Return to Warhol


by Betty Ann Brown

“Late capitalism deftly inverts its own logic and proclaims that if the artefact is a commodity, the commodity can always be an artefact. ‘Art’ and ‘life’ indeed interbreed -- which is to say that art models itself upon a commodity form which is already invested with aesthetic allure, in a sealed circle.”

--Terry Eagleton
“Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism”

“Flowers,” 1964, synthetic polymer paint/
silkscreen on canvas, 70 x 140 1/8”.

“Liquiorice Marilyn”, 1962, silk-
screen on canvas, 20 x 16”.

“Big Electric Chair,” 1967, silkscreen
ink/acrylic on canvas, 54 x 73”.
The year 1962 was pivotal for this country: September saw the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a pivotal year for my family, as well. We lived in Jacksonville, Florida. My father, a career naval officer, received a Distinguished Flying Cross, probably for photo reconnaissance flights over Cuba. (His mission was so covert that he went to his grave without ever telling me precisely what he’d done.)

I turned 13 in 1962, beginning an awkward, nearly clichéd transition from childhood to adulthood. I fell in love with rock’n’roll, bought 45s for my portable cream-colored record player--my favorite that year was Chubby Checker’s Peppermint Twist--and succumbed to what was to be a lifelong infatuation with Hollywood film. When I kissed Curtis Jordan in the school locker room, I imagined the encounter in romantic terms totally constructed by movie narratives. By 1962 then, mass culture reified life.

The year 1962 was also a pivotal year for American film history: Marilyn Monroe, the ultimate filmic sex symbol and captor of a nation’s shared fantasies died tragically on August 5. Shortly after Monroe’s death, Andy Warhol created a number of silk-screen portraits of the movie star. He appropriated her face from a still of the 1953 film Niagara, the turning point in Monroe’s career, in which she played the murderous wife of Joseph Cotten.

Heiner Bastian, curator of the Warhol Retrospective, notes that the still “shows [Monroe] as a film star, as an icon: a distinctly mythical figure. Particularly the silk-screens on a connotative gold ground that imply emptiness, the distant past, and the after life--but also the antinomy between saintly relic and fallen woman--articulate ‘the high and utterly base’ that are always simultaneously perceptible in Warhol’s work and preclude any hint of nobility. . .”

Shortly before the Monroe portraits, Warhol did silk-screens of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty. Then came images of Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor. All were celebrities, all starred in blockbuster Hollywood films.

Bastian aptly contrasts Warhol’s portraits of celebrities with “saintly relics,” but his take here somehow glosses over certain crucial historical and functional similarities between the two that are essential to any critical consideration of Warhol in context.

The Middle Ages in Western Europe marked the rise of capitalism. That period also marked the beginnings of what became mass media: it was then that woodblock print technology, imported from China, spread as far west as France and England. In addition, the Middle Ages marked a shift in the role of saints from revered role models to images to be consumed: individuals on pilgrimages to sites like Rome, the Holy Lands, and Santiago de Compostella purchased small single-sheet images of saints at the various churches and cathedrals they visited en route. Saint Christopher was a favorite, since he was patron of travelers. There is a wonderful example from thirteenth-century France of Christopher dressed as a medieval pilgrim, crossing a narrow river with the Christ child held high on one shoulder. Such a print might have been purchased at, say, Chartres Cathedral by a Parisian on her way to Northern Spain to fulfill a sacred vow through pilgrimage. The profit from the sale of the print might have contributed to the costly and decades-long building project of the cathedral. But of course the print also functioned as an archetypal souvenir, an image to help the owner recall her travels. Such prints were some of the first examples of art that European commoners could buy and own. If you could not afford a gilded bible, here were portable role models. It was through these prints that saints went from behavioral abstractions to artistic commodities.

There are still saints today that many believe in and whose images we collect, but the primary role models of the twentieth- and early twenty-first-centuries are entertainment celebrities, not holy figures. The role models we offer our children are athletes, musicians and movie stars. Little boys buy plastic dolls crafted to resemble Lakers and Patriots, the Kiss rock group, Arnold and Keanu. (Just the fact that you know them by their first names indicates their familiarity.)

Through the power of the image, we have developed the capacity to turn ostensibly neutral products into celebrities for consumption as well. Graham cracker cookies have been transformed into teddy bears who are eventually recycled as cartoon rock stars, performing right before Crest toothpaste crooners. Perhaps the most egregious example of this process occurred when California grape growers, threatened by the Cesar Chavez/UFW boycott, hired an advertising agency to come up with claymation commercials turning raisins into a Motown group singing I Heard It Through the Grapevine. The California Raisins went from TV ads to their own TV program, complete with spin-off toys and games, all for sale.

Commodities can be turned into celebrities; celebrities into commodities, all are offered up through the mass media for our late capitalist consumption. Andy Warhol’s work in the early 1960s, presenting commodities like Coca-Cola and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe in the same bland, flat, repeated format, points to the fact that our culture equates people and things, that it turns human beings into objects for purchase.

Robert Pelfrey suggests this as does Harvard Professor of Divinity, Harvey Cox in his recent article The Market as God. According to Cox, the divine is now situated in the values of consumer capitalism. “In Catholic theology,” he writes, “through what is called ‘transubstantiation,’ ordinary bread and wine become the vehicles of the holy. In the mass of The Market a reverse process occurs. Things that have been held sacred transmute into interchangeable items for sale. . .in a dazzling display of reverse transubstantiation, the human body has become the latest sacred vessel to be converted into a commodity.”

This troubles Cox, who asserts, “As everything in what used to be called creation becomes a commodity, human beings begin to look at one another, and at themselves, in a funny way, and they see colored price tags.” What is troubling about this, is the fact that to commodify people is to objectify them, to empty them of their human value. When you see people as things, you treat them as you do material possessions: You keep them as long as they are useful and attractive, then discard them for newer models. Worse, it is the capacity to see people as things that allows you to call war victims “collateral damage” or whatever the current doublespeak.

Which brings me back to Warhol, Monroe and 1962. It is telling that Warhol’s most often reproduced celebrity images are those of a sex symbol--or should I say “sex object”?--whose very celebrity status was finally untenable, unlivable. The year 1962 was the watershed year when the abject emptiness inherent in the commodification of celebrities was articulated in Monroe’s death. But the Monroe images are not alone. Also in the early 1960’s, Warhol began his Disaster Series, which to me culminated in the multiple silk-screens of the electric chair, that symbol of the highest form of state-sanctioned objectification of people.

But perhaps it was Warhol’s images of Chairman Mao that best underscored the absurd extent of human-to-thing commodification and the artist’s wry if equivocal position with respect to it. The artist turned the face of one of the most influential political figures of the twentieth century into a stencil that was repeated endlessly like wallpaper design. Later, when the British beer company Watney’s used Mao’s face to advertise its “red” beer and plastered London with thousands of posters of the iconic Chinese communist face, Warhol’s silk-screens seemed prescient.

And Warhol? Was he simply “shy” as Bastian characterizes the artist? Or was he the empty/emptied vessel through which the celebrity-to-commodity, person-to-thing process moved, then emerged in silk-screened icons? Did the artist intend his art as critique of commodification? Or was he merely reflecting the values his culture already embodied? And, finally, how does this retrospective exhibition, continuing the remarkable lionization of the artist and abetting the transformation of person into cliché participate in the process? How much are we writers and viewers emptying Warhol of his humanity, objectifying him, turning him into yet another commodity to be consumed?