To say that Andy Warhol is a famous artist is to utter the merest commonplace. But what kind of fame does he enjoy? If the most famous artist in America is Andrew Wyeth, and the second most famous is LeRoy Neiman (Hugh Hefner’s court painter, inventor of the Playboy femlin, and drawer of football stars for CBS), then Warhol is the third. Wyeth, because his work suggests a frugal, bare-bones rectitude, glazed by nostalgia but incarnated in real objects, which millions of people look back upon as the lost marrow of American history. Neiman, because millions of people watch sports programs, read Playboy, and will take any amount of glib abstract-expressionist slather as long as it adorns a recognizable and pert pair of jugs. But Warhol? What size of public likes his work, or even knows it at first hand? Not as big as Wyeth’s or Neiman’s.
To most of the people who have heard of him, he is a name handed down from a distant museum-culture, stuck to a memorable face: a cashiered Latin teacher in a pale fiber wig, the guy who paints soup cans and knows all the movie stars. To a smaller but international public, he is the last of the truly successful social portraitists, climbing from face to face in a silent delirium of snobbery, a man so interested in elites that he has his own society magazine. But Warhol has never been a popular artist in the sense that Andrew Wyeth is or Sir Edwin Landseer was. That kind of popularity entails being seen as a normal (and hence, exemplary) person from whom extraordinary things emerge.
Warhol’s public character for the last twenty years has been the opposite: an abnormal figure (silent, withdrawn, eminently visible but opaque, and a bit malevolent) who praises banality. He fulfills Stuart Davis’s definition of the new American artist, “a cool Spectator-Reporter at an Arena of Hot Events.” But no mass public has ever felt at ease with Warhol’s work. Surely, people feel, there must be something empty about a man who expresses no strong leanings, who greets everything with the same “uh, gee, great.” Art’s other Andy, the Wyeth, would not do that. Nor would the midcult heroes of The Agony and the Ecstasy and Lust for Life. They would discriminate between experiences, which is what artists are meant to do for us.
Warhol has long seemed to hanker after the immediate visibility and popularity that “real” stars like Liz Taylor have, and sometimes he is induced to behave as though he really had it. When he did ads endorsing Puerto Rican rum or Pioneer radios, the art world groaned with secret envy: what artist would not like to be in a position to be offered big money for endorsements, if only for the higher pleasure of refusing it? But his image sold little rum and few radios. After two decades as voyeur-in-chief to the marginal and then the rich, Warhol was still unloved by the world at large; all people saw was that weird, remote guy in the wig. Meanwhile, the gesture of actually being in an ad contradicted the base of Warhol’s fame within the art world. To the extent that his work was subversive at all (and in the Sixties it was, slightly), it became so through its harsh, cold parody of ad-mass appeal—the repetition of brand images like Campbell’s soup or Brillo or Marilyn Monroe (a star being a human brand image) to the point where a void is seen to yawn beneath the discourse of promotion.
The tension this set up depended on the assumption, still in force in the Sixties, that there was a qualitative difference between the perceptions of high art and the million daily instructions issued by popular culture. Since then, Warhol has probably done more than any other living artist to wear that distinction down; but while doing so, he has worn away the edge of his work. At the same time, he has difficulty moving it toward that empyrean of absolute popularity, where LeRoy Neiman sits, robed in sky-blue polyester. To do that, he must make himself accessible. But to be accessible is to lose magic.
The depth of this quandary, or perhaps its lack of relative shallowness, may be gauged from a peculiar exhibition mounted last November by the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art: a show of portraits of sports stars, half by Neiman and half by Warhol, under-written by Playboy Enterprises. It was a promotional stunt (LAICA needs money, and exhibitions of West Coast conceptualists do not make the turnstiles rattle) but to give it a veneer of respectability the Institute felt obliged to present it as a critique of art-world pecking orders. Look, it said in effect: Neiman is an arbitrarily rejected artist, whose work has much to recommend it to the serious eye (though what, exactly, was left vague); we will show he is up there with Warhol.
