Thursday 9 September 2010

Canned laughter?

Andy Warhol and the Can that Sold the World, by Gary Indiana (Basic Books, 2010)

The mountains of words which have been written on Andy Warhol rival the supermarket stacks of the soup cans which, via his paintings of them, catapulted him to fame. It’s a challenge for anyone to add anything to this dazzling display of Warholia. How well does this writer succeed?

Indiana - a NewYork art critic (and novelist, playwright, actor and film historian) – takes us through familiar Warhol territory: the poor boy from Pittsburgh’s childhood sickness and tantrums, exposure to the visual delights of Catholicism and pre-war film stars, the saturday morning drawing classes at the Carnegie Museum. He shows us Warhol as he studied at the School of Fine Arts at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Technical Institute, followed by a successful move to NewYork where the ‘effeminate’ style and content of his work didn’t hinder his rise as a commercial illustrator for magazines such as Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, McCall’s and Vanity Fair.

But Warhol wanted more: success as an artist. However, entry into the upper reaches of the NewYork gallery scene - at that time dominated by Abstract Expressionism – was denied him: the ‘frivolous’ and ‘homoerotic’ content of his non-commercial work saw to that. The nascent Pop Art movement offered a way into the public eye. Warhol experimented with black and white paintings of subjects such as telephone ads and Coke bottles, but it would be his 1962 depictions of Campbell’s soup cans which would be the launch-pad for his fame: and which are the fulcrom of this book. For- when the cans were on display at Ivan Karp’s Ferus Gallery in LosAngeles in that year - a photo of Warhol signing the real thing in a supermarket was picked-up by the Associated Press: wired round the world, it would initiate Warhol’s fame.

So it is to them that Indiana devotes much examination, not only to the mechanics of how Warhol did the paintings, but also the inner meanings behind the artist’s choice of subjectmatter. And this is where Indiana’s examination veers dangerously towards Pseuds’ Corner. After discoursing on the consumerism of 1950s America and the sense that some people both loved and feared it, he regards Warhol’s cans as being ‘impeccably unblemished examples’ of ‘the previous decade’s unbearable conformism, emblems of the social and political heterodoxy spreading through American society’. They ‘transmuted the banality of a specific, familiar object into a wink of nonconformity’. ‘The Soup Can effect was not to rescue American banalities from banality, but to give banality itself value’.

How valid an interpretation of Warhol’s work is this? As Indiana reminds us, Warhol upsetother artists because he wasn’t struggling with inner demons when he produced his work; he painted ordinary things that he happened to like in an easy style. And it’s difficult not to feel that this is why Indiana seems upset by Warhol’s work - and success: any work that doesn’t have a Romantic artist forcing it out of his tortured consciousness is somehow invalid. But whilst Pop Art may have been loaded with varying degrees of well-meant pretentious theory by academics, at heart it is straightforward representational art which gives people something which they understand: and that is what they want to see. This is the key to Warhol’s soup can success.

But such work represents no theory, and that is something which - since the inception of Modernism - critics have been lost without. Lackof theory equals lack of seriousness. And lack of seriousness equals lack of good (that is, art world approved) taste. Perhaps this is why - when discussing Warhol’s later life - Indiana is sniffy about the (undoubtedly) poisonous relationships and atmosphere of Warhol’s Factory (but since when have the majority of artistic groupies’ gatherings been known as centres of love and goodness?), and positively old-maidish about the star-studded bitchiness of Warhol’s Diaries (‘nauseating and almost unbearable’), a view that makes one wonder how Indiana would cope with the infinitely tougher meat on offer in those of Evelyn Waugh and James Lees-Milne. Surely the Diaries have value as they give a picture of celebrity culture where - unlike today – fame was bestowed as a result of either possessing a certain inherited social standing or having achieved it via hard work in the creative/media world.

Indiana regards Warhol as having contributed to the socio-economic transformation of New York in the 1980s which (supposedly) led to a dearth of talent in the city (fans of Lady Gaga - who honed her act there and who has acknowledged her debt to Warhol - might have something to say about that. And glam rockers, punks, new romantics and today’s more extreme street-fashion club kids are arguably - all visible parts of Warhol’s artistic legacy). But, given the state of the city depicted in films such as French Connection (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976) a crackdown on crime and the mean streets which it inhabited was almost inevitable. The resurgence of free-market economics, with its accompanying real-estate growth, would complete the process.

Indiana is valuable in filling-inbackground details of America’s art scene during the Cold War era, givingus an eye-opening view of the 1950s American establishment’s artistic fears and censorship. Works by writers as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre, Norman Mailer, and Mickey Spillane were banished from United States Information Agency and armed forces’ libraries. Not everyone shared this repressive outlook. President Eisenhower endorsed a more liberal view of the arts (‘As long as artists are at liberty to feel with high personal intensity, as long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be a healthy controversy and progress in art,’ he declared in 1954). Art could be used as vehicle for promoting American values. Indiana points-out the links between the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)and CIA propaganda work - many MoMA trustees, consultants and committee chairmen were involved – as well as the Agency’s clandestine funding of publications such as Encounter. He also reminds us that two of Warhol’s fellow Pop Artists - Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns- were gay, but discreetly so and didn’t like him, feeling him to be ‘too swish’. (Indiana suggests that closeted gays like Rauschenberg and Johns feared the queeny Warhol would draw attention to their own ‘“umanly” traits’, but one also wonders whether they suffered from the gay scene’s perennial little dirty secret, a misogynistic dislike of effeminacy.)

The motivation for Warhol’s work continues to be a mystery. Was he a success-hungry kid who wanted to escape the poverty of Pittsburgh by making fun of the glamour of American life, or did he simply love his nation’s gaudiness and want to celebrate it? Did his Catholic upbringing - he remained a faithful church-goer until his death - cause him to see art, not as a substitute for religion but rather as a transient toy? Did he use his lack of seriousness - the holy fool was a standard character from the Eastern Europe from which his parents had emigrated – as a way to mock artistic pretentiousness? Part of him liked anonymity, and he probably enjoyed the confusion his work inspired. Famously, Warhol said little about himself to the media. This brings us back to the pivotal point of this book - his soup cans.

Were they a joke, or simply representational? Were they canned laughter, or did they do what they said on the tin, as it were - offer a straightforward form of (artistic) nourishment for the masses? The puzzle of Warhol may never be fully resolved, but Indiana gives us some more material from which we can try and draw our own conclusions - even though they may not be the ones that he has intended.


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