Saturday, September 30, 2006

An edited excerpt from a letter to a friend about the artist Andy Warhol, with passing jabs at several other American cultural icons:

You ask me what I think of Andy Warhol. Well. . . . To my mind, Andy Warhol was more a symptom than an artist. He was a child in a sandbox called modern art: a very shrewd child with an eye on the main chance, who knew that modern art is as good a con as any, and more fun than most – and highly lucrative if you play it right. There are many fools in this world, heaven knows - and we're all of us fools at least some of the time: Warhol chose his fools very carefully, and they came to him in glittery droves of the moneyed and the glamorous. He was a kind of fakir and guru to their tribes in the dank precincts of Manhattan in the 1960s and 70s – a rich time for such cons; if he were starting today, he may have chosen a more conservative approach, but make no mistake – he was in it for the con, not for the art, because his ultimate values were – or at least Warhol himself proclaimed them to be - the insipidly materialistic ones that run most of our lives.

By “art,” I mean (and here is my attempt to define art – always a dangerous thing to do!) a search for aesthetic rightness, existential truth, and spiritual meaning through the exploration of perceptible form, in whatever medium, with the hope that enough people will share our vision to pay us enough to pay our bills and let us continue our explorations. This (often highly playful, yet always deeply serious) search at the basis of genuine art I don’t see any sign that Warhol pursued: his goal was “success,” “being a star,” “shopping” - and he discovered such success was best achieved, in the art world, through a kind of high-flying deception. He did manipulate images cleverly enough to seem to be an “artist” in the true sense – and his opaque public utterances (wonderfully disingenuous as they were) made him appear more genuine than I think he was.

Warhol joins the ranks of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Allen Ginsberg, Madonna, etc., etc., etc., as one more American narcissist in love with “celebrity,” with “being a star” – a mediocrity with no identity but with one or two talents, and a genius for self-promotion, who demonstrates to the “mass man” (American society as a whole) that all you need is a little luck with the Zeitgeist, a clever con, and a first-rate publicity department to make yourself famous, rich, even respected, reverenced, worshipped (vide Graceland, where Elvis is almost literally worshipped).

In that sense, Warhol is the quintessential American culturatus (I won’t dignify him with the name “artist,” which for me carries a serious (not always solemn!) responsibility – to oneself, one’s audience, the art one practices, and future artists): Warhol is a worthy “artist” only for a culture that made George W. Bush its president.

One of my own goals and personal ambitions is to help create a culture in America where such culturati aren’t taken seriously, are allowed a place in the sideshow tent of culture perhaps but never “under the big top” (insofar as culture is always a circus), or are laughed off stage or exhibited at freak shows sent on tours abroad to demonstrate the unerring tastelessness and stupidity of the American mind, even at supposedly sophisticated levels.

Despite my attack on Warhol, his work is still a bit of a problem for me if only because the man had talent, indeed he had enormous gifts – and he even had something like integrity, and almost an intellectual conscience; the disappointing thing is that he used those gifts essentially to make fools of the rest of us, especially those in the art game who want to be fooled: art critics, gallery owners, museum curators, and collectors (and then art teachers and students, and even young and impressionable artists themselves), in whose interest it is to puff a given body of “artworks.” He came along at just the time American artistic culture could use what he produced, both his products and his "rhetoric" – and was willing to go along with his little racket since it made so many people money – and no one was in a position to say he was wearing no clothes, because no one else was wearing any either.

I often think of Warhol as a sort of dime-store Duchamp – though without that legendary con artist’s intellect, despite his undeniable cunning: a con man, and “creepy” indeed. As a cultural phenomenon, Warhol is an example of a glaring weakness in modern art, and that is: gullibility. Modern art (or if you prefer, modernist art, as well as its step-child, postmodern art) – and this is part of what I think distinguishes it from the art of previous epochs and other cultures - stands or falls on the integrity of the artist as much as on his technical capacity, and sometimes even more so – in modern art, the display of technical finesse is rarely an issue, nor is there always a set of commonly accepted norms to judge a work’s success or failure; therefore, what we are left with is trust in the artist’s truthfulness, sincerity – authenticity - when we are placed before what is often on the face of it baffling and obscure work – and this trust Warhol’s example undercut (as Duchamp did earlier – subject for another rant!). The problem remains that modern art, without faith in the integrity of the artist, becomes little more than an enormous confidence racket, a game of “the greater fool” (as in investing) between artists, gallery owners, curators, and collectors, each creating a phantom of value (in the form of escalating prices – e.g., the $15,000,000 for the Campbell soup cans) out of what is, when all is said and done, “trash.”

What gives an artwork value and interest for me, personally, beyond the sheer pleasure of contemplating it, is the integrity of vision expressed in the work – is the value of the person behind the artwork, as a meditator on the human condition in all its ramifications, from the most seemingly trivial to the most extraordinary – without this, it has no more value than any other waste basket’s contents; with this, it becomes a treasure of the human race, something indeed (and I don't use the word lightly) sacred to man.

To me what gives art value is, ultimately, the artist: I don’t value Bach’s music because of its aesthetic qualities alone; if a computer had created it, it would have no value for me – it has value because a human being invented, produced, indeed created, it with all its aesthetic fascinations. Human beings, I believe, create meaning: that is our glory and our task. I certainly see it as my task and, with luck, my “glory.” Well, maybe just my “task”!

Warhol and narcissists like him, I believe, turn art into a confidence racket feeding their need for celebrity but merely aggrandizing the rich in the end: a game of self-delusion masquerading as cultural significance. I suspect that, like Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol was an empty shell, incapable of genuineness, authenticity, or truth: a fake human being – a con even to himself. And therefore, like the list of “American culturati” I gave at the outset of this ridiculously overlong and somewhat self-important rant against the poor little Czech boy who wanted to become a star (and got his wish in spades), he was a perfect blank on which many Americans could project their own wish-fulfillments regarding fame, success, meaning, culture, and, indeed, art itself.

I feel as if I ought to make some kind of bow at this point and modestly accept the applause of the audience – or the rotten eggs if there are any Warhol fans among them.

© 2006 Christopher Bernard


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