This effort backfired, raising the unintended possibility that Warhol was down there with Neiman. The Warhol of yore would not have let himself in for a fiasco like the LAICA show. But then he was not so ostentatiously interested in being liked by a mass public. This may be why his output for the last decade or so has floundered—he had no real subjects left; why Interview, his magazine, is less a periodical than a public relations sheet; and why books like Exposures and POPism get written.1
Between them POPism: The Warhol Sixties and Exposures give a fairly good picture of Warhol’s concerns before and after 1968, the year he was shot. Neither book has any literary merit, and the writing is chatty with occasional flecks of diminuendo irony—just what the package promises, POPism is mostly surface chat, Exposures entirely so. For a man whose life is subtended by gossip, Warhol comes across as peculiarly impervious to character. “I never knew what to think of Eric,” he says of one of his circle in the Sixties, a scatterbrained lad with blond ringlets whose body, a postscript tells us, was found in the middle of Hudson Street, unceremoniously dumped there, according to “rumors,” after he overdosed on heroin. “He could come out with comments that were so insightful and creative, and then the next thing out of his mouth would be something so dumb. A lot of the kids were that way, but Eric was the most fascinating to me because he was the most extreme case—you absolutely couldn’t tell if he was a genius or a retard.”
Of course, poor Eric Emerson—like nearly everyone else around the Factory, as Warhol’s studio came to be known—was neither. They were all cultural space-debris, drifting fragments from a variety of Sixties subcultures (transvestite, drug, S&M, rock, Poor Little Rich, criminal, street, and all the permutations) orbiting in smeary ellipses around their unmoved mover. Real talent was thin and scattered in this tiny universe. It surfaced in music, with figures like Lou Reed and John Cale; various punk groups in the Seventies were, wittingly or not, the offspring of Warhol’s Velvet Underground. But people who wanted to get on with their own work avoided the Factory, while the freaks and groupies and curiosity-seekers who filled it left nothing behind them.
Its silver-papered walls were a toy theater in which one aspect of the Sixties in America, the infantile hope of imposing oneself on the world by terminal self-revelation, was played out. It had a nasty edge, which forced the paranoia of marginal souls into some semblance of style; a reminiscence of art. If Warhol’s “Superstars,” as he called them, had possessed talent, discipline, or stamina, they would not have needed him. But then, he would not have needed them. They gave him his ghostly aura of power. If he withdrew his gaze, his carefully allotted permissions and recognitions, they would cease to exist; the poor ones would melt back into the sludgy undifferentiated chaos of the street, the rich ones end up in McLean’s. Valerie Solanas, who shot him, said Warhol had too much control over her life.
Those whose parents accused them of being out of their tree, who had unfulfilled desires and undesirable ambitions, and who felt guilty about it all, therefore gravitated to Warhol. He offered them absolution, the gaze of the blank mirror that refuses all judgment. In this, the camera (when he made his films) deputized for him, collecting hour upon hour of tantrum, misery, sexual spasm, campery, and nose-picking trivia. It too was an instrument of power—not over the audience, for which Warhol’s films were usually boring and alienating, but over the actors. In this way the Factory resembled a sect, a parody of Catholicism enacted (not accidentally) by people who were or had been Catholic, from Warhol and Gerard Malanga on down. In it, the rituals of dandyism could speed up to gibberish and show what they had become—a hunger for approval and forgiveness. These came in a familiar form, perhaps the only form American capitalism knows how to offer: publicity.
Warhol was the first American artist to whose career publicity was truly intrinsic. Publicity had not been an issue with artists in the Forties and Fifties. It might come as a bolt from the philistine blue, as when Life made Jackson Pollock famous; but such events were rare enough to be freakish, not merely unusual. By today’s standards, the art world was virginally naïve about the mass media and what they could do. Television and the press, in return, were indifferent to what could still be called the avant-garde. “Publicity” meant a notice in The New York Times, a paragraph or two long, followed eventually by an article in Art News which perhaps five thousand people would read. Anything else was regarded as extrinsic to the work—something to view with suspicion, at best an accident, at worst a gratuitous distraction. One might woo a critic, but not a fashion correspondent, a TV producer, or the editor of Vogue. To be one’s own PR outfit was, in the eyes of the New York artists of the Forties or fifties, nearly unthinkable—hence the contempt they felt for Salvador Dali. But in the 1960s all that began to change, as the art world gradually shed its idealist premises and its sense of outsidership and began to turn into the Art Business.
