Andy Warhol

Ben Shahn is an icon of the working-class and revolutionary 1920s and 30s. Jackson Pollock emerges from this milieu, but becomes transformed by ex-Trotskyist art critics into a symbol of cold-war liberalism. The respective schools they spoke for--social realism and Abstract Expressionism--came to an end because the objective conditions that gave birth to them came to end. By the mid 1950s, nobody could paint murals in public spaces depicting a heroic, immigrant working-class for the simple reason that it had ceased to exist. By the same token, nobody could pretend that painting large monochromatic or drip-spattered canvases was pushing the artistic envelope, when you could find such canvases in corporate boardrooms across the country.

When Andy Warhol moved to NYC in 1958 after graduating from the Carnegie Art Institute (now part of Carnegie-Mellon) in Pittsburgh, he knew that Abstract Expressionism had no future. He wasn't quite sure what would take his place, so he kept his eyes open while pursuing a career as a commercial artist and window-dresser. His drawings for upscale clients such as Bonwit-Teller appeared in quarter-page ads in the NY Times and made him a lot of money. Interestingly enough, these works were heavily influenced by the "faux naif" style of Ben Shahn, giving them a whimsical, folk art quality. Some of his earliest gallery shows were inspired by these commercial works and helped to establish his reputation in the NY art scene.

His work as a window-dresser could be a topic for an entire article that compared the careers of L. Frank Baum and Warhol. Although Baum is best known as the author of "Wizard of Oz," he also started out as a window dresser, seeking out assignments with retailing magnates who shared his love for Madame Blavatsky's brand of spiritualism. Baum's Emerald City was meant to evoke department stores like Marshall Fields in Chicago, where consumerism, theosophy and a personal-improvement brand of Christianity were thrown together in a distinctly American goulash. Despite Warhol's cynical exterior, he had a strong affinity for new age spiritualism while climbing his way to the top of the art world. Billy Name, his chief assistant at the Factory--his famous studio--was a theosophy devotee who talked Warhol into the benefit of crystals, which he wore everywhere. Like Baum, Warhol believed in the magic of department stores and shopping. The big difference between the two is that Warhol did not believe in much of anything else, while Baum remained a booster of American capitalism in all its dimensions.

Perhaps Warhol would have become a Pop Artist without a background in commercial art, but it is safe to say that it must have accelerated his decision to take up this new style. He first became aware of it through the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who had both begun to appropriate bits and pieces of the everyday world in their paintings, such as advertising, grocery store merchandise or comic strips.

Pop Art was undoubtedly a reaction to the overweening pretensions of the Abstract Expressionist school, which had invested figures like Jackson Pollock with a saintliness hard to take seriously. While people like Clement Greenberg were busy deifying Pollock, De Kooning and Rothko, young Turks like Rauschenberg, Johns and Warhol understood that the art world was more about image and marketing than anything else. Since the ex-Trotskyists probably retained a smidgen of their 1930s radicalism, it must have been particularly galling to see high culture wedded to advertising in Pop Art. The liberal intelligentsia generally had no use for Madison Avenue, as evidenced by Arnold Toynbee's clarion call in 1961: "The destiny of Western civilization turns on the issue of our struggle with all that Madison Avenue stands for more than it turns on the issue of our struggle with Communism." Warhol could not disagree more with Toynbee and later declared that "Buying is much more American than thinking and I'm as American as they come."

(This is quoted on page 76 of David Bourdon's "Warhol," (Abrams, 1989), which provides most of the details for this article. I can not recommend this book highly enough. Not only is it scrupulously fair to Warhol, it is also beautifully written. As Warhol is an icon of the 60s and 70s, such a book can only succeed as social history. Everything you ever wanted to know and more about psychedelic dance parties, underground movies and Studio 54 is in there.)

Jackson Pollock had a skeleton in his closet. He had decided to make a quick buck and allowed Vogue Magazine to use several of his paintings as a backdrop in a March 1, 1951 article on the latest French fashions. Photographed by Cecil Beaton, the Richard Avedon of the time, the models look perfectly congruous against the drip paintings, seen from our contemporary vantage point. One of the drawbacks of Abstract Expressionism is that it lends itself to co-optation because of its stubborn refusal to represent anything social or political. One can not possibly imagine Vogue models being photographed in front of Picasso's Guernica.

