Art Essays

Andy Warhol

Published March 1, 2005

What happens when art history has run its course? What happens when every last innovation has been tried and tried again? One answer is that the business of art becomes the art of business. This distinction was pioneered by Andy Warhol (1928-1987), who was talking about “business art” in the 1970s – a decade in which the avant-garde were immersed in the dry and self-mortifying rituals of Conceptual Art. In a Eureka moment, self-consciously ‘progressive’ artists had realized that works of art were luxury commodities, bought and sold by wealthy collectors and institutions, fuelled by the engines of capitalism. Their solution was to make works that could not be so easily collected or displayed – ephemeral actions, reams of text, printed instructions, and so on. The art was the idea itself, not its realization.
Warhol, on the other hand, was completely unperturbed by the spectacle of capitalism regnant. He was happy to make a huge number of works by the quasi-industrial process of silk-screen printing, and sell them to eager customers. He felt no anxiety about the capitalist system that sent other artists into paroxysms of shame and hypocrisy. Capitalism was simply a fact of life. He liked the useful and useless objects it created and the lifestyle it provided. He liked making money and spending money. In contrast to the fierce political passions that swirled around him, Warhol was a moral void – a value-free zone. He was, as the Beatles sang, a real Nowhere Man, and more than a bit like you and me.
Thirty years later, political attitudes and art attitudes have metamorphosed beyond all recognition, but Andy Warhol’s reputation has grown faster than the price of Sydney real estate. It helps, of course, that the artist himself is no longer around: the art world loves to canonize those heroes who can no longer do anything to contradict the flow of hyperbole sent forth by critics and curators. Along with St. Andy Warhol, there is St. Joseph Beuys, and many lesser luminaries. Death may be the end of the artist’s signature productivity, but it opens the way for the paradise of interpretation. There have been many writers willing to cite Warhol as a great religious artist, largely on the strength of his Catholicism and the fact that towards the end of his life he was knocking off a series of fluro-coloured versions of Leonardo’s Last Supper. (Had he been alive today, he would surely have found a way to cash in on the craze for the Da Vinci Code.)
Perhaps the most notorious claim of all, was that made by the American critic and philosopher, Arthur C.Danto, who once wrote that Warhol was the nearest thing to a “philosophical genius” in twentieth century art. This insight was based on a series of Brillo Boxes the artist exhibited in 1964 at the Stable Gallery in New York. By producing a series of identical, screen-printed boxes that duplicated the packaging of a well-known brand of scourer pad, Warhol had apparently exploded the sacred aura that surrounds the singular and original art object. For Danto the entire history of art had been derailed by a Brillo box: in one gesture, Warhol had caused a philosophical paradigm-shift in our aesthetic understanding.
This is, perhaps, the sort of large call a philosopher might make. There are other artists, notably Marcel Duchamp, who have just as much claim to being the twentieth century’s chief destroyer of traditional attitudes towards art. It says a lot about our own attitudes that we find these acts so worthy of admiration.
So completely did Warhol embrace consumer society that he became a kind of totalitarian mirror for its banalities. He famously said: “I want to be a machine”, and speculated how much better it would be if we were all alike. Art was “what you can get away with.” Art museums and department stores were “kind of the same thing.” He related how he would look into the mirror, expecting not to see his own reflection. One acquaintance described him as “the Nothingness himself”.
His work drew upon the ideals of mass-production and standardization that Henry Ford had enshrined as America’s great contribution to the world economy. Whether he was producing identical rows of Campbell’s Soup tins, repeated images of the electric chair or car accidents, or serial portraits of celebrities such as Marilyn, Elvis, Chairman Mao or Liz Taylor, the idea of production was uppermost. With minor variations, the same image could be reproduced in many slightly different formats, and sold again and again. When the possibilities of editioned silk-screen printing were exhausted, the same images could be run off as low cost posters and sold to the masses. His workshop was called The Factory, and there was no poetic license involved.
