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The Curse of Warholism

I AM SORRY TO REPORT that Andy Warhol’s throwaway sensibility is not being turned into landfill, at least not anytime soon. Toss Warhol’s stuff in the trash and it appears in recycling, invariably with a higher price tag. Half a century after he became the artist of the moment, Warhol is more with us than ever, now the throwaway with a takeaway in which many see the key to the art of our time as well as the art of the future. Warhol has become his own ism. Warholism is the dominant ism of our day, grounded as it is in the assumption that popular culture trumps all other culture, and that all culture must become popular culture in order to succeed, and that this new high-plus-pop synergy relieves everybody of the responsibility to experience works of art one on one. The belligerent knowingness of Warholism is what fuels “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” the extraordinarily elaborate exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nearly everybody agrees that the show is a mess, although few seem to have stopped to wonder if Warholism is the reason why.

Whatever you may think about Warhol and Warholism, there is something astonishing about Warhol’s ascent from hot chic amusement to a philosophical visionary who is compared to Emerson and Whitman. I have to admit that for a long time I was inclined to ignore the Warhol saga. Why bother being incensed by Warhol’s work, which at its infrequent best has only a chilled-out romanticism? In his most striking paintings, which date from the early-to-mid-1960s, the drunkenly misregistered silkscreened color gives a smudged-lipstick sensuality to photographs of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Troy Donahue. Warhol’s portrait of the gallerist Holly Solomon, a multicolored grid of Photobooth snapshots, is brilliant shallow fun. And the two self-portraits from 1967 with which the Metropolitan exhibition opens—in my view, the highpoint of the show—have a muffled manic-depressive fascination, with the torrid colors confounded by Warhol’s gesture, the young man so shy that he holds two fingers over his mouth as if to obliterate his own powers.

Warhol without Warholism is a troubadour of café society and its mentality, his visual effects closer to the quicksilver insights of a fashion designer than the adamantine decision-making of a painter. These are period pieces with an enduring formal jolt, comparable in some respects to the work of Florine Stettheimer, who in the 1920s and 1930s chronicled the parties and pastorals of high bohemian Manhattan in paintings that transcend illustration, but just barely. If you want to know what the passing parade looked like when it included Marcel Duchamp, Stettheimer can tell you. Warhol can tell you a historical thing or two as well. What’s missing in Warhol’s work is Stettheimer’s artisanal energy, the intricate fashioning of the image that gives her social documents their poetic vibration.

WARHOLISM IS NOT so much an outgrowth of Warhol’s paintings and sundry other products as it is the state of mind in which his work thrives. Warholism is bigger than Warhol. But Warhol’s work, fueled by popular culture’s cult of gigantism, is that rare hot air balloon that has been overinflated without ever bursting and collapsing, at least until now. At the Metropolitan, Warhol and Warholism are all things to all people. Museumgoers are primed and eager to embrace this enormous pop culture smorgasbord of a show that one of the greatest museums in the world has dumped in their laps. The show has a warm, fuzzy, familiar feeling, what with the Coca Cola logos, the Brillo boxes, and the famous faces ranging from Jackie to Reagan to Mao to the Mona Lisa. If museumgoers feel their minds shutting down well before the end of the show, some will say that is because the Metropolitan, in its eagerness to please, has given visitors too much of a good thing. Warhol is presented as a connoisseur of popular culture and celebrity culture, as the inventor of new forms of abstract painting and the truest disciple of Duchamp, as a comedian and a pornographer, a society portraitist and a self-portraitist, a formidable draftsman and a great filmmaker, a site-specific artist and a conceptual artist, a nihilist and a religious artist. And if all of that were not enough, he turns out to have a great late style, too. Has there ever been an artist who accomplished so much?

