Finding Warhol - Art as a Trojan Horse

In the past several months, I've been exposed to six or seven separate documentaries about Andy Warhol, and am no closer at pinning down the heart of this enigmatic individual.  Then again, maybe I understand him more than most. 

My father was mentored by famous American painter Wayne Thiebaud, and as I see it, Thiebaud and Warhol, while two wildly different artists with wildly different approaches to their art, both owe a kind of odd debt to one another.  They both worked in the 1950s and 60s and both straddled a unique line, melding fine art and commercial/pop art until the two became indistinguishable.  Thiebaud's famous paintings of mundane imagery - cakes and pies and food displays - mostly pre-date Warhol's famous soup cans and cola bottles, but both evoke - at least for me - the same reflection when I study them. I'd like to think these were two disparate artists working from their own isolated idiom - in fact I'd bet on it - but it seems possible there was some bleed-through and that Warhol's sensitivity to avant garde art trends around him might have gleaned in some of Thiebaud's influence. 

An art educator gazing at a set of completed student projects (each one laid carefully out next to the other), sees a kind of art assembly line not unlike Warhol's numerous factory enterprises.  My father was an art educator primarily due to the urging and influence of his friend Thiebaud. Early in my life, both my father and his famous artist friend exposed us to this notion of 'art as product,' even if strictly educational product. I knew early on how Warhol's famous Factory must have smelled - that turpentine odor mixed with acrylic, the smell of drying ink and paint, the deep odor of developing fluid. My dad's art classroom let off the same general sense of a place where brain and paint chemicals collided.  As I see it, Thiebaud and Warhol, who owe a kind of debt to each other, directly influenced my father who, in turn, influenced me to see art a certain way. This tenuous but undeniably link to Warhol leaves me feeling a kinship with this cold, distant, enigmatic and unapproachable soul. 

No one ventured out beyond the insulated world of fine art into the realm of the absurdly commercial and grotesquely distorted celebrity better than Warhol did. His self perpetuating celebrity echo chamber, fostered as the Factory through multimedia experiments, particularly short films and photographs, demonstrated his savvy and reflexive urge to mirror the times around him through the most sensational facets of pop culture. If only Warhol were still here to witness how that echo chamber has grown, and evolved, and become a kind of ubiquitous sounding board in spaces even outside the world of art. 

Celebrity culture has always been bloated and vacuous and meaningless, but our explosure to it has grown even more insidious. The information age has placed the traditional newsroom and its tabloid wing into the same Cronenbergian DNA splicing chamber, and the result is this cafeteria style front page monstrosity. World leaders and Nobel Prize Laureates peer out alongside Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian, and in this twisted universe they seem all at home with one another. I think Warhol would be perfectly at home with all this. In fact, he might even be delighted and transfixed by the nonstop parade of vacuous self importance paraded out each news cycle. 

It strikes me that Warhol's art has never been more prescient.  His screen-printed portraiture divided and diluted celebrity.  His video portraits and short films took celebrity - or the idea of celebrity, hammered it into submission and ground it into a fine powder.  I get the sense from today's news industry - this monstrous hybrid of tabloid and serious journalism from which no publication is safe - that the idea of celebrity as royalty is not something requiring reflection.  It just is.  Something tells me that if Warhol were here, at the height of his powers of observation, he would find something to say about all this that might cause us to examine ourselves.  Or, perhaps, it would just be another story on a slow news day.

Above, I describe my relationship with art as having trickled down from an important period in American Art fifty years ago.  It passed down through Thiebaud and Warhol with students like my father, and from him to his students and children. This upbringing gave me a curious notion that art not only can be commercial, but that sometimes the art that best comments on society is by nature commercial - a part of the cultural commerce whose inherent value is ascribed later, once the critics of culture and art get their its hands on it.  I think Warhol understood that making statements and playing them down and packaging them as the very celebrity product they purport to play with is a very effective Trojan Horse in getting people to see the ridiculousness of their society's obsessions.  That Warhol was unapologetically obsessed and didn't find it in the least bit ridiculous is one of the ironies of his existence and the reason he remains so enigmatic.


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