Thursday, September 21, 2006

Warhol: Art as Fame

September 21

The first segment of a two-part show about Andy Warhol on PBS last night revealed his beginnings, his genius, and some aspects of his life, which itself was a component of his art. Subject matter to the contrary, Warhol was a top-tier artist of his generation, one who changed the way the world (and the U.S. in particular) sees itself.

His career began as a commercial illustrator in New York City in the 1950's, and he was one of the best. He worked for magazines, ad agencies, and industrial products for the home such as wallpaper. He had a strong interest in printing techniques and a deft way of minimalist design. He was in great demand as a graphic artist, but he wanted to be taken seriously in the world of fine art. When the most accepted practitioners of fine art of his day refused him "admission to their club," that is, when they avoided him and seemed to dismiss him as a commercial talent only, he persisted. At one point he had a huge crush on Truman Capote, whose flattering, effeminate pictures adorned his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms,, but even the flamboyant Capote wouldn't take him seriously.

The post WWII art world was embracing Abstract Impressionism. It seemed the be-all-and-end all of what Art was all about. There was Norman Rockwell on one hand, illustrating an America to come home to, and Jackson Pollack dripping paint onto canvasses in an emotional effort to carve out meaning in rebellion and rule-bending. In between the extremes, new work was being seen, not quite abstract, but not quite realistic either. The subject matter was not the point. These artists approached the task of helping a new America define itself in a different way. They drew inspiration from ordinary objects, from comic strips, from the everyday life of the new, affluent, consuming public. Someone said to Andy Warhol, "Paint what you love! You love money, paint pictures of money. Paint something that people look at every day, like a can of soup."

According to the Ric Burns documentary, those words were his inspiration. Realizing that Campbell Soup had 32 varieties, he set out painting individual portraits of each of them, to be displayed as a whole. The gallery owner who bought the cans filled his gallery with them and was amazed by the profundity of being surrounded by the work day by day. He bought the exhibit from Warhol for $1,000 with the promise that he would never let it be broken up and that he would ultimately sell it to a major museum, to be displayed as one piece.

Warhol apparently did love Campbell's Soup. He ate it with a sandwich every day of his life. He loved American icons, particularly movie stars, and he loved celebrity itself. His work held a mirror up to American life after the war. His work said, "We are not Norman Rockwell's country any more. We are in the hands of the mass marketers and we might as well like it."

Warhol himself actually said, "What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."

He was expert at technical execution, and spent a great deal of his life working out new approaches, such as applying color to a canvas and then silk-screening a black and white photo image over it. This resulted in the canvases of of repeated images that look distinct one from the other -- the color is in one place on one, different on the next one, causing the impression of a piece of movie film that might have been discarded, tampered with, just as the beautiful subject of the photo was. Reality and art blurred as one statement is made by the artist.

Warhol may have invented the celebrity culture we now live in. His fascination with fame was all-consuming. Always painfully self-conscious about his looks, he had plastic surgery, wore obvious wigs, and could not bear to be touched. But he needed to be a star, and he became one. His work and his life changed the very atmosphere of the world.

He invented the phrase that I hear probably every day of my life: In the future, everybody in the world will be alloted fifteen minutes of fame. It's used so often it's now just thrown out as, "Well, he's had his 15 minutes." Some people think he designed the label for Campbell Soup. He may as well have. I never open one of those cans without thinking of him.


John Sweden said...

"I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing, and the soup can was it. (Andy Warhol)"

Finding Fair Hope said...

A quotable quote, John; but we all know how maddening it is to an artist to be asked what his picture is "supposed to be." Warhol, like Dali, learned to be ready to say something whether you meant it or not, so as to get your name in the papers. That is not to say that he didn't think Campbell Soup was the essence of nothing, it's just to say that he was good with a turn of phrase. Like Dali, you are never sure when Warhol is putting you on. And it doesn't matter.

Hurdit Herfurst said...

"I know,we'll do a show about nothing!"
George Costanza

John Sweden said...

Let's hear it for hurdit herfurst. At least somebody out there is thinking and cleverly too.

ff: Why demean the observation as some sort of clever but meaningless Dorothy Parker witticism. It is not a turn of phrase or some sort of wise guy answer of an Artist who finds it “maddening” to explain his work. It is a direct and honest statement. What does drive artists mad, are people who continually look for more of the artist than what is there, and refuse to accept their statements about the origins or non-origins of their work as simple truths.

