired, in part, by the rituals of Japanese tea ceremonies. “My work is about aesthetics like all art is... and when you see the piece you’ll see that it’s all very elegant and refined. Over the years it’s gotten more refined. I’ve been polishing it like it was a sculpture that’s unfinished."

Put a thing in a museum, and it instantly becomes art. That doesn’t mean it won’t have to answer for itself, and Marioni’s got his rejoinder all queued up.

“Once I was giving a talk, and a guy said ‘Hey, I drink with my friends every weekend. Is that art?’ I said, ‘No, that’s a copy of my art.’”


Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.

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