Warhol became the emblem and thus, to no small extent, the instrument of this change. Inspired by the example of Truman Capote, he went after publicity with the voracious single-mindedness of a feeding bluefish. And he got it in abundance, because the Sixties in New York reshuffled and stacked the social deck: the press and television, in their pervasiveness, constructed a kind of parallel universe in which the hierarchical orders of American society—vestiges; it was thought, but strong ones, and based on inherited wealth—were replaced by the new tyranny of the “interesting.” Its rule had to do with the rapid shift of style and image, the assumption that all civilized life was discontinuous and worth only a short attention span: better to be Baby Jane Holzer than the Duchesse de Guermantes.
To enter this turbulence, one might only need to be born—a fact noted by Warhol in his one lasting quip, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” But to remain in it, to stay drenched in the glittering spray of promotional culture, one needed other qualities. One was an air of detachment; the dandy must not look into the lens. Another was an acute sense of nuance, an eye for the eddies and trends of fashion, which would regulate the other senses and appetites and so give detachment its point.
Diligent and frigid, Warhol had both to a striking degree. He was not a “hot” artist, a man mastered by a particular vision and anxious to impose it on the world. Jackson Pollock had declared that he wanted to be Nature. Warhol, by contrast, wished to be Culture and Culture only: “I want to be a machine.” Many of the American artists who rose to fame after abstract expressionism, beginning with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, had worked in commercial art to stay alive, and other pop artists besides Warhol, of course, drew freely on the vast reservoir of American ad-mass imagery. But Warhol was the only one who embodied a culture of promotion as such. He had enjoyed a striking success as a commercial artist, doing everything from shoe ads to recipe illustrations in a blotted, perky line derived from Saul Steinberg. He understood the tough little world, not yet an “aristocracy” but trying to become one, where the machinery of fashion, gossip, image-bending, and narcissistic chic tapped out its agile pizzicato. He knew packaging, and could teach it to others.
Warhol’s social visibility thus bloomed in an art world which, during the Sixties, became more and more concerned with the desire for and pursuit of publicity. Nor surprisingly, many of its figures in those days—crass social climbers like the Sculls, popinjays like Henry Geldzahler, and the legion of insubstantial careerists who leave nothing but press cuttings to mark their passage—tended to get their strategies from Warhol’s example.
Above all, the working-class kid who had spent so many thousands of hours gazing into the blue, anesthetizing glare of the TV screen, like Narcissus into his pool, realized that the cultural moment of the mid-Sixties favored a walking void. Television was producing an affectless culture. Warhol set out to become one of its affectless heroes. It was no longer necessary for an artist to act crazy, like Salvador Dali. Other people could act crazy for you: that was what Warhol’s Factory was all about. By the end of the Sixties craziness was becoming normal, and half of America seemed to be immersed in some tedious and noisy form of self-expression. Craziness no longer suggested uniqueness. Warhol’s bland translucency, as of frosted glass, was much more intriguing.
Like Chauncey Gardiner, the hero of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, he came to be credited with sibylline wisdom because he was an absence, conspicuous by its presence—intangible, like a TV set whose switch nobody could find. Disjointed public images—the Campbell’s soup cans, the Elvises and Lizzes and Marilyns, the electric chairs and car crashes and the jerky, shapeless pornography of his movies—would stutter across this screen; would pour from it in a gratuitous flood.
But the circuitry behind it, the works, remained mysterious. (Had he made a point of going to the shrink, like other New York artists, he would have seemed rather less interesting to his public.) “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” he told an interviewer in those days, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” This kind of coyness looked, at the time, faintly threatening. For without doubt, there was something strange about so firm an adherence to the surface. It went against the grain of high art as such. What had become of the belief, dear to modernism, that the power and cathartic necessity of art flowed from the unconscious, through the knotwork of dream, memory, and desire, into the realized image? No trace of it; the paintings were all superficies, no symbol. Their blankness seemed eerie.