“Why do people think artists are special? It's just another job.” Andy Warhol

Nothingness is the essence and soul of his entire body of work. All the works have a point of negating uniqueness for sameness or nothingness that is the core of a factory made consumerist society. He pointed this out consistently throughout his public statements, even in your “coca cola” quote. People just don’t want to accept it as it violates their overly romantic and blatantly false images of art and artists.

The "Soup Cans" and many of other works such as, "The Empire State Building" are the equivalents of Reinhardt's "Blacks Squares". That was the point of painting all the varieties of Campbell’s Soup and viewing them all as total singular piece. No one soup was preferred over another negating the uniqueness of any one painting. You’re argument might hold some validity if he just painted one can. But he didn’t.

“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it.” Andy Warhol

If an artist does reveal something about his work and his process take it to be true. But then again why would you accept that as you can’t accept that Shakespeare is actually Shakespeare.

Finding Fair Hope said...

To me one of the most interesting thing -- and that's saying a great deal, because everything about him is VERY interesting -- was Warhol's talent in creating a life. I didn't mean to say that he was just throwing out a quip. "The essence of nothing" is a profound way to look at art, whether one's own or someone else's. Warhol said that kind of thing all the time, and I meant to say that that is no reason to take his work lightly.

Your information on art is very helpful here. I'm just one of those who goes to galleries and looks at the pictures. I've seen a lot but I don't have the work/life experience or the trained eye that you have. I'm glad to have someone tell me when I've missed the mark. But I'm not ready to get into the Shakespeare-Edward de Vere fight at this point, especially when you're about to leave off posting for a 12-day trip to Italy. (De Vere spent some time in Venice and in Sienna, by the way, and that guy from Stratford never left England.)

John Sweden said...

I see you havn't read Southworth's book yet. But hey there's 12 more days.

Benedict S. said...

Following the first of the great wars the art world began to take Nietzsche's "God is dead" quip seriously. The Dada movement in the fine arts, the bauhaus in architecture, and perhaps even Schoenburg's atonal music expressed the "final" realization -- to use O. B. Hardison's words -- that any transcendent belief in human worth had "disappeared through the skylight." We were left with "sound and fury," nothingness personified. The idea that art was about a deeply meaningful something died in the trenches at Verdun.

Warhol, in my opinion, used his art to say the same thing. Art, he seems to have said, was never about anything as real as these soup cans. The Muses? Figments of the imagination. Aesthetics? Caused by the same sorts of hormones that make a hot bowl of soup taste good. "God" is a mere word and nothing is or ever was "sacred."

But I wonder.

At about the same time the bodies were being piled high in France, a then little known priest who doubled as a scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, began his life-long sermon. Where the Dadas saw "nothing" he saw -- we might call it -- duende, life reflecting on life's apparent lack of meaning and laughing aloud. Sure, if you thought humankind was the "creator's pet" you were always wrong, but if you think it is nothing to be aware of even that, then you are doubly mistaken. It may be so that at some imagined level of the Godhead it all signifies nothing, but can it be meaningless that we, of all things, seem to be able to say such things?

A new breed of artists may have emerged out of the soup. I personally believe that Jackson Pollack was, perhaps unwittingly, one of them. It may be so that humanity is only skin deep, as Warhol suggested, but what a skin! It may be so that the themes of classical art were grounded in superstition and make-believe, but -- I think I mentioned this before, right here -- when you first round the corner at the Metropolitan and come face to face with Pollack's Opus One, and are knocked over by the sight of that "meaningless" work, it's hard to deny that art touches something more meaningful than "bread alone." And even if the words we use to describe that "more than bread" have grown out of "nothing but" molecules of emotion, even if they are mere sounds, the joy they evoke is of a different sort than the joy we get from merely surviving. And, yes, that brand of joy may be produced by the same adrenal system that "loves" hot soup, and we may obtain a pallid sort of satisfaction from knowing that a Coke is a Coke is a Coke, but -- to paraphrase Magritte -- "this is not a Coke." This is a Coke, the something mysterious that layers itself on to the experience when we reflect on what it means that we reflect. Shakespeare's Macbeth may contain lines claiming that all of life signifies nothing, but we are still moved by the very same Macbeth and cannot deny that the emotions it invokes in us are real in a different way than are the emotions we experience from a bowl of soup.

