Features December 1994
At the Warhol Museum
On impressions of the new Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums.
One’s first impression of the Andy Warhol Museum is of a smart new specialty store—not exactly a department store, to be sure, but something on the scale of the old Henri Bendel’s on West Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan or the new Barneys on Madison Avenue, only in this case distinctly downmarket and featuring but one line of goods: the artist’s reputation. In this respect, it also resembles some of the new-style emporiums that have lately opened around Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street in New York: the Warner Bros. and Coca-Cola shops that do a brisk business in brand-name nostalgia kitsch. It is indeed as if Warhol’s comparison of art museums and department stores had been adopted, with appropriate modifications, as the guiding principle in planning this monument to his name and fame.
Yet this first impression, though never entirely eradicated, is soon diminished as one makes one’s way through the seven stories of the building that houses the new museum. The institution that has been created to honor Warhol’s memory in Pittsburgh, his hometown, is too sedate, even bleak, and at times too tedious to sustain comparison with the livelier world of retail commerce, however much we may be reminded of that world in what we see. Here, too, a species of brand-name nostalgia kitsch is encountered at every turn, but the atmosphere in which it is displayed is surprisingly dour and formal, as if a perpetual memorial service were in progress somewhere on the premises. On all but one floor of the museum there are stainless-steel wall plaques, on which are inscribed solemn accounts of the various stages of Warhol’s career. These remind one of nothing so much as the inscribed lids that adorn Jenny Holzer’s lugubrious funerary caskets—which further re-enforces the mortuary effect. Adding to this impression, too, are the display cases containing all sorts of personal memorabilia and flea-market trash —snapshots, publicity photos, theater programs, exhibition announcements, party invitations, handbills, ticket stubs, sales receipts, newspaper clippings, cookie jars, even items of clothing—which we are invited to ponder as sacred documents tracing the course of the great man’s journey from his humble origins in Pittsburgh to his international stardom by way of the fashion, advertising, and art worlds of Manhattan.
It is indeed as if Warhol’s comparison of art museums and department stores had been adopted, with appropriate modifications, as the guiding principle in planning this monument to his name and fame.
There is, of course, something fundamentally ridiculous about this attempt to turn the life and work of Andy Warhol into objects of piety. To effect this change from the profane to the sacred in Warhol’s status as a cultural icon, he has had to be made a lot more innocent, a lot more respectable, and a lot more boring and benign than he ever was in real life. The ruined, degraded lives he left in his wake; the corrupting influence he exerted on the sensibilities of his many admirers (not only the dealers, dopeheads, and feckless drifters who competed for a place in his entourage, but the professors and intellectuals who became in their own way equally abject Warhol groupies); the sheer moral squalor that was the underside of the deadpan facetiousness and commercial opportunism—the whole destructive side of Warhol’s career has had to be discreetly shunted offstage in order to create a kind of shrine to St. Andy offering family entertainment to a celebrity-besotted public in a state of permanent adolescent arrest.
In the project that was undertaken in Pittsburgh to transform this prince of profanation into an object of cultural piety, the basic scenario called for a mise en scène so utterly immaculate and respectable that no suggestion of the sordid—which in Warhol’s case could not, after all, be entirely avoided—would be seen as anything but marginal and amusing. Little trace of the Factory ethos or the Velvet Underground demi-monde would be permitted in this temple of reverence and propriety. If certain distasteful practices could not avoid mention, then the script required that they be assigned some allegedly exalted purpose— preferably religious or philosophical, never commercial or simply pernicious. Thus the practice of urinating onto prepared canvases for the production of the so-called Oxidation pictures, which are themselves little more than an impudent and failed parody of Jackson Pollock’s “drip” paintings, is elevated by a museum wall text to the artistic equivalent of transubstantiation, one of the sacred doctrines of Roman Catholic faith—a gesture of insouciant blasphemy that is a perfect correlative of the mindset which has shaped the very conception of the museum itself. More generally, however, it is art, not religion, that is consistently blasphemed, subverted, and mocked in this woefully misguided museological travesty.