They did not share the reforming hopes of modernism. Neither Dada’s caustic anxiety, nor the utopian dreams of the Constructivists; no politics, no transcendentalism. Occasionally there would be a slender, learned spoof, as when Warhol did black-and-white paintings of dance-step diagrams in parody of Mondrian’s black-and-white Fox Trot, 1930. But in general, his only subject was detachment: the condition of being a spectator, dealing hands-off with the world through the filter of photography.
Thus his paintings, roughly silk-screened, full of slips, mimicked the dissociation of gaze and empathy induced by the mass media: the banal punch of tabloid newsprint, the visual jabber and bright sleazy color of TV, the sense of glut and anesthesia caused by both. Three dozen Elvises are better than one; and one Marilyn, patched like a gaudy stamp on a ground of gold leaf (the favorite color of Byzantium, but of drag queens too) could become a sly and grotesque parody of the Madonna-fixations of Warhol’s own Catholic childhood, of the pretentious enlargement of media stars by a secular culture, and of the similarities between both. The rapid negligence of Warhol’s images parodied the way mass media replace the act of reading with that of scanning, a state of affairs anticipated by Ronald Firbank’s line in The Flower Beneath the Foot: “She reads at such a pace…and when I asked her where she had learnt to read so quickly she replied, ‘On the screens of Cinemas.”‘
Certainly, Warhol had one piercing insight about mass media. He would not have had it without his background in commercial art and his obsession with the stylish. But it was not an aperçu that could be developed: lacking the prehensile relationship to experience of Claes Oldenburg (let alone Picasso), Warhol was left without much material. It is as though, after his near death in 1968, Warhol’s lines of feeling were finally cut; he could not appropriate the world in such a way that the results meant much as art, although they became a focus of ever-increasing gossip, speculation, and promotional hoo-ha. However, his shooting reflected back on his earlier paintings—the prole death in the car crashes, the electric chair with the sign enjoining SILENCE on the nearby door, the taxidermic portraits of the dead Marilyn—lending them a fictive glamour as emblems of fate. Much breathless prose was therefore expended on Andy, the Silver Angel of Death, and similar conceits. (That all these images were suggested by friends, rather than chosen by Warhol himself, was not stressed.)
Partly because of this gratuitous aura, the idea that Warhol was a major interpreter of the American scene dies hard—at least in some quarters of the art world. “Has there ever been an artist,” asked Peter Schjeldahl at the end of a panegyric on Warhol’s fatuous show of society portraits at the Whitney two years ago, “who so coolly and faithfully, with such awful intimacy and candor, registered important changes in a society?” (Well, maybe a couple, starting with Goya.) Critics bring forth such borborygms when they are hypnotized by old radical credentials. Barbara Rose once compared his portraits, quite favorably, to Goya’s. John Coplans, the former editor of Artforum, wrote that his work “almost by choice of imagery, it seems, forces us to squarely face the existential edge of our existence.”
In 1971 an American Marxist named Peter Gidal, later to make films as numbing as Warhol’s own, declared that “unlike Chagall, Picasso, Rauschenberg, Hamilton, Stella, most of the Cubists, Impressionists, Expressionists, Warhol never gets negatively boring”—only, it was implied, positively so, and in a morally bracing way. If the idea that Warhol could be the most interesting artist in modern history, as Gidal seemed to be saying, now looks a trifle voulu, it has regularly been echoed on the left—especially in Germany, where, by one of those exquisite contortions of social logic in which the Bundesrepublik seems to specialize, Warhol’s status as a blue chip was largely underwritten by Marxists praising his “radical” and “subversive” credentials.