Of course, all emotions have in common that they emerge in a living thing, and that they can be explained (summarily) by chemical analysis. And it may be the case that we have hypostatized the aesthetic to an undeserved level, but when we finally grasp the lesson Nietzsche was trying to teach us, we finally see that, God being dead, we are the source of the sublime. And to believe that the word "sacred" has no meaning simply because it was we and not God who gave it the meaning it has, is to beg the question. The effect of the sacred on the human spirit does not "disappear through the skylight" just because we were mistaken about its cause. The sacred remains sacred. We just have to begin the long slow process of realizing that, all along, we were its creators.

If Warhol is to be regarded as an important artist, perhaps it will be in the contrarian sense. He showed us what art might be if there truly is nothing sacred. And from his "sermon" we might learn to appreciate more why it is that Verdun seems so horrible ... and the Sistine Chapel so magnificent.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Maybe he was saying Campbell soup is sacred in American life. Maybe he was saying that the essence of American life is the soup can. Maybe he was saying that uniqueness doesn't exist and that contemporary life in the U.S. is life in a factory. Maybe he would be amused that there are people still thrashing this out. Maybe that's why he is still taken very seriously by those who think like artists. Because there are so many interpretations, many of them valid, there is no question that he was among the greats.

Benedict S. said...

Miss FF: Yes, as a social crtic he was saying exactly that. His contrarian role as a trend-setter in the art world may ave been similar, that art had degenerated into a consummerist product. But that's not the point I tried to make, obviously failing. That's not the bottom line of what art and humanity ought to be and is. We are better than we are showing. In our defense, the reaction to the great war is a possible explanation for why we fell. There are no doubt other factors, but WW I seems to have been the "tipping point."

hurdit herfurst said...

Benedicto,do all these things really need to be so over-analyzed? Uggh, so many words. Points and counter-points, I'm smarter than you! Can't Warhol just have a little fun? Can't he just take a Soup Can , turn it into art and become a big deal without everybody trying to attach all of this ego-inflating meaning to it? Maybe Warhol was just busting our stones, maybe he just wanted to show us how gullible we are? Maybe like Ashton Kutcher, he was punking the whole damned country.
At any rate, if he was really as cool as he looked to be he'd either laugh at your silly analysis or tell ya to shud'up!

Finding Fair Hope said...

Somebody asked Count Basie to explain his music, and he just smiled and said, "Just pat your foot."

Robin said...

Since everyone here is quoting Andy Warhol and personally I never liked his art but here's my favorite quote from him :''Fantasy love is much
better than reality love. Never doing it is very exciting. The most
exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet.'' From his book:''The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Benedict S. said...

Robin: In the same vein, Oscar Wilde said there's no pleasure quite so great as wanting a cigarette.

Hurd Who's Ashton Kutcher?

worehole said...

I saw the show on PBS too. Art, what's the big deal? Convince others that you have art, and it becomes "art" because they will make it happen. Pedantic activity that turns a profit often becomes art that way. The joy in the pedant is actually the art, especially when he is paid. Reasons why some "art" becomes fill the spectrum of rationale and irrationality. An art form may develop from the lack of skill in an existing form which may be viewed, by mistake, as genius within the form. The basis for "art" is money. A piece, regardless of form is merely an iotia, an action of the maker, until money is involved. The collecting of "art" is based in the human ideas of prestige and being top dog. Money buys that for a collector.

Finding Fair Hope said...

You'll have to run that one by me again, Mr.'re more confusing than Mr. Warhol!

Hairy McQuery said...

Seems to me the title could just as easily have been "Warhol: Fame as Art". And here's a poser for you. Would it have been the same degree of "art" if he had just pasted the labels of all the varieties of Campbell's soup into a collage? If he ate as much Campbell's as you say, accumulating the labels certainly would have been no problem. Good grief! I'm getting a sodium overload just thinking about it!

Officious Oaf said...

What a lively comment session on soup cans. I never thought it possible to create so much ado about nothing.

