As the US economy raced forward in the late 50s, the political divide between left and right narrowed, and the liberal class was buried by private media monopolies with no taste for social revisionism. In this new consumer society there was a hunger in the elite for a culture that reflected the forces of commerce.
Abstract Expressionism was promoted abroad – not least by foundations funded by the CIA – as quintessentially American yet much of it retained strong European influences, most notably the shunning of mechanical processes. Pollock was, if nothing else, a man conversing with the past, with cubism and symbolism. Rothko and Newman were seeking a spiritual dimension in their colour fields.
Jasper John’s US flag and UK Richard Hamilton’s collages were clunky propositions towards the “idea” of Pop Art but their works were still material, painterly and descriptive. What the capitalist world needed was a propagandist fashionista entirely rooted in the present. What they found was an egotistical kleptomaniac gay Catholic illustrator from Pittsburgh called Andy Warhola.
Warhol had one big idea, not only to make his subject about consumer culture but to manufacture his art in the same manner and have the world believe it was all valuable.
Warhol spent an entire lifetime reproducing ad nauseum the flat TV and Magazine images of American manufacturing and celebrity culture.
His “studious” plasticity was promoted as intelligent irony and heavyweight critics like Robert Hughes – who thought Warhol one of the most stupid men he had ever met because he had nothing to say about his art – was buried beneath the media storm of adulation. Hughes remarked: “Warhol left this strange legacy that artists who came after him engaged obsessively in the production serial novelties.”
We have in a short time reached the nub of Warhol. One side believes he was the astute social commentator of his age, the other that he was a modern Pandora of banality, opening up an entire nightmare that has become the Post Modern high art bandwagon. Personally, I’m with Robert Hughes. I believe Warhol accelerated an already declining cultural map because he rigorously promoted:
- Vacuity as a symbol of genius
- The corporate bureaucratisation of opportunity.
- Brand novelty as High culture.
- The objectification and ridicule of historical virtues.
Warhol’s values, as outlined above, spurred two trends; one towards material grandiosity (size matters) and the other, repetitive archetypes. Unfortunately, it’s not only a few obscure art critics who back Warhol’s world view of culture but the entire capitalist edifice, the attendant courtiers in the media and speculative oligarchs, whose rash of private museums around the world demand a slice of his prodigious pie. If TV has become the new Coliseum or Cathedral for modern propaganda and money our new God , then Warhol is (and remains) our high priest. Warhol oversaw and completed the dark truth posed by Duchamp’s Urinal in 1917: “It’s art if I say it is” by declaring “making money is art……..and good business is the best art”.
It is ironic that in attempting to erase or trivialise history, Warhol (and present day artists influenced by him) merely illuminate their dark imprisonment to it; their empty forms no better than the propaganda art of dictatorial regimes. To look at an Elvis screen-print is to look back at the boasting Roman Statue of Augustus.
Here then we see Warhol’s attraction to all artists on the make, since it is capital and its gatekeepers rather than intellect or skill that drives the “Warhol” inspired artist. In today’s art world, flat materialism has become more important than the sensual soul. That is not to say Warhol was not a good and amusing commentator. His book From A to B and Back again is actually a very witty commentary on celebrity culture, and very quotable.
“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person,” is one of my favorite examples, along with: “Art is what you can get away with.”
To conclude; perhaps in watching the Catholic rituals of his upbringing, Warhol understood that the priest, despite his appearance as an individual, was but the mute disseminator of a dominant faith. Perhaps also, Warhol was in some perverse way, sublimating Capitalism for Catholicism, his blond wig for a vestment, experimental film for the flick of incense and money for God. Warhol’s silence was likewise that of the ancient monk, for what need intelligence and debate when an edict is accepted as self-evident?
Copyright Andy Price 2016