Andy WAS a Dope

Well, Ralph Rugoff almost said it all about Andy Warhol in his brief article this week in the L.A. Weekly  (6/8/98) on the anniversary of Warhol's death (Warhol would have been seventy). It takes a true moron to be pronounced a genius by culture critics looking for an enigma to unravel where there is nothing much to find. To quote Rugoff, "When, in his book Exposures, Warhol described someone as fascinating 'because you absolutely couldn't tell if he was a genius or a retard,' he might well have been summing up his own aesthetic strategy."

But the academic/museum Warhol industry is such a juggernaut, and the market for Warhol's art is still so robust, that questioning it would be virtually unthinkable. In fact, the Warhol myth is perpetuated this weekend in an L.A. Times article (6/10/98) about the "popularity" of the Getty Center's new gigantic museum on a hill out here.  Comparing it to the Warhol Museum, which is "open to the outside world," unlike  traditional museum, the writer concludes that that openness is much like Warhol's "pop" art, which he got from "the street." But Warhol did not get his art from "the street"; he got it from advertising.   If what we mean by "popular culture" is advertising, we should say so. Warhol had very little interest in the lives of people around him.  He was interested in marketing, where he began his own career.  That some critics like Arthur Danto take Warhol's art as a historical watershed for the idea that art could now "be or be about anything" should not encourage us to think that Warhol himself had any intention himself of introducing such an idea.

If Warhol is the precedent for anything, it is for a certain kind of deadpan "postmodern irony" represented by the like of artist Jeff Koons, whose kitsch sculptures of whiskey descanters and Michael Jackson and pet chimp Bubbles and the like were all the rage of eighties New York yuppies with money to burn, since it seemed to poke fun at "elitist" art culture while indulging a "let them eat cake" or "boys with the most toys win" attitude.  Koons was yet another marketing "genius," parlaying the concept of art as marketing to new heights of art world success.  That the art world supported that career shows how little "pure" it really is.

But Rugoff is right that there is something "funny" about Warhol--in two senses of the word. Rugoff's sense that the fool makes us laugh because "no one could be that stupid." One's first response to Warhol's "autobiography" is precisely disbelief. Publishers could not possibly have wasted paper and money on such a cacophony of irrelevant banalities and drivel. It had to be what, in the sixties, we called a "put on."

But Warhol made such a complete career of being an airhead that his works looks "funny" in the other sense--strange and unsettling. Rugoff almost locates the source of this strangeness in Warhol's indifference. Consider Warhol's comment, "A person can cry or laugh. Always when you're crying you could be laughing, you have the choice." Normally, people do not laugh at tragedy. To do so would be to be completely dissociated from one's feelings and from any sense of the human reality around you--which is precisely what Warhol aimed at.

If aesthetics has to do with feeling (the very word comes from the Greek for "feeling"), Warhol's art has to be considered almost completely anesthetic. The whole point of a hundred Marilyn Monroe lips is that you no longer want to kiss them--or perhaps Warhol was just trying to "prove" that Marilyn was only a "painting" (in lipstick) anyway. The point of the car wreck silk-screens was to reduce car wrecks to a subject of disinterested delectation for the gawking voyeur.

The combination of lack of feeling and lack of thought should not surprise us. If nothing matters, it doesn't make much sense to think about it. Thus it is a little peculiar to find critics who believe that Warhol was a "critic" of the American "consumer" culture that, as the ultimate slacker, he simply indulged. Warhol simply didn't care enough one way or the other about such things to have a "critique" or "ideas." And since his work was successful without anyone insisting that he have any real ideas, where was his urgency to have them?

Which leads to the whole concept of artist as "genius" or "idiot savant" in the first place.  Once upon a time in Art Issues, David Greene made the "scandalous" remark that "artists are no more nor less intelligent than people in general."  That is true.  But often they may be less intelligent, if the myths of "artistic genius" and "mystery" of art gives them gives them an excuse to stop thinking and to be illiterate.  Warhol's notorious monosyllabic and hieroglyphic pronouncements simply fueled the myth of his "genius."

On the anniversary of Warhol's death we should be mourning not his passing but his life.  His detachment from other people and his repression of all passion are no "artistic attitude" to be emulated, but the disability of a pathetic character whose life was completely dysfunctional--except for his "success."


Peter Kosenko, unpublished (2001).


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