Pop with snap and crackle

Who is Andy Warhol?
November 7, 1997

Who is Andy Warhol? is an essay collection which reveals Warhol's multi-faceted output beyond fine art and film; his pre-Pop fashion designs, writing and photography; his role as bandleader, soap opera producer, collector and comedian. The essays are drawn from the 1995 conference, Warhol's Worlds, which inaugurated the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Peter Wollen's essay consecrates this image of a protean, worldly Warhol, claiming that Warhol's society/fashion magazine, Interview, was both Pop Art and a Renaissance-style forum. Wollen's Warhol, as Renaissance man, exploited the latest in technological innovation, especially technologies of reproduction. Moreover, Warhol's affirmation of diverse cultural experience shattered the closed, purist art world of Abstract Expressionism, rather as the Renaissance shattered medieval theology.

This collection investigates the diversity of Warhol's revaluations of low culture; His modelling career, The Love Boat appearance, and his controlled "Renaissance" court. The book's contributors' diverse occupations reflect the chaotic diversity of Warhol's production; they include academics, curators, ex-Factory "survivors", journalists, biographers and film-makers. The insistence on Warhol's range and energy counters the sterile effects of critiques which cast Warhol as an autistic minimalist. This acknowledgement of the festive character of Warhol's work is welcome considering the prison house of much Warhol criticism, hopelessly divided between considering Warhol's work as either a painful critique of, or a morbid falling-in with, serial production in industry and culture. After all, Warhol said that Pop Art was about "liking things".

Steven Shaviro's Warhol is a non-alienated consumer and affirmer of the world's cultural and material plenitude, divorced from the "critical spirit" that finds the world "radically deficient"; one who makes guiltless the enjoyment of supposedly shallow pleasures. Here, Warhol is an almost Dionysiac figure lurching from party to party, challenging the pervasive pessimistic image of Warhol as a sterile Apollonian "machine". Warhol, as a fastidious voyeur, certainly got around, a messy business; and as a figure standing on the sidelines of Studio 54, he enjoyed its secondary effects. However, Shivaro's celebration of hedonism rests too heavily on Warhol's ironic camp. Shaviro denounces as too serious the new orthodoxy of transgression in favour of the enjoyment of plenitude, but then deploys the equally orthodox and sombre jargon of ironic subversion.

Other essays similarly welcome Warhol's play-time, only then to undermine its very exuberance. For Ralph Rugoff, Warhol's oblique wit provides welcome relief from ponderous Modernist art; Rugoff ends up, however, solemnly approving this humour's usefulness in undermining truth and authenticity. Patrizia Lombardo compares Warhol to Baudelaire, but not as a sensualist decadent, rather, as a problematic figure, part narcissistic dandy, part voyeuristic flneur.

For Hal Foster, Warhol's Disaster series of screen prints is a critique of America's violent culture; the images sharpened by the disturbing quality of their serial reproduction. This is justifiable, however Foster is wrong to apply this reading of the Disaster series's reproductions to Warhol's use of multiples in general. He follows an almost orthodox approach regarding Warhol's use of multiples, which draws on thinkers from Walter Benjamin to Jean Baudrillard who insist that if an original object or image is reproduced identically, each reproduction diminishes the original's authenticity. I prefer Warhol's neo-Nietzschean insistence that each reproduction is a masterpiece like the first. Warhol's multiples are as affirmative as the acceptance of the eternal return; Warhol actually ate Campbell's Soup every day for 20 years (we are not just talking about images) and loved endless television repeats.

Warhol's affirmation of the tangible is not complacent, detached or cynical. His hedonistic work is not exactly a critique of the world, but nevetheless creates a crisis for those who despise it.

David Johnson holds a D.Phil thesis from the University of York, which he is currently reworking into a book.

Who is Andy Warhol?

Editor - Colin MacCabe with Mark Francis and Peter Wollen
ISBN - 0 85170 588 X and 0 85170 589 8
Publisher - British Film Institute/ National Film Theatre
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 162

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