Warhol was quite straightforward in his motivations – he made art to make money. Why Marilyn? Why Mao? He liked the way they looked. Liking was a big part of his philosophy of life. In defining Pop Art, the movement with which he is synonymous, Warhol said: “Pop is liking things”.
Pop was also about emptying things of meaning: as a mass-produced image Mao Zedong and Marilyn Monroe become equivalents. It makes no difference that one was probably responsible for more deaths than anyone in recorded history, and the other a tragic starlet. Warhol was non-political and non-judgemental. What mattered to him was that both these figures were celebrities. He saw the condition of celebrity as a Nirvana to which everyone aspired: image was everything, content nothing. On the cover of Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair, or Warhol’s own Interview magazine, which began appearing in the 1970s, everyone looked glamorous. If Interview had any special distinction, it came from being more sycophantic, more in thrall to its celebrity interviewees, than any of its immediate competitors. Pop, remember, is liking things, and the film-stars and socialites that graced the magazine’s pages were hardly better than things: objectified luxury goods, as vacuous and shiny as the fixtures in some glossy rag devoted to designer bathrooms or kitchens.
Warhol’s major contribution to Interview was to supply his name to the masthead. It was the same contribution he made to so much of the art churned out by the Factory, and attributed to him. Warhol was the CEO of a firm who used his own image to sell an impersonal product – rather like Richard Branson from Virgin, or Aussie John, the home loans man. He was also a walking, talking designer label. Wealthy clients bought “a Warhol” for their walls, as they would buy an “Armani” or a “Versace” for their backs. There was probably as much chance that Andy pulled your screen print, as that Giorgio or Gianni had hand-stitched the seams of your frock.
With the seemingly endless supply of society portraits Warhol produced in the 1980s, his method was to snap a handful of polaroids, choose the most flattering one, and hand it over to his minions to produce a silkscreen print – or a series of prints – in suitably lurid colours. This perfunctory but lucrative process led otherwise rational critics, such as Robert Rosenblum, to compare Warhol’s work to the traditions of society portraiture that one associates with painters such as John Singer Sargent. Rosenblum could even discern “psychological insights” in these day-glo, detail-free poster prints – which is rather like finding pathos in a fridge magnet, or hearing the music of the spheres in the jingle for a used car yard.
This was typical of the reactions Warhol’s work inspired, and continues to inspire. He would make some banal art-product, or coin a banal aphorism. It was left to others to supply the deeper meanings, to list the profound and subversive aspects of Warhol’s art, to celebrate his wisdom and to chart his far-reaching influence on our times. “Who would have known of it until he showed us the moral sublimity of canned soup?” writes the egregious Arthur C.Danto, who deserves some sort of award for his services to Warholian hagiography. “Who would have acknowledged the domestic power of Brillo, that emblem of cleanliness and brightness, a metaphor for what one wants the world to be like, with shining kitchens and television sets in front of which the world’s children, warm and safe, sing the songs of innocence?”
Warhol was a ‘philosophic genius’ whose conversation consisted almost entirely of banalities, and expressions like “Gee”. He wore a trademark silver wig for more than thirty years, and dressed in basic black. He went out of his way to cultivate a completely blank persona, onto which others could inscribe a Rococo bouquet of admiring clichés. Robert Hughes was not the only commentator to remark on Warhol’s resemblance to Chauncey Gardiner, the Peter Sellers character in the movie, Being There – a simpleton whose very blankness allows others to see him as a sage. Like Chauncey, Warhol could say, “I like to watch”, meaning not simply “I like to watch TV”, but suggesting a prurient distance from the life around him.
Unlike Chauncey, there was a sordid edge to Warhol’s sexless and blank persona. Warhol lived out his dark fantasies via his Factory menials, his so-called “superstars”, who wallowed in a swamp of sex and drugs and self-indulgence, until they overdosed or burnt themselves out. He would ask casual acquaintances to drop their pants so he could add to his epic series of polaroids of male arseholes. At the time of his death, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of specimens in his collection. One wonders whether the world’s children would have been all that warm and safe with Andy as their baby-sitter.