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Yet to chip away at the claims that are made for Warhol can seem futile, because they are not made on behalf of the work so much as they are made on behalf of Warholism, of which particular works are only demonstrations. The party line is that we are all Warholians now. And if you are not with the program, you are quite simply irrelevant. This view was already taking hold nearly a quarter century ago, when the Museum of Modern Art mounted a vast retrospective. Kynaston McShine, the exhibition’s curator, began his catalogue introduction by asserting that “he quite simply changed how we all see the world around us.” And in a catalogue essay the art historian Robert Rosenblum, who began his career as a refined and adventuresome analyst of Ingres and Neoclassicism, announced that “we may all owe a debt to Warhol ... for reflecting exactly that state of moral and emotional anaesthesia which, like it or not, probably tells us more truth about the realities of the modern world than do the rhetorical passions of Guernica.” Today such ideas are taken for granted, as witness Peter Schjeldahl, who in reviewing “Regarding Warhol” in The New Yorker announced that “out here, like it or not, we are all Warholians, immersed in a common chaos of signs, gadgets, and sensations, and somehow detached from it, too.” The argument is that we are all soulless in the Warhol way, all victims of cultural anesthesia. And if you question these assumptions or attempt to change the conversation, you will be told that you have done nothing of the kind. If we are all Warholians, then even our distaste for Warhol is a Warholian act. The attitude suggests a certain philosophic finality, which explains why so many intellectuals are fascinated by the phenomenon.

Back in 1989, two years after Warhol’s death, some imagined that the Museum of Modern Art was overestimating Warholism’s reach when they dedicated two floors to “Andy Warhol: A Retrospective,” which contained approximately three hundred works. As it turned out, Warholism was only beginning its rise as the state-of-the-art state of mind. In recent years there has never been a time when there was not a big Warhol show up in one or another American museum. Beginning in September 2009, “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade” toured the country for fifteen months, with stops at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures” opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in December 2010. “Warhol: Headlines” premiered at the National Gallery in Washington in September 2011, traveled to Germany and Italy, and has come back across the Atlantic for a final stop at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. This past summer “The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol” was featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. There is also an endless stream of gallery exhibitions, some of them quite massive, especially “Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol,” mounted at the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street in New York in the fall of 2006. And then there are the books. According to my bathroom scale, Andy Warhol “Giant” Size, published by Phaidon in 2006, weighs thirteen pounds.

“REGARDING WARHOL” has been designed to top all the competition. Thomas Campbell, who has been the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for nearly four years, wants everybody to know that America’s greatest museum will no longer be taking a measured, wait-and-see attitude toward recent art, as it did when Philippe de Montebello, his predecessor, was in charge. The big, bold, blowsy Warhol flower paintings that have been hung in the Metropolitan’s Great Hall seem intended to get visitors in the mood. “Regarding Warhol”—mounted in the enormous rooms on the museum’s second floor that have in the past hosted unforgettable explorations of Byzantium and Renaissance and Baroque tapestry—is a bewildering, bombastic affair. Visitors are going to be sorely disappointed if they expect a historical survey tracing Warhol’s influence from the 1960s to the contemporary global art world, where Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst reign more or less supreme. This show is not art history; it is agitprop.

The show is organized thematically rather than chronologically, as if to emphasize Warholism’s status as a wrap-around 24-7 experience. Themes are introduced with tabloid vehemence, the boldface section titles and subtitles hammering us with their relevance. There are sections dedicated to “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster,” “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” and “Queer Studies: Shifting Identities.” In each section, works by Warhol are jammed together with works by his contemporaries and by younger artists. Each room feels like a fairly miscellaneous group show, the sort of thing a high-end Chelsea gallery might put together during a slow month, with a Hirst from stock, a Ruscha borrowed from the gallery next door, and a Warhol borrowed from a collector who is considering selling.