Thus the critic Rainer Crone, in 1970, claimed that Warhol was “the first to create something more than traditional ‘fine art’ for the edification of a few.” By mass producing his images of mass production, to the point where the question of who actually made most of his output in the Sixties has had to be diplomatically skirted by dealers ever since (probably half of it was run off by assistants and merely signed by Warhol), the pallid maestro had entered a permanent state of “anaesthetic revolutionary practice”—delicious phrase! In this way the “elitist” forms of middleclass idealism, so obstructive to art experience yet so necessary to the art market, had been short-circuited. Here, apparently, was something akin to the “art of five kopeks” Lunacharsky had called on the Russian avant-garde to produce after 1917. Not only that: the People could immediately see and grasp what Warhol was painting, They were used to soup cans, movie stars, and Coke bottles. To make such bottles in a factory in the South and sell them in Abu Dhabi was a capitalist evil; to paint them in a factory in New York and sell them in Dusseldorf, an act of cultural criticism.
These efforts to assimilate Warhol to a “revolutionary” aesthetic now have a musty air. The question is no longer whether such utterances were true or false—Warhol’s later career made them absurd anyway. The real question is: how could otherwise informed people in the Sixties and Seventies imagine that the man who would end up running a gossip magazine and cranking out portraits of Sao Schlumberger for a living was really a cultural subversive? The answer probably lies in the change that was coming over their own milieu, the art world itself.
Warhol did his best work at a time (1962-1968) when the avant-garde, as an idea and a cultural reality, still seemed to be alive, if not well. In fact it was collapsing from within, undermined by the encroaching art market and by the total conversion of the middle-class audience; but few people could see this at the time. The ideal of a radical, “outsider” art of wide social effect had not yet been acknowledged as fantasy. The death of the avant-garde has since become such a commonplace that the very word has an embarrassing aura. In the late Seventies, only dealers used it; today, not even they do, except in Soho. But in the late Sixties and early Seventies, avant-garde status was still thought to be a necessary part of a new work’s credentials. And given the political atmosphere of the time, it was mandatory to claim some degree of “radical” political power for any nominally avantgarde work.
Thus Warhol’s silence became a Rorschach blot, onto which critics who admired the idea of political art—but would not have been seen dead within a hundred paces of a realist painting—could project their expectations. As the work of someone like Agam is abstract art for those who hate abstraction, so Warhol became realist art for those who loathed representation as “retrograde.” If the artist, blinking and candid, denied that he was in any way a “revolutionary” artist, his admirers knew better; the white mole of Union Square was just dissimulating. If he declared that he was only interested in getting rich and famous, like everyone else, he could not be telling the truth; instead, he was parodying America’s obsession with celebrity, the better to deflate it. From the recesses of this exegetical knot, anything Warhol did could be taken seriously. In a review of Exposures, the critic Carter Ratcliff solemnly asserted that “he is secretly the vehicle of artistic intentions so complex that he would probably cease to function if he didn’t dilute them with nightly doses of the inane.” But for the safety valve of Studio 54, he would presumably blow off like the plant at Three Mile Island, scattering the culture with unimagined radiations.
One wonders what these “artistic intentions” may be, since Warhol’s output for the last decade has been concerned more with the smooth development of product than with any discernible insights. As Harold Rosenberg remarked, “In demonstrating that art today is a commodity of the art market, comparable to the commodities of other specialized markets, Warhol has liquidated the century-old tension between the serious artist and the majority culture.” It scarcely matters what Warhol paints; for his clientele, only the signature is fully visible. The factory runs, its stream of products is not interrupted, the market dictates its logic. What the clients want is a Warhol, a recognizable product bearing his stamp. Hence any marked deviation from the norm, such as an imaginative connection with the world might produce, would in fact seem freakish and unpleasant: a renunciation of earlier products. Warhol’s sales pitch is to soothe the client by repetition while preserving the fiction of uniqueness. Style, considered as the authentic residue of experience, becomes its commercial-art cousin, styling.
