Return to Warhol


by Mario Cutajar

“Elvis I and II,” 1964, silkscreen on acrylic, silkscreeen on
aluminum paint on canvas, 82 x 82” (each of two panels).
Photo: Carlo Catenazzi.

“Mao,” 1973, silkscreen ink/acrylic
on canvas,176 1/2 x 136 1/4”.
Modernism was by and large a heroic attempt to resist capitalism’s desecration of culture. It was an effort to locate a last ditch refuge for the sacred within art. Insofar as this desecration threatened culture itself--culture understood as that set of associated prejudices, beliefs, stories, rituals, traditions that give life some meaning that is able to transcend the glaring limitations of individual existence--the modernist response to the cultural trauma wrought by capitalism included an attempt, albeit a doomed one, to create a new culture able to replace the one destroyed. Thus, the political association between the modernist avant-garde and the Communist vanguard was not accidental, for they were both revolutionary responses to the same cultural fatality.

Likewise, the demise of modernism and socialist experiments had the same cause: the contradiction inherent in trying to construct a rational, prosthetical replacement for faith--that state of mind able to give existence meaning by reconciling man to mysteries like birth, death, despair and the myriad accidents of living that defy our management.

Stated simply, one function of culture is to induce a special kind of fatalism; not the leaden pessimism of the defeated, but a kind of insouciant acceptance enabling one to make peace with the hazard of living.

In devaluing the sacred and making the market the final arbiter of all value, capitalism reduced modern society to a colony of competing bacteria, each consumer an anxious, voracious, grasping, demographic entity consumed by the pointless labor of producing more in order to consume and waste more.

No matter how much this human bacterium consumes, this consumption is finally joyless. It never satisfies the deeper need to find something larger and more enduring, something that replaces the function of worship. This then is the paradoxical hell that is capitalism; everything we euphemistically call “modern” merely hides the bankruptcy of the new by focusing entirely on its being new.
The modernist recoil from modernity and its unique emptiness propelled modern art toward a romantic, overstated assertion of the “autonomy,” indeed the sanctity, of the art object. The related aspirations to universality and “primitive” unmediated expression were all part and parcel of the modernist attempt to wrench art free from contemporary culture. Achieving and maintaining distance from the vulgarities of mass (consumer) culture became the avant-garde’s singular obsession. The strategies to effect this ran from austere formalism to premeditated lunacy.

They failed because in exalting the art object as something pure and spiritual, the modernists unwittingly supplied an apologia for the very system they despised. For weren't the modernists themselves products of this very system? And did that not mean, therefore, that their sublime objects could be construed as the fruit of the very culture they were so anxious to distance themselves from? Thus it was, for instance, that at the height of the Cold War, Abstract Expressionism could be enlisted in the propaganda war as a manifestation of American “freedom.”

But that was not the worst of it. Worst was that modernist art itself became willy nilly one of the almost infinite varieties of modern kitsch, its assigned task to provide a suitably spiritual but not overwhelming experience to society matrons and self-made tycoons in need of the assurance that they possessed a soul. To someone like Mark Rothko, the Kurt Cobain of color-field painting, the strain of trying to maintain the illusion that a painting intended for the Four Season’s Hotel in New York could nonetheless be a tragic work of art proved too much to bear.

Andy Warhol was not the agonizing kind. It was he, after all, who declared that he wanted to be a machine, oddly suggesting a desire to transform into an ironic ideal the most banal actuality of life today--that condition the majority of Americans live daily of being a hapless cog. His strategy seems simple, even guileless, but it was and remains profoundly subversive. Stated positively, Warhol’s signal contribution to modern art was to reconnect art to a specific culture, and so to a time and a place, in the same way that, say, African masks and European medieval art are connected to a time and a place. Warhol is like a breach in the dam that the modernists hoped they had erected to keep art from being contaminated by the effluence of capitalist culture.

His intentions in this matter are open to dispute and largely irrelevant. It is the fact that Warhol’s intentions are always open to question that is significant; discerning his true intentions becomes an issue precisely because the things he framed as art are not things easily accepted as art, and yet they are the modern equivalent of those everyday objects that archaeologists and anthropologists use to define other cultures. Why then are we so squeamish about letting Campbell's Soup cans and gun-pointing Elvis’s define us? Is it our definition of what art is and is not that Warhol’s work calls into question? Or does it rather reveal a cultural poverty that we privately sense but would rather not have shoved in our faces?

The difference between Warhol and other Pop artists is that Warhol makes no visible attempt to “redeem” or otherwise transform his appropriated material. By comparison, someone like Rauschenberg is a one-man recycling plant. Rauschenberg redeems trash by dripping paint all over it like some exorcising priest dispensing holy water. Warhol, too, to some degree, estheticizes his subject matter (it’s impossible to frame anything as art and not estheticize it) but where others labored to redeem the trash of a disposable culture by re-digesting it as art, Warhol’s effort went into giving art the look of machine-made, disposable trash. The potency of Warhol’s work is entirely negative. You do not respond to it because it rewards you with an enhanced appreciation of soup cans, dollar bills, news images, and the rest. You respond to it as an affront, because it confronts you directly with—as art no less—every tired, debased, graphic cliché that has victimized you with its ubiquity and which now has the audacity to invade precincts formerly consecrated to good taste and communion with the beautiful. This makes the point of Warhol’s work maddeningly elusive. Everything that’s not there in a Warhol, the lack of everything you expect in a work of art--depth, warmth, solidity, pleasure, significance—are the very omissions that you are doomed, as a modern, to experience in life.

One does not have to assume a moral purpose to Warhol’s work. The mere transposition of the everyday banal into the framed space of “art” is a radical provocation. Most commonly it provokes rage at the artist. That was for a long time my own reaction to Warhol. It is, after all, easier to blame the perverse ugliness and shallowness of much of post-Warholian appropriation art on Warhol’s original sin than it is to acknowledge the simpler fact that every age gets the art it deserves. The reason we live in a world in which the hammer and sickle, electric chairs, and the face of Marilyn Monroe all have the same weight as images is because collectively we are diminished, half-dead beings.

Before Warhol, modern art could function as consolation for the banality of modern life. Hence the extravagant claims of “spiritual” qualities attributed to mere arrangements of colors, claims that in themselves testify to an impoverishment of spirit and the insidious exaltation of image over content that is characteristic of a culture dominated by marketing hype. After Warhol, what you see in galleries and museums closely resembles what you see outside. To the extent that we continue to experience this coalescing of “high” and “low” as a desecration of the former, we betray our unease at accepting the larger desecration of culture by the dominion of money. And to that extent, Warhol’s work remains an eye-opener and a question mark next to all that is ubiquitous but shouldn’t be.