The last two sections—“Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality” and “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle”—wander off in so many directions that museumgoers, not surprisingly, are left looking lost. Although the exhibition was organized by Mark Rosenthal and Marla Prather, curators who have both done distinguished work in the past, “Regarding Warhol” seems to lack a guiding curatorial hand. Could it be that Warholism is by its very nature irreconcilable with discrimination? Musing in a catalogue essay about Warhol’s paintings of Campbell soup cans, Brillo boxes, and Dr. Scholl’s foot products, Rosenthal’s mind wanders to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. He wonders if “her phrase could be turned around to become the ‘evil of banality,’” and speculates whether “that rhetorical expression [might] somehow apply to much of Warhol’s subject matter.” Who can be surprised that Arendt, too, is dragged in, as company for Emerson and Whitman? Where Warholism is concerned, nobody has any shame. The strongest part of the project is a series of interviews with artists that Prather has contributed to the catalogue. Here you feel a skillful curator’s intelligence at work, with the pay-off in some especially invigorating conversations with Alex Katz and Vija Celmins.

Katz cuts right through the Warhol mystique, bluntly observing that although “he was a terrific graphic artist ... he couldn’t paint as well as I can.” You have to respect Katz—an octogenarian who now shows with Gavin Brown’s enterprise, the cool cat among blue-chip galleries—for sounding like a grumpy old man when he points out that Warhol didn’t know what to do with a paintbrush. Of course the criticism can seem beside the point, because the inflationary claims made for Warhol are in large measure extra-artistic, grounded in the assumption that he altered the way we see the entire world.

I WOULD BE PERFECTLY happy never to see anything by Andy Warhol again. But Warholism does need to be addressed, because it poses a direct threat to any nuanced experience of the arts. There is something about Warholism’s way of mimicking the optimism of the avant-garde that brings to mind the strange allure of “midcult,” the cultural transformation that Dwight Macdonald first diagnosed in the late 1950s and described in “Masscult and Midcult,” originally published by Partisan Review in 1960. That essay, forgotten by all but a few stalwart students of the New York intellectuals until it was brought back into circulation in an anthology of Macdonald’s writings edited by John Summers last year, has still not received the fresh attention it deserves. The young Brooklyn bohemians who are quite rightly troubled by our Gilded Age, and still look to Clement Greenberg’s essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” as they try to disentangle the relationship between high culture and popular culture, will find much more of immediate relevance in “Masscult and Midcult.”

Dwight Macdonald in 1960 was a far more disabused observer than Clement Greenberg was in 1939. Even at the close of the bleak 1930s, Greenberg still believed it was possible to set high culture and popular culture in some clear dialectical opposition. Dwight Macdonald, writing twenty years later, had pretty much given up any hope for cultural clarity. With Macdonald’s essay, we are in the already murky regions where we live today, when it is not high culture but “midcult” that reigns in the museums, the concert halls, and the magazines. Macdonald calls midcult a “peculiar hybrid” of high culture and “the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity” that he associates with popular culture. Midcult is popular entertainment, only covered with “a cultural fig leaf.” Macdonald worries about a new culture that “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” This is precisely what Warholism has done to the avant-garde. Of course part of the beauty of Warholism—for those who are with the program—is that anybody who questions its populist claims is immediately dismissed as a snob.

“Regarding Warhol” is a midcult extravaganza, pop imagery with that “cultural fig leaf” that Macdonald talks about—although by now the fig leaf has been Photoshopped. Many of the works in “Regarding Warhol” are so poker-faced that heartfelt engagement can hardly be what is desired or expected. Consider a few offerings toward the beginning of the show. Jeff Koons’s Ushering in Banality is an oversized version of a dime store collectible, with a polychromed wood pig surrounded by three polychromed wood cherubic figures. Damien Hirst’s Eight Over Eight is one of his medicine cabinets, designed to hang on the wall and outfitted with rows of pharmaceutical products. Tom Sachs’s Chanel Chainsaw is a model of a chainsaw made of cardboard and thermal adhesive and emblazoned with the fashion designer’s name. You may be tempted to try and figure out what the artists expect you to glean from their works, but if the answers given by Koons in an interview with Prather are symptomatic, the explanations are so obtuse as to be pretty much useless. Of Ushering in Banality, Koons explains in his faux-naïf way that “it was kind of autobiographical. I’m ushering in banality, and it doesn’t matter what people think. I just feel that I have good intentions here about what I’m trying to communicate to people. In a way, spiritually, it’s like I have God on my side or something.”