If a soup can do that, just think of the potential of angels dancing on heads of a pin; an infinite number of scholarly views just on the types alone: straight pin, hat pin, linch pin, fraternity pin, rolling pin and all the other pins. And look at the types of angels we have available to choose from: Gabriel's, Michael's, daddy's little one, giant angels, medium sized, and midget angels, big, medium, small winged ones, black, white, brown, yellow and red skinned ones, white, beige or psychedelic colored wings, experienced and apprentice dancers, with ballet shoes or tennis shoes or barefooted? And the type of dance: ballet, polka, the waltz, Morris English folk, Irish jig, and all interspersed with square dance sets. And the musical instruments?... How silly of me, everyone knows angels play harps... or is it lyres?...You're right, only Greek angels play lyres...Sorry 'bout that. We oafs aren't up on those things.

Can angel play and dance at the same time? Another intriguing question.

Just imagine all the possible combinations; a discussion like that could go on forever. No more the need to waste time on trivia The nature of God, ethics, politics, art, literature, science, and soup cans never brought up again. Blog discussions taken to new heights!

Oh, by the way, you imaginative sleuths of the meaning of things can call off the bloodhounds, the truth is out about why Warhol painted those soup cans. And boy were you Sherlock Holmes chasing red herrings. In Andy's private diary, the maid found this entry: "I am fascinated about how those machines can stick labels on cans and not get glue all over the place. I'm going to paint something in the inventor's honor. I hope nobody reads something else into it."

wore hole said...

Until a precession of intent is molified and seen as value, there is only the pretense to be "art".

Finding Fair Hope said...

Hairy, you're exactly right about the title of the blog. I wrote the title first, then wrote the blog. Posted it all at the same time. Every time I look at the blog I realize I should have changed the title to "Fame as Art." It's the real Warhol story, no matter what the Officious Oaf thinks. And it is real art, but don't try to get him to believe that.

wore hole said...

Yes, it is the "art" of art, convincingly so.

hurdit herfurst said...

My initial reaction to benedicto was wrong, I actually thought he was nothing more than a self- aggrandizing blow hard,yet here in this simple question " Hurd Who's Ashton Kutcher?" he has captured the essence of what our dear blogger has ben saying all along. Who, indeed, is Ashton Kutcher, or Al Pacino, or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Who, in fact, is Andy Warhol and why do we find him so fascinating? Why is our society so possessed by fame and fortune to the point that People and The National Enquirer, and The Globe have become the fastest selling "periodicals" in our nation. Why do we need to watch ET and the Insider and then to switch over to E! Entertainment Television all in the same night? DO we have something to add to the tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith? Does it really matter if Brad ever intends to marry Angelina - can thier actions actually affect the lives of the rest of us poor slobs sitting in front of the boob tube drooling over information that in the end will only detract from who we are? Was Warhol even thinking about Jackson Pollack when he painted his soup can? And what about the guy who worked for Campbell's, that poor craftsman who labored away day after day to put food on his family's plates, why should Warhol get all the credit for copying someone else's art, for copying his art while all he could ever hope for his a trukey at Christmas and a gold watch when he retired?
Indeed benedicto- spot on! Who is Ashton Kutcher?

Finding Fair Hope said...

You got a lot from that innocent question, hurdit. I suspect benedict simply didn't know who Ashton Kutcher is.

Robin said...

benedict, Ashton Kutcher is a wanna be actor that is really young and who married Dimi Moore, who use to be married to Bruce Willis. Dimi Moore is in her late 40's and Ashton Kutcher may be 25..You aren't missing out on anything by not knowing who he is.

Robin said...

One thing that Warhol has that other oldsters doesn't, take for instant Mick Jagger,is his baby boomer fame.One can't think of the 60's without thinking of him in his 15 minutes of fame.

Benedict S. said...

O, thanks Robin. Now I know who Ashton Kutcher is. He's the one who's married to Whatshername who played in that movie.

Now, who's Anna Nicole Smith?

hurdit herfurst said...

I am soooo embarrassed! I really didn't realize that there were still people out there who don't know who Ashton Kutcher is! My face is about three shades of pink right now, my forehead is like an amber hue, my nose is hot pink and both cheeks are sort of piggly-wiggly. Sorry about the mistake but I'll point out why I made it in a moment.
But first,on benedict's suggestion I thought I'd check out a little Jackson Pollock. Ironically, just yesterday I hurd that Ed Harris has made a movie about Pollock's life, sounds like it may be interesting.