It has to be said that in the effort to transform the Warhol legacy into a source of civic pride and an image of high-minded cultural endeavor, the museum has been better served by its architect—Richard Gluckman —than by its curator or sponsors. Mr. Gluckman has done a superb job of redesigning the old Frick & Lindsay building, a warehouse built in 1911 and subsequently expanded, into a handsome, highly functional, and blessedly unpretentious contemporary museum structure. The exterior of the building has been expertly restored to a facsimile—as I suppose it must be called—of its original period style, while the interior has been brought into conformity with our period style of white-walled, unornamented exhibition spaces. The only eruption of ponderous artiness in the whole conception was the decision to paint the walls of the tunnel-like entrance space a midnight blue more appropriate to a Warholesque disco than to a contemporary art museum.
For the most part, however, Mr. Gluckman has given the Warhol Museum a building that is, if anything, too good for its purposes. For the aesthetic differences that separate the building from its contents have the effect of underscoring the essential vacuousness, cynicism, and silliness of Warhol’s art. In this chaste setting, the Warhol oeuvre looks orphaned and becalmed, severed from the media-induced excitements and intellectual scandals it once ignited and now made to stand or fall on its own aesthetic merits. This is a test that Warhol simply cannot meet. Here the so-called box “sculptures” —copies of crates for commercial products such as we commonly encounter in the aisles of supermarkets—look, well, like copies of commercial crates and nothing more. The pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, and Elvis Presley have similarly receded to the status of artifacts from the history of celebrity-worship— which is no doubt why they now command their biggest resale market in the movie, television, and pop-music industry.
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The truth is that Warhol never had much of a talent for painting, and he knew it. He was nothing if not shrewd in assessing his gifts—and his opportunities. The strategies he introduced into the art world of the Sixties remained those that he had mastered as a fashion illustrator in the days when he was the darling of the old Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. “He could kid the product so subtly,” wrote Calvin Tomkins about Warhol’s first success in New York, “that he made the client feel witty.” After that initial success as an advertising artist, the art world proved to be a pushover, for it, too, had become crowded with “clients”—only now they were collectors, critics, museum curators, and media types—who could similarly be made to feel witty and wise and “advanced” and special by contemplating a picture of a Campbell’s Soup can or a Coca-Cola bottle.
At the Warhol Museum, one comes to realize how essential the hurly-burly of the New York art world was to the kind of excitement Warhol’s work generated, for in the company of other artists’ works his own were always, in a sense, the dumbest, the plainest, the least embellished with arty touches and a personal signature. This gave them a distinct advantage in the competition that was raging at the time to eliminate from art all trace of association with painterly sensibility or other evidence of loyalty to fine-art traditions. It was a masterstroke on Warhol’s part not to attempt to compete directly with Jasper Johns, for example, but to outflank him by abandoning painting altogether for a more commercialized look and method in the pictorial images he produced. Warhol understood that with the advent of Pop Art, the New York School had become a kind of anti-art academy, and all he had to do to triumph in that academy was to carry over into the new art scene the practices he had mastered in the world of fashion and publicity.
In Pittsburgh, in the clean, quiet, well-lighted spaces that Mr. Gluckman has designed for Warhol’s pictures, we are a long, long way from both the uproar and controversies of the Sixties and the power of the art world to confer a magical status upon whatever banalities its mandarins seize upon for elevation. Isolated from the moment and the milieu that made its creation possible, the Warhol oeuvre is now stripped of its urgency and glamour. Its principal claim on our attention is that of historical documentation—not the documentation of its subject matter, however, for Warhol’s pictures have absolutely nothing to tell us about Jackie Kennedy or Campbell’s Soup, but the documentation of the artist’s career. At the Warhol Museum, it is the life and not the art that establishes itself as the principal focus of attention—which is why, without deliberating the matter, visitors to the museum inevitably end up spending so much more time on the flea-market trash and personal memorabilia than on the art. Hence the mausoleum atmosphere in which the pictures serve as little more than tacky decoration reminding us of the life that is the real object of veneration in this venue.