Warhol saw no conflict between his day job and his fine art ambitions, and ended up exhibiting some of his comic strip paintings in the window of Bonwit-Teller in April 1961, where they served as a backdrop for mannequins in summer dresses. Furthermore, he had much more of an affinity for someone like Cecil Beaton than he ever would for Jackson Pollock. Beaton, along with Truman Capote and Jean Cocteau, were early role models for Warhol. Bourdon notes that "All three were dandies in an age of mass culture. They were also diligent snobs, social climbers, and self-promoters with a shrewd sense of just how far to parade their affectations. As aesthetes for whom style was nearly all, they deliberately set out to amuse, innovate, and provoke, and they succeeded in appearing outrageous while simultaneously finding acceptance among the most conservative elements of society." Before long, Warhol would meet Beaton and the two formed a life-long friendship.

The clash between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art was not just about style. There is little doubt that there is a strong element of machismo among Pollock and his cohorts, which not only excluded gays but women as well. Many commentators have noted how Pollock's wife, the artist Lee Krasner, subordinated her own career during their troubled marriage. Pop Art, with its strong "camp" sensibility, moved in the opposite direction.

Warhol's decision to paint Campbell soup cans in 1962 was typically a marketing decision. He polled his friends and asked them how to avoid conflicts with Roy Lichtenstein who had an opening scheduled at the Castelli Gallery that year. Soup cans were not part of Lichtenstein's show and so Warhol plunged forward. The reaction was explosive. It seemed to strike a nerve in the mass media. When pressed to explain why he chose to paint such a mundane subject, Warhol said, "I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about. I'm working on soups, and I've been doing some paintings of money. I just do it because I like it." Marxist critics in Europe interpreted Warhol as some kind of caustic satirist, but this interpretation goes too far. Warhol withheld from commenting on anything, since this was not his intention. Probably the best way to understand him is as a barometer of society's drift, rather than some kind of conscious critic.

That being said, his work certainly operates at a deeper level to subvert mainstream capitalist values, while embracing them on the surface. Warhol accepted art as a commodity and broke the unspoken rules that defined the artist as a saint rather than a small-scale industrialist. From a Marxist standpoint it could be said that Warhol's main interest in art was to create exchange value rather than use value. When you openly make this your aim, you remove the halo from art. Bourdon comments:

"Warhol's subjects, however, like those of Jasper Johns, were not chosen entirely for their flatness. Many of his replications, including the postage and trading stamps and dollar bills, are based on printed paper with a specific financial value, and offer evidence of Warhol's persistent wish to achieve a sort of artistic alchemy, transforming ordinary paint into actual cash. Warhol loved few things better than to barter his art for objects that had more value, at least in his eyes. He earnestly yearned for the power to transmute virtually everything he touched into something of greater financial worth."

Marx stated in the Communist Manifesto that, "The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers." Warhol would seem to be operating under this principle, with one important difference. He was no wage laborer, but a new sort of industrialist. Instead of setting up assembly lines to turn out automobiles, he set up a Factory which churned out huge quantities of paintings using a highly mechanized process based on rubber stamps, silkscreens and other mass production techniques.

Warhol set up his first Factory in 1963 and this studio became a hang out for all sorts of artists, bohemians, street people and drug addicts who would form the casts of most of his experimental movies of the 1960s and 70s. Despite the constant party atmosphere, Warhol never stopped working for a minute. Unlike the soul-sick Jackson Pollock, Warhol never worried about where his next inspiration would come from. It would turn up in the grocery store tabloids or on evening television.

The most interesting thing about Warhol is that while casting himself as a happy consumer and producer of commodities, he was about as alienated from American society as any of the more outspokenly bohemian figures of the period, such as Allen Ginsberg. This came through most clearly in his films, which defiantly presented transvestites, street hustlers, and dope addicts as normal. As Warhol holds out one hand to embrace corporate America with his Brillo soapboxes, Campbell soup cans or green stamp paintings, with the other he is slapping it in the face with one outrageous movie after another. Every once in a while, Warhol reminded polite society which side of the tracks he lived on, as Bourdon recounts:

"Warhol and the Velvet Underground made a sensational joint appearance at an annual black-tie banquet of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry at Delmonico's Hotel on Park Avenue in mid-January. Andy had been invited to speak to the group, but as he always refused to lecture, he decided to entertain the group with two of his movies, 'Harlot' and 'Henry Geldzahler,' and the Velvets' music. The several hundred psychiatrists and their spouses evidently were unprepared for the audiovisual assault. Soon after the main course was served, they were startled almost out of their chairs by fiercely amplified rock music, which drowned out conversations. Nico, making what may have been her New York singing debut, groaned incoherently into the microphone. On stage, Malanga threw himself into his strenuous whip dance, while Edie Sedgwick launched into leggy gyrations. Filmmaker Barbara Rubin, accompanied by Jonas Mekas and a crew carrying portable photofloods, roamed among the tables, aggressively closing in on certain headshrinkers and asking them embarrassing questions about their sexual practices. The interviewees were intimidated by her cinéma-vérité style, and many abandoned their roast beef and red wine to leave in a huff. The next day's Herald Tribune ran a story headlined 'Psychiatrists Flee Warhol,' spreading the notion that the artist's perversity was uncontainable, terrifying even professionals in the field."