Warhol has never deceived himself about this: “It’s so boring painting the same picture over and over,” he complained in the late Sixties. So he must introduce small variations into the package, to render the last product a little obsolete (and to limit its proliferation, thus assuring its rarity), for if all Warhols were exactly the same there would be no market for new ones. Such is his parody of invention, which now looks normal in a market-dominated art world. Its industrial nature requires an equally industrial kind of facture: this consists of making silk-screens from photos, usually Polaroids, bleeding out a good deal of the information from the image by reducing it to monochrome, and then printing it over a fudgy background of decorative color, applied with a wide loaded brush to give the impression of verve. Only rarely is there even the least formal relationship between the image and its background.
This formula gave Warhol several advantages, particularly as a portraitist. He could always flatter the client by selecting the nicest photo. The lady in Texas or Paris would not be subjected to the fatigue of long scrutiny; in fact she would feel rather like a Vogue model, whether she looked like one or not, while Andy did his stuff with the Polaroid. As social amenity, it was an adroit solution; and it still left room for people who should know better, like the art historian Robert Rosenblum in his catalogue essay to Warhol’s portrait show at the Whitney in 1979, to embrace it: “If it is instantly clear that Warhol has revived the visual crackle, glitter, and chic of older traditions of society portraiture, it may be less obvious that despite his legendary indifference to human facts, he has also captured an incredible range of psychological insights among his sitters.” Legendary, incredible, glitter, insight: stuffing to match the turkey.
The perfunctory and industrial nature of Warhol’s peculiar talent and the robotic character of the praise awarded it, appears most baldly of all around his prints, which were recently given a retrospective at Castelli Graphics in New York and a catalogue raisonnée by Hermann Wünsche. “More than any other artist of our age,” one of its texts declares, “Andy Warhol is intensively preoccupied with concepts of time”; quite the little Proust, in fact. “His prints above all reveal Andy Warhol as a universal artist whose works show him tobe thoroughly aware of the great European traditions and who is a particular admirer of the glorious French Dixneuvieme, which inspired him to experience and to apply the immanent qualities of ‘pure’ peinture.” No doubt something was lost in translation, but it is difficult to believe that Hans Gerd Tuchel, the author, has looked at the prints he speaks of. Nothing could be flatter or more perfunctory, or have less to do with those “immanent qualities of pure peinture,” than Warhol’s recent prints. Their most discernible quality is their transparent cynicism and their Franklin Mint approach to subject matter. What other “serious” artist, for instance, would contemplate doing a series called “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century,”2 featuring Kafka, Buber, Einstein, Gertrude Stein, and Sarah Bernhardt? But then, in the moral climate of today’s art world, why not treat Jews as a special-interest subject like any other? There is a big market for bird prints, dog prints, racing prints, hunting prints, yachting prints; why not Jew prints?
Yet whatever merits these mementos may lack, nobody could rebuke their author for inconsistency. The Jew as Celebrity: it is of a piece with the ruling passion of Warhol’s career, the object of his fixated attention—the state of being well known for well-knownness. This is all Exposures was about—a photograph album of film stars, rock idols, politicians’ wives, cocottes, catamites, and assorted bits of International White Trash baring their teeth to the socially emulgent glare of the flashbulb: I am flashed, therefore I am. It is also the sole subject of Warhol’s house organ, Interview.
Interview began as a poor relative of Photoplay, subtitled “Andy Warhol’s Movie Magazine.” But by the mid-Seventies it had purged itself of the residue of the “old” Factory and become a punkish feuilleton aimed largely at the fashion trade—a natural step, considering Warhol’s background. With the opening of Studio 54 in 1977, the magazine found its “new” Factory, its spiritual home. It then became a kind of marionette theater in print: the same figures, month after month, would cavort in its tiny proscenium, do a few twirls, suck or snort something, and tittup off again—Marisa, Bianca, Margaret Trudeau, and the rest of the fictive stars who replaced the discarded Superstars of the Factory days.
Because the magazine is primarily a social-climbing device for its owner and staff, its actual gossip content is quite bland. Many stones lie unturned but no breech is left unkissed. As a rule the interviews, taped and transcribed, sound as though a valet were asking the questions, especially when the subject is a regular advertiser in the magazine. Sometimes the level of gush exceeds the wildest inventions of S.J. Perelman. “I have felt since I first met you,” one interviewer exclaims to Diane von Furstenberg, “that there was something extraordinary about you, that you have the mystic sense and quality of a pagan soul. And here you are about to introduce a new perfume, calling it by an instinctive, but perfect name.” And later:
Q. I have always known of your wonderful relationship with your children. By this, I think you symbolize a kind of fidelity. Why did you bring back these geese from Bali?