That Andy Warhol’s life should now be made an object of veneration is itself an expression of the moral decadence of our time. No one did more to trivialize the life of art, to devalue seriousness in the interest of a meretricious success, yet his ruinous influence extended well beyond the precincts of the art world. He was an instinctive nihilist, a smiling immoralist, who believed in nothing but the cult of fame. It is appalling that this moral freak, who abetted in the ruin of the more vulnerable freaks he drafted into his service, is now presented in the museum established to perpetuate his legend as a model to be worshiped and emulated by the young. Warhol’s career and influence are reminders, if we need them, that the cultural revolution which transformed American life and its institutions in the Sixties cannot be understood solely in terms of the radical politics it fostered. It went deeper than that. It was a moral revolution, and Andy Warhol was as much a fomenter of it as, say, Allen Ginsberg or Norman Mailer. Soon after the Andy Warhol Museum opened in Pittsburgh this year, it was reported that no less an institution than Stanford University had paid more than a million dollars to acquire the personal memorabilia of Allen Ginsberg, and there can be little doubt that there are now plans in progress elsewhere among our elite institutions to create similar memorials to the sainted immoralists of the Sixties. These memorials represent the graveyard of a civilization, and it is a melancholy fact that their creation has now become one of the characteristic projects of the Nineties.
To the creation of such projects the contribution of writers, intellectuals, and academics is indispensable, of course. For it is their function to confer high purpose on degraded expression, and thus to turn every sow’s ear into the intellectual and even spiritual equivalent of a silk purse. In the collection of essays which the Warhol Museum has published to mark its opening, this corrupt intellectual practice is carried to a new plateau of hermeneutical flimflam as writers compete with each other to bestow prestigious meanings on just about everything Warhol ever turned his hand—or other people’s hands—to.
At the Warhol Museum, it is the life and not the art that establishes itself as the principal focus of attention.
Reading, for example, the essay by Mark Francis, the curator of the museum, one sometimes has to wonder if he hasn’t gotten Andy Warhol confused with Albert Schweitzer or even St. Francis. Did Warhol hire a crew of assistants to help turn out his assembly-line images of movie stars? For Mr. Francis, this must be described as “a form of spiritual ministry.” Did Warhol produce pictures of Campbell’s Soup cans? Then this must be characterized as “a kind of modern democrat1c sacrament.” Indeed, what Mr. Francis insists on calling the “sacramental aspect” of Warhol’s production finally collapses into a parody of exegetical excess when he attempts without embarrassment to, as he writes, “consider [Warhol’s oeuvre] within the terms and traditions of Catholic iconography.” He doesn’t get very far in this attempt to persuade us that Warhol was some kind of religious artist, though at the end of the essay he is still trying to portray his subject as an example of “invulnerable innocence in a world of venal ambition, manipulation, and destruction.”
If for Mr. Francis, the key to Warhol’s genius is religion, for Arthur C. Danto it is philosophy—you know, the kind that professors like Mr. Danto teach at our major universities. His essay on this occasion, called “The Philosopher as Andy Warhol,” does nothing to improve upon Professor Danto’s now famous statement in 1989 that, in his view, Andy Warhol is “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced.” It merely adds a few pseudo-philosophical curlicues to this non-subject by attempting, as he says, “to reveal some fragments of the philosophical structure of Warhol’s art.” For Professor Danto, “Warhol violated every condition thought necessary to something being an artwork, but in so doing he disclosed the essence of art.” And further, about the trashy, amateur movies Warhol made, Professor Danto writes that they must be seen to have made “an unparalleled contribution” to “our philosophical understanding of the concept of film.” What follows, alas, makes no contribution whatever to our understanding of film—Warhol’s or anyone’s—but it does have a lot to tell us about the intellectual bankruptcy of the philosophical vocation in our time. It wasn’t only the dopeheads who hung around the Factory who were permanently corrupted by Warhol’s enterprise.
Compared to intellectual pretension of such a magnitude, Callie Angell’s essay on “Andy Warhol, Filmmaker” is almost amusing for its no doubt unintended comedy in the way it refers to “the purist style found in Blow Job” and praises the movie Fuck, later renamed Blue Movie, as a “deconstruction of pornography.” Needless to say, neither of these alleged classics of cinematic purism and deconstruction is currently being shown at the Andy Warhol in Pittsburgh, for you can be sure that the folks who run the museum are not taken in by such intellectual hokum. Writings of this kind, like so much else in this misbegotten museum project, have been designed for public consumption in the hope that the true nature of the enterprise will be missed if the intellectual smokescreens and publicity hoopla are sufficiently effective. So far, unfortunately, the public’s inability to see through this cultural farce seems to have been gauged more or less correctly.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 4, on page 6
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