Warhol's peculiar brand of subversion was certainly as much a part of the 60s rebellion as the antiwar demonstrations, black, and feminist movements. While street demonstrations undermined the authority of American capitalism through attacks on its political institutions, Warhol was busily at work destroying the cultural sacred cows that liberal anti-Communists like Clement Greenberg or Hilton Kramer had taken so much trouble to set up. The Pop Artists had collectively drawn a moustache across the face of American culture and there was no way that its reputation could be restored.

Although some kind of case may be made that Warhol made open homosexuality acceptable, there is scant evidence that the gay movement regarded him as a kindred spirit. His campiness simply did not meld with the militancy of the period. Meanwhile, the rest of the radical movement was openly hostile. Amiri Baraka told a NYC audience in 1968 that, "We do not want [our children] to grow up to be Marlon Brando. We do not want them to paint Campbell's Soup Cans. We do not want them to think that somehow the celebration of homosexuality is aesthetic and profound." Despite Baraka's attempt to cast Warhol as an establishment figure, there is plenty of evidence that the FBI was as hostile to Warhol as it was to the rest of the left. Agents sat at the premiere of "Lonesome Cowboys" in 1970 and took notes furiously:

"Many of the cast portrayed their parts as if in a stupor from marijuana, drugs or alcohol... The movie opened with the woman and her male nurse on a street in the town. Five or six cowboys then entered the town and there was evidence of hostility between the two groups. One of the cowboys practiced his ballet and a conversation ensued regarding the misuse of mascara by one of the other cowboys... Later in the movie the cowboys went out to the ranch owned by the woman. On their arrival, they took her from her horse, removed her clothes and sexually assaulted her. During this time her private parts were exposed to the audience... .The position of the male and female suggested an act of cunnilingus; however, the act was not portrayed in full view of the camera."

After Valerie Solanas shot Warhol, he became much more fearful and would not allow street people into the Factory. He began spending more and more time with the idle rich and Eurotrash. By the 1980s, he had become a respectable and wealthy figure and there was little of the rebelliousness that had marked his earlier career.

He should be remembered for this earlier period, since he performed a role that is essential to breaking with capitalist "civilization". Warhol essentially took a stick of dynamite to the cultural pretensions of the ruling class, which had employed artists to flatter it since the rise of the Flemish mercantile class in the 16th century. Warhol's message is that the artist is no different than the plumber, carpenter, landscaper or any other contractor who is brought in to erect a new house. The notion that a painting should be seen as some sort of transcendental affirmation of man's humanity, or a voyage into the unconscious, or a thousand other cliches handed down from the romantic era to the late modernist era, is simply ridiculous. Paintings are about money and you might as well paint a dollar bill as anything else.

One of the reasons that Warhol could reach this sort of radical conclusion (and it is radical) is that the artist has a much different relationship to the bourgeoisie than any other sort of practitioner. A novelist, poet, composer or dancer can entertain illusions about his "purity" since there is a possibility that the masses will accept him, despite the exigencies of the marketplace. Such illusions are more difficult to maintain in the art world, especially today.

Artists do not paint for the public. They paint for wealthy consumers, whose tastes are nearly impossible to predict. To gain access to these consumers, it is necessary to deal with the gallery owners, who are as about as grubby a lot you will find outside the world of real estate and finance. In fact many of these characters have emerged from these sectors. So you are dealing with a consumer who looks at your work as an investment by and large, through middle-men who are a glorified bunch of thieves. In order to meet their expectations, you have to address the existing marketplace. You can spend six months painting what is in your heart, but if it is not marketable, you will starve. Warhol accepted this world on its own terms and created art that mirrored its own empty, pecuniary concerns.

In my next post, I will examine Trotsky's writings on art and revolution. As the most classical of classical Marxists, Trotsky always tended to view the conquests of the bourgeois revolution favorably, whether reflected in indoor plumbing or Beethoven piano sonatas. I believe it is worth reconsidering this attitude since the evidence is all around us that capitalism on the eve of the millenium is opening up the gates of hell, rather than raising us to higher levels of civilization. If our lot is war, economic ruin and ecological despoliation, why should we expect anything of lasting value coming from another bourgeois institution: fine art.