A. I don’t know.
Q. You did it instinctively.
A. Yes, it just seemed right. One thing after the other…. It’s wild.
Q. There’s something about you that reminds me of Aphrodite.
A. Well, she had a good time.
Later, Aphrodite declares that “I don’t want to be pretentious,” but that “I was just in Java and it has about 350 active volcanoes. I’ll end up throwing myself into one. I think that would be very glamorous.”
In politics, Interview has one main object of veneration: the Reagans, around whose elderly flame the magazine flutters like a moth, waggling its little thorax at Jerry Zipkin, hoping for invitations to White House dinners or, even better, an official portrait commission for Warhol. Moving toward that day, it is careful to run flattering exchanges with White House functionaries Muffie Brandon. It even went so far as to appoint Doria Reagan, the daughter-in-law, as a “contributing editor.” to its editor, Reagan as Ceasar Augustus Americanus and Nancy a blend of Evita and the Virgin Mary, though in red. Warhow seems to share this view, though he did not always do so. for most of the Seventies he was in some nominal way a liberal Democrat, like the rest of the art world—doing campaign posters for McGovern, tyring to get near Teddy Kennedy. Nixon, who thought culture was for Jews, would never have let him near the White House. When Warhol declared that Gerald Ford’s son Jack was the only Republican he knew, he was telling some kind of truth. However, two things changed this in the Seventies: the Shah, and the Carter administration.
One of the odder aspects of the late Shah’s regime was its wish to buy modern Wester art, so as to seem “liberal” and “advanced.” Seurat in the parlor, SAVAK in the basement. The former Shahbanou, Farah Diba, spend millions of dollars exercing this fantasy. Nothing pulls the art world into line faster that the sight of an imperial checkbook, and the conversion of the remnants of the American avant-garde into ardent fans of the Pahlavis was one of the richer social absurdities of the period. Dealers started learning Farsi, Iranian fine–arts exchange students acquired a sudden cachet as research assistants, and invitations to the Iranian embassy—not the hottest tickets in town before 1972—were now much coveted. The main beneficiary of this was Warhol, who became the semi–official portraitist to the Peacock Throne. When the Interview crowd were not at the tub of caviar in the consulate like pigeons around a birdbath, they were on an Air Iran jet somewhere between Kennedy Airport and Tehran. All power is delightful, as Kenneth Tynan once observed abd absolute power is absolutely delightful. The fall of the Shah left a hole in Interview’s world: to whom could it toady now? Certainly the Carter administration was no substitute. Those southern Baptists in polycotton suits lacked the finesse to know when they were being flattered. They had the social grace of car salesmen, drinking Amaretto and making coarse jests about pyramids. They gave dull parties and talked about human rights. The landslide election of Reagan was therefore of private opulence and public squalor was back in the saddle; there would be no end of parties and patrons and portraits. The Wounded Horseman might allot $90 million for brass bands while slashing the cultural endowments of the nation to ribbons and threads; who cared? Not Warhol, certainly, whose work never ceases to prove its merits in the only place where merit really shows, the market.
Great leaders, it is said, bring forth the praise of great artists. How can one doubt that Warhol was delivered by Fate to the Reubens of this administration, to play Bernini to Reagan’s Urban VIII? On the one hand, the shrewd old movie actor, void of ideas but expert at manipulation, projected into high office by the insuperable power of mass imagery and secondhand perception. On the other, the shallow painter who understood more about the mechanisms of celebrity than any of his colleagues, whose entire sense of reality was shaped, like Reagan’s sense of power, by the television tube. Each, in his way, coming on like Huck Finn; both obsessed with serving the interests of privilege. Together, they signify a new moment: the age of supply-side aesthetics.
February 18, 1982