Valerie Solanas, who shot Warhol in 1968, was a crazed alumni of the Factory, who came to believe that the artist was exerting a malign control over her life. Her solution was extreme, but the diagnosis was plausible. His shooting and recovery only seemed to exacerbate Warhol’s insular and calculating tendencies. Many of those who knew him recall the artist as an unpleasant, manipulative character who got his kicks from pulling other people’s strings. At the time of a Warhol retrospective in Los Angeles in 2002, one former associate, Bruce Conner, told the press that the artist was “a pathetic creature and a jerk.” It was left to ex-Factory groupies still trying to cash in on their brush with fame; and critics such as Danto, who met Warhol on only one occasion, to be the chief glorifiers of his reputation.
Danto tells how he met his idol at an opening at a Soho gallery in 1981. “I congratulated him and we shook hands,” he recalls, “and he signed one of the invitations for my then new wife. I never introduced myself or explained why I thought him a great artist. We lived in worlds which really only touched at the margins.”
This is uncomfortably close to the recollections of a fan, snatching an autograph from some sportsman or pop star. The condition of fandom, with or without a Phd in philosophy, is one of uncritical admiration. It entails an implicit belief in the “genius” of the object of one’s adoration. “Genius” is hardly a term that invites measured evaluation of an artist’s achievements, but it is the word that Danto and his peers use with extraordinary frequency to valorise Warhol’s every little career move.
Warhol’s most famous bon mot, was undoubtedly the quip: “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” His most singular achievement was to extend his own fifteen minutes into immortality. On the way, he allowed thousands of non-entities to savour a feeling of reflected glory, merely by inhabiting the same room as him, or exchanging a few words. Regardless of whatever grain of subversive power one may attribute to Warhol’s iconic pictures of Marilyn, Mao, Jackie Kennedy or Liz Taylor, or the stark, brutal power of his Electric Chair series, the bulk of his career was spent in a relentless pursuit of money and fame. Or as Robert Hughes put it: “he went after publicity with the voracious singlemindedness of a feeding bluefish.”
At a certain point, Warhol had achieved the celebrity version of the condition of Grace, in which one is famous for being famous. Having reached this exalted plane, one may do no wrong in the eyes of the world. Do a dumb-ass version of The Last Supper and be called a great Catholic artist; run off a dozen silk-screen snapshots of some pop-tart or tycoon, and be acclaimed as a portraitist of deep psychological insight.
The ultimate accolade – and confirmation of Warhol’s stature – came with the opening of the Andy Warhol Museum in his old home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1997. The museum, which is to Warhol what the Pyramids were to the Pharaohs, is now the city’s leading tourist attraction. Spread over six floors, it contains more than 3,000 works by Warhol and a voluminous collection of archives. These include his films, his cookie jars, and some 6,000 hours of tape-recorded conversations. He referred to his tape recorder as his “wife”, and was in the habit of recording everything, like a trainee blackmailer. He also shot many thousands of polaroids, which have been preserved and catalogued by the Museum. Then there are the 600 cardboard boxes that Warhol called his Time Capsules. An obsessive-compulsive collector, Warhol would regularly clear his desk by dumping everything into a cardboard box, which was then sealed and dated.
The contents of each box are unpredictable: a batch of early drawings, an unpaid electricity bill, a pair of Clark Gable’s shoes, a mummified hand bought at a flea market, an uncashed cheque, Lou Reed’s hand-scrawled lyrics for a Velvet Underground song, and so on. A selection of these ‘works’ will be shown at the National Gallery of Victoria, as part of a world tour organized by the Andy Warhol Museum. It is being billed as a celebration of Warhol the collector, but it is really the museum equivalent of a celebrity gossip piece in a popular magazine. It is like taking a peek into a famous figure’s private realm. It is as if Nicole Kidman or Russell Crowe declared an open day, when members of the public could come and peer into their wardrobes and kitchen cupboards. It is a celebration of voyeurism, conducted with the earthly relics of St. Andy Warhol, the patron saint of voyeurs.
