Thursday, September 21, 2006

ASTONISH ME. I've been watching, on and off, the Ric Burns Andy Warhol doc. It provokes my astonishment. First, I am astonished to realize how few Warhol originals I have actually seen. I've never seen any of his films. (Do I need to? The idea of Empire seems sufficient in itself.) I can only say for certain that I have seen one Marilyn because I remember seeing, on a free Target Friday at MOMA, three Japanese tourists posing for a cell-phone photo in front of it. Yet his influence on me, and on you, is unavoidable through reproduction and cultural diffusion. And reproduction and cultural diffusion are of course what his art is about.

I am also astonished at what a strong case Burns makes for Warhol's artistry. There is, as always with this kind of thing, a lot of gassy effusion from high-toned commentators, which only rarely and accidentally touches the truth. But as shaped by Burns, the narrative of his career -- the progress from utterly deprived youth to student of fine art to highly successful commercial artist to highly unsuccessful fine artist to the relentlessly repackager of commercial culture (take that, snobs!) and of ordinary objects and moments who become what we know as Andy Warhol -- describes the familiar arc of a real artistic journey. Of course, the best evidence of his artistic impact is his ubiquity of his effects. We tend to perceive Warhol through the second-edition reproductions of his myriad followers, which are almost necessarily inferior and the basis of the joke that is much of contemporary art. But Warhol invented the joke, and like the originals of most comic schtick (cf. Aristophanes, Boccaccio, Swift), it was at first something grander than a joke.

I was astonished at how tough-minded this airy-voiced, delicate artist could be. He wanted fame and, instead of wishing after it from ethereal annexes, pursued it with entrepreneural energy. He sometimes fought power, not in the classically Quixotic 60s way, but as a means to increase his own strength. When Nelson Rockefeller demanded that Warhol's "15 Most Wanted" be removed from the 1964 World's Fair, Warhol suggested a giant portrait of Robert Moses, and when that was rejected, he simply covered the original work in silver paint, and that stood -- a triumph over Rockefeller in nothing but its persistence. In one of his interviews -- in which he deflected the sharpest objections with the bland grace of Dylan or Lennon -- Warhol was asked if his Brillo boxes were a joke, and Warhol answered, no, they gave him something to do. "Don't worry about whether it's art," he told people. "Just get it done." This reminds me of Lou Reed's great song about Warhol: "He'd probably say you think too much/That's because there's work you don't want to do."

Even in the Factory days of silver balloons, drag queen movie stars, and the transmogrification of ashes into diamonds, Warhol achieved his aesthetic Valhalla not by inspiring the talented, but by manipulating the weaker people with whom he had surrounded himself -- until he miscalculated with Valerie Solanas.

A lot of Warhol's toughness came from the deprivation of his Pittsburgh childhood -- and that, too, was astonishing to me, because though I'd heard about it, the documentary made it vivid, partly through the memories of Warhol's older brother John, on film a very amiable, nasal-voiced, ordinary American of Eastern European descent. The Warholas originally came from Ravinia, an erased Eastern state. They were very poor in America, perfectly ghettoized, literally, separated as they were from the city by the Monongahela, marginal. John's respectability is his triumph, a sign of his ascension into the common promise that is America. But Andy, sickly, effeminate, painfully shy, obsessively drawing, unsocialized, could not even see an ordinary way up, and so built an emotional ladder out of the Photoplay magazines and Eastern Rite iconography available to him, upon which to climb across the Monongahela to a different America, one that he took a hand in creating.

One of the best comments in the story is that Andy Warhol "didn't have the slightest idea of bourgeois life." It's my experience of lower-class children who become artists that their apotheoses comes not out of the sort of conscious striving that makes most rags-to-riches stories -- at least not at first -- but out of a blind, desperate, and unreasoning need.

A great secondary shock comes to me from the book I happen to be reading: Chernow's life of Alexander Hamilton. Between two people, between two world views, no greater gulf can be imagined. Yet Hamilton, I have learned, was an outcast child of sorts, an impoverished bastard on a colonial island which promised him nothing, and whose precocity attached him to commercial industry and dreams of glory. He crossed the Caribbean, and pursued his dreams in what was presumed to be the losing side of a war; some people, even at the time, thought he was less interested in the Revolutionary cause than in the chance for advancement it offered. (He was also called effeminate and overenthusiastic toward male friends.) He showed great courage, great brilliance, and did rise. And in the fullness of his fame he dared greatly, even foolishly, overextending himself sexually and socially to seek in the personal sphere a continuation of his dominance in the political.

Somebody shot him, too.

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