TO BLAME THE MALAISE that hangs in the stale air of “Regarding Warhol” on either the organizers or the museumgoers sidesteps the real problem, which is that Warholism as a faith ought by now to be in ruins, although you certainly wouldn’t know it from the prices that Warhols are reaching in the auction houses. Warholism is half a century old, and like some other faiths the world could do without, it is especially difficult to uproot because its origins are mixed up with a line of distinguished if misguided thought. Though Warholism can claim no foundational text on the order of Das Kapital, there was a flurry of writing in the early 1960s that definitely set the stage, and among the most compelling of those first theoretical speculations were Leo Steinberg’s “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public,” presented as a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, and Arthur Danto’s “The Artworld,” published in The Journal of Philosophy in 1964. As Steinberg and Danto grappled in the early 1960s with new forms of pop culture imagery in the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, they were determined not to repeat the mistakes of commentators half a century earlier, who had reacted with uncertainty if not shock to the work of Matisse, Picasso, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Duchamp.

So Warholism began with an anxiety—the anxiety of philistinism, or the fear of an allegation of philistinism—to which a few writers proposed a few tentative solutions. For the educated public that even back then was beginning to fear cultural ostracism, Warholism offered the assurance that anybody who climbed on the Pop Art bandwagon could have the social cachet of an avant-gardist. Steinberg in particular brooded about what he saw as the inability of even some legendary avant-gardists to accept a new avant-garde, recalling Signac’s difficulties with Matisse’s most simplified work, and Matisse’s difficulties with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and Braque’s first Cubist compositions. Steinberg is understanding about their equivocations, concluding not “that only academic painters spurn the new,” but that in fact “any man becomes academic by virtue of, or with respect to, what he rejects.” Confronting that dilemma, Steinberg found himself worrying that he, too, might be left on the wrong side of history. For Steinberg and Danto, this fear of being mistaken for a philistine or a reactionary was such a central concern that the works of art they were actually considering in the 1960s became pawns in a great dispute—a dispute about the nature of art and experience.

Steinberg—whose writings on Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Picasso are among the most penetrating published in his time—describes his impressions on first seeing Jasper Johns’s work in 1958 with an admirable scrupulosity. He speaks of “The American Flag—not a picture of it, windblown or heroic, but stiffened, rigid, the pattern itself.” He discusses paint quality, composition, the transformation of real objects into the different reality of the canvas with considerable care, and he is attentive to the differing responses of artists and curators. In the end, though, Steinberg’s encounter with the work resolves not into an understanding of the work but into something entirely different: a romantic fixation with his own psychic processes. “The value which I shall put on this painting tests my personal courage,” he says. He quite literally changes the subject, pivoting from the contemplation of the work of art to the contemplation of his own courage, or lack thereof. Seeking to avoid the error of earlier generations, Steinberg makes everything too much about himself, so that avant-gardism becomes a form of narcissism. He describes “a kind of self-analysis that a new image can throw you into and for which I am grateful. I am left in a state of anxious uncertainty by the painting, about painting, about myself. And I suspect that this is all right.”