It may seem that the Time Capsules have little to do with art, but it could be argued that contemporary art, post-Warhol, has little to do with art. It remains an open question as to whether Warhol was a prime mover or merely a symptom of this unstoppable process. Either way, he is the posthumous beneficiary of a vast industry dedicated to the elimination of the already-tenuous barrier between art and life. Many critics see this as the historical mission of the avant-garde: to have art wither away into the stream of life. The historical result has been precisely the opposite: the detritus of everyday life has been raised to the highest echelons of art. Andy Warhol’s cookie jars and the accumulated junk on his desk, Tracy Emin’s unmade bed, old batteries and street sweepings collected by Joseph Beuys – the list of contemporary art fetishes is beyond computation.
By the action of a great metaphysical see-saw, as junk is raised to the status of high art by leading institutions, accepted forms of high art are systemically degraded. When the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, defaced an edition of Goya’s etchings, The Disasters of War, by drawing clowns’ faces on the figures, their vandalized edition was soon worth more than the original. Collectors began bringing their own editions of The Disasters of War to the Chapmans, so they could be similarly defaced – and revalued.
As ever-greater sums are invested in trivial, anaesthetic art, the artist’s status as a celebrity has become a matter of crucial importance. This is partly an inheritance of the old idea of the artist as a Romantic hero who challenges the Creator at his own game, but it would be more realistic to see it as an effect of the way art has become a media spectacle, with its leading lights, its stage villains and court jesters. This is nowhere more obvious than in Britain, where the advertising man, Charles Saatchi, has played the role of all-powerful magus, creating artistic reputations from thin air, and returning them to dust on a whim, all through the power of money. His ultimate creations are figures such as Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, who are now seen as Warhol-like celebrities whose every move is greeted with reverence and awe or scandal – two sides of the same coin.
Reading through the past few months’ headline articles in the Art Newspaper, one learns that the shark in formaldehyde that Saatchi commissioned from Hirst for £50,000 in 1993, has recently been sold to an American bond broker for more than US$ 12 million. At the same time, an Italian millionaire has bought a deconsecrated church, in which he plans a permanent installation of Hirst’s photographs called, The Stations of the Cross. The latest news is that the Korean department store millionaire, Mr C.I.Kim, has bought Hirst’s sculpture Charity, for US$2.8 million. The work is no more than a 22-foot high version of a charity box, in the form of a cute little girl with callipers on one leg, made by a factory to the artist’s specifications.
The common factor in these, and many other contemporary purchases, is not the quality of the work itself, but the name and reputation of the artist. The buyers are not after a precious object, so much as a priceless publicity stunt. The more unlikely the work, the more outrageous the price, the greater the cachet that devolves onto the daring purchaser. It is the principle of the designer label applied to the museum world, in a way that Andy Warhol anticipated so precisely. It may or may not match one’s cherished ideas about art, but it fits very well into the world of contemporary commerce and show business. It creates a luxury product for an ever-increasing number of outlets – the museums of contemporary art, the Kunsthalles and art institutes that have spread like cultural fungus over all the leading cities of the world. The power lies not in the artwork, but in its media repercussions, the waves of scandal and bewilderment that spread out from a pool into which a gigantic sum of cash has just been dropped.
It is axiomatic that, in terms of dollars and cents, a work is only worth whatever someone will pay for it. It is equally obvious that monetary value is no guarantee of aesthetic value – but in the post-Warholian universe, this is of no relevance whatsoever. The market, as financier George Soros reminds us, is amoral, so when the world of art is turned upside-down by the weight of commerce, one has a clear view of the New World of contemporary art – a level plane, devoid of values, upon which the aesthetes of high finance are building monuments to their chosen deities. On the highest altar of the holiest temple sits a mummified figure in a silver wig and a black polo neck. As he looks out over that vast expanse, and studies his undying legacy to civilization, one might imagine that his lips move ever so slightly, and say “Gee.”
Published for The Sunday Age, March 2005
Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, National Gallery of Victoria. Until 24 March