Pollock link:

Ed Harris link:

Now back to the Kutcher/ Warhol connection: Although I appreciate Robin's help in clearing up my little faux paux, her thumbnail sketch misses some key points in the Warhol/Kutcher connection, points that an ardent student of popular culture would find intriguing. A delination of these factoids will make plain why I mistakenly believed benedict to be making a subliminal comment.

Kutcher's comedic style has pegged him with the new millenium's public persona of goofy cool, compare that to Warhol's sixties version of dorky cool and the errie likeness begins to fall into place.

Furthermore,as Robin aptly pointed out, one cannot think about the sixties without thinking of Warhol. Conversely, one cannot think of "That Seventies Show" without thinking of Ashton Kutcher.

And finally, the fait de complet-
Warhol made his name off of someone else's creation, his copy of the Campbell's Soup Can was brilliant. However, it was a likeness of someone else's work. Of course, other soup companies tried their own version of the can but when one thinks of soup Campbell's is what generally comes to mind. Compare this to Kutcher who made his name, post "Seventies Show" by producing a derrivative of Allan Funt's genius "Candid Camera"."Punk'd" may very well have been funny but it was still someone else's creation and others had done their own versions in the same way that Progresso has done soup cans; note that both Jamie Kennedy and telemundo have done thier own versions of CC before Kutcher made his name with that old , but ingenius idea.

While we're looking at connections, Warhol undoubtedly hung out with Farrah and the other Charlie's Angels at Studio Fifty Four, while Kutcher married Demi Moore who played a villian in the blockbuster movie,"Charlie's Angel's Full Throttle".

I am sure that now you can all understand why I thought benedict's comments were deeper than that which was intended. That innocent question "Hurd Who's Ashton Kutcher?" says a lot about art and the artist who we revere.

You hurdit herfurst!

editor's note: telemundo's version of Candido Camera is hilarious, even if you can't speak espanol!

Benedict S. said...

Well, Hurd, that clears it all up for me. We went to Iraq to rescue a nameless star from an unnamed band of angels who were pretending to be Hurd Hatfield in Wilde drag. Who would have dreamed that it could be that simple?

Officious Oaf said...

All these interesting preceding comments on art contained in a painted soup can reflect an active and emotional display of intelligent people measuring something with different criteria. But I have to ask, How can we measure something if everyone is using yardsticks of different lengths, gallons containers of distinct sizes, or one pound units of varying weight, and, even more apalling, we can't decide on what we are measuring? Doesn't that make the whole exercise seem a bit nonsensical? In this lively dicussion, no one has parted from the most essential element of all: what is art? What's the sense of trying to meaure something without a meaningful reference point?

...What? I missed the purpose of this entire blog discussion? You mean it was not to determine if a well painted image of a can of Campbell's soup constituted art, and one painted by Andy Warhol constituted even more art?...Aha! So it was an exercise of who could eloquently obfuscate more?... No wonder it didn't make sense to us oafs.

Is there anyone out there in brilliance land who can give us oafs a definition of art? We are holding our monthly discussion group meeting -more than once a month is too mentally exhausting- next week and dog food can images, as an art form, will be the topic. We, in our simply minds, like to have more or less commonly agreed on reference points during a serious critique, otherwise there is a an awful mess to clean up afterwards when everyone has been peeing into different pots.

Anyone want to step up and provide that defintion? Is there even a definition to be provided? Of course, there is; sensible rationality is all that is required.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Hold on, Oafie. Nobody (but maybe yourself) said this was easy. It takes a lot of thought and patience to define something that's changing before our eyes. To many of us this measuring-stick approach is kind of like giving grades in school -- this one gets a reward for producing something teacher likes, this one gets criticized for producing something different. Definition may just not be the problem.

hurdit herfurst said...

do you like it, is it fun? does it speak to your heart, does it make an impression on your soul, does it make you smile, or inspire you? or is it just nice to look at?

is it disturbing, does it change your mind, make you think, or get you angry?

hey, maybe it's art!

bottom line is, art, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder...

btw oaficious one, everything i have said up until this point has been nonsensical, so chill daddy-o and let yourself have a little fun!

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