Danto, who is temperamentally unsuited for Steinberg’s hairsbreadth impressions and psychological shadings, has the altogether admirable impulse to consider the new realism of Warhol and Rauschenberg in relation to ideas about the nature of art and reality that go back to Plato and Aristotle. But Danto, too, in writing about the new pop culture subject matter, and in particular about Warhol’s wood boxes silkscreened to look like cartons full of Brillo soap pads, pivots away from the direct confrontation with the work to intricate reflections on how a person ought to regard it. He does not seem to care about his particular response to the Brillo boxes: “Never mind that the Brillo box may not be good, much less great art. The impressive thing is that it is art at all.” What the work itself elicits is far less important than the task of locating whatever happens to have turned up in the art galleries in some historical scheme. “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art; an artworld.” This statement bears close examination. The art world has trumped the art—and Warholism is born. “What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art.... The world has to be ready for certain things, the artworld no less than the real one. It is the role of artistic theories, these days as always, to make the artworld, and art, possible.”

WHAT STRIKES ME as rather extraordinary, in Steinberg’s retreat into psychological self-analysis and in Danto’s dependence on philosophical categories, is an unwillingness to trust the experience of the eye. Now we all know that aesthetic experience is complex, ambiguous, subject to revision; and it goes without saying that there is no such thing as direct experience unmediated by ideas, theories, and earlier experiences. But behind both Steinberg’s and Danto’s thoughts I see a deep worry, a fear of the direct experiences that they believe so often misled those who first encountered the work of an earlier generation’s avant-garde masters. Steinberg cites Leo Stein, who bought Matisse’s work at the beginning of his career, as a man who was willing to take the risks needed to access “a novel and positive experience.” But when I turned from Steinberg’s essay to Leo Stein’s various recollections of his early encounters with the work of Cézanne and Matisse—you can find them in his book Appreciation and in a collection of letters called Journey Into the Self—I was struck by how different Stein’s experience was from Steinberg’s. Whatever elements of discomfort, whatever desire to embrace some fresh theory, were involved in Leo Stein’s encounters with modern art, the first and last thing was always the visual power of the work of art—not a problematized power, but power plain and simple.

With Steinberg and Danto, avant-gardism begins to look less like a heartfelt experience than a foregone conclusion, generated by a desire to be on the right side of history and ratified by a new theory. As for visitors to “Regarding Warhol,” they are given nothing but foregone conclusions—Warholism as a faith in a particular artistic future that eliminates any of the risk-taking involved in individual judgment. Considered in this light, the decision to organize the show thematically rather than chronologically makes perfect sense, because it turns Warhol’s obsessive timeliness into a timeless condition. What is most shocking about “Regarding Warhol” is the crudity of the lineages and spheres of influence the exhibition sets out. The presence of Alex Katz in a show about Warhol’s influence is peculiar, because as Katz himself explains in his interview with Prather, it was in fact he who influenced Warhol. We do not have to take Katz’s word for that genealogy, which was described long ago by Frank O’Hara, who saw a succession running from de Kooning’s Woman series to Katz’s glamorous portraits of his wife, Ada, and then onward to Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jacqueline Kennedy. “Regarding Warhol” has no use for the niceties of influence and implication. With Warholism, either you’re in or you’re out, and the fact that Katz actually is part of an entirely different stream in the history of art in the 1950s and 1960s, one that includes representational painters such as Fairfield Porter, Philip Pearlstein, and Louisa Matthiasdottir, is too remote from the highways of midcult to deserve a mention.

WARHOLISM is an octopus whose tentacles reach in every direction. I never imagined I would be defending Marcel Duchamp, but one of the most disturbing developments in “Regarding Warhol” is the failure to make any distinction between Duchamp’s intricate nihilistic aestheticism and Warhol’s slap-happy cynicism. Whatever one may think of Duchamp’s Readymades, they represent a lofty and austere critique of popular culture, and are worlds away from anything Warhol imagined. It is embarrassing to find Vija Celmins and Robert Gober, two artists dedicated to the most laborious artisanal practices, caught in the grips of the prefab pomposities that dominate this show. Both Celmins and Gober are much involved with the poetry and even the poetic banality of quotidian experience, but when Celmins paints a painting that imitates the black-and-white of news photography, and Gober constructs a fragment of a figure out of beeswax, wood, and oil paint, they are trumping pop culture through the authority of the artist’s hand—and this Warhol never does.

