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
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).