Celmins, in her interview with Prather, emphasizes the importance for her work of Morandi and Johns, and only gradually, perhaps responding to the insistence of the questioning, entertains the influence of Warhol. Like Katz, she may be glad to be included in an exhibition that will clearly get a good deal of attention, even as she worries about a distorted view of recent history. As for Gober, who has contributed a statement to the catalogue, when asked to consider if his body-part sculptures were influenced by Warhol’s Disaster paintings, his response is, “I honestly don’t know. Influence is murky water. Weegee maybe, or fragments of antiquities, or real life.” More generally, Gober turns Warhol’s influence back, musing that although he read The Philosophy of Andy Warhol,it may have encouraged my reluctance to speak publicly about my own work, never trusting I could be that clever.”

Of course nobody should be surprised by the collapse of all distinctions that addles “Regarding Warhol,” as this is a central tenet of Warholism. Warhol himself, who in his early years actually went to the trouble of having his portrait painted by Fairfield Porter, would surely be delighted to be paired with Porter’s old friend Katz. He would undoubtedly love the everyone-in-the-pool chaos that Rosenthal and Prather have created at the Metropolitan. Warhol’s vaunted openness to all influences and associations—he likes porn stars, movie stars, Picasso, and Leonardo—must be engineered to make his critics look small-minded. Some will recall that in 1970 Warhol produced a wildly eclectic show called “Raiding the IceBox” from the holdings of the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design. The exhibition was dreamed up by the museum’s director, Daniel Robbins, during a freewheeling conversation with the collectors John and Dominique de Menil.

In an account of Warhol’s curatorial activities in Rhode Island published in the catalogue of the 1970 show, Andy is the pied piper and everybody else just falls into line. Shown the museum’s collection of antique shoes, Warhol, we are told, “wanted the entire shoe collection. Did he mean the cabinet as well? ‘Oh, yes, just like that,’” was Warhol’s response. To which the director of the museum observed that no ordinary curator would have thought of exhibiting the shoes “just like that.” Coming along for the ride was Dominique de Menil, one of the most refined collectors of recent decades, who nonetheless had quite an appetite for Warhol’s antics. At one point a modest but charming Cézanne was found. “Yes, we’ll take the Cézanne,” Warhol announced. And then he went on. “Is that a real Cézanne or a fake one? If that’s real, we won’t take it.” Which seemed to disturb poor Mrs. de Menil, who asked, reverting to her pre-Warhol self, “Why not have a real Cézanne?” Why not, indeed.

To watch Dominique de Menil, who created in Houston one the most beautiful small museums in the world, dance attendance on Warhol is to begin to grasp the intoxication of Warholism. If somebody whose taste was as practiced and independent as hers succumbed to its fascination, we can hardly wonder why most of the major museums in the United States and Europe have jumped on the bandwagon. Of course the sensational auction prices are part of the equation, raising Warhol’s prestige among the high-end collectors who sit on museum boards and are involved, whether directly or indirectly, in decisions as to what exhibitions are approved. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Thomas Campbell has made crystal clear his desire to see the museum vigorously embrace contemporary art, Warhol is a no-brainer. For Campbell—as for Dominique de Menil and so many others—the fascination is not so much with the glitter and the glamor of Warhol the man as with Warholism as a creed. In our disabused era, when so many people are reluctant to argue for a work of art that makes particular demands on the audience, Warhol’s insistence that cutting-edge contemporary art is easy to make and easier to like comes as a cathartic revelation. How Thomas Campbell must yearn for some of the Warhol magic! What is most interesting—and encouraging—about “Regarding Warhol” is that nobody has found it a cathartic experience. Could it be that some museumgoers are wondering if Warholism has turned out to be yet another god that failed? 

Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Warholism As a State of Mind.”