in Frieze | 06 MAY 94
Featured in
Issue 16

Andy's Institution

Q: 'Well, if it's a Factory, what does it produce?'

A: 'Anxiety.'

--Overheard at a party in Greenwich Village, circa 1966

in Frieze | 06 MAY 94

One of the nicest things about the work of a superior artist is that any serious attention paid to it yields unexpected benefits. No matter how familiar you might be with the work, it always blossoms up anew when you return to it, simply by virtue of the new context in which you are returning, because you have changed since you last looked and the world has changed as well. Thus, rethinking Andy Warhol for perhaps the millionth time, on the occasion of his museum opening, I'm amazed at how sweet and refreshing his serene selfishness appears in retrospect--how instructive and efficacious his unwavering self-promotion feels at this particular cultural moment--when so much hot ambition is driven along by the pretentious engine of disinterested virtue.

What a wonderful thing it seems now: that an odd duck like Andrew Warhola would have the heart and the will to work so completely out of his own desire--that, undistracted by the metavirtues of high culture, he could labour so relentlessly toward his single goal: to make the world safe for 'Andy Warhol', l'homme nouveau. And how fortunate it is, as well, that the cultural re-construction required to make the world safe for Andy was so massive and so profound that, almost inadvertently, he did something for us all. For some of us, he did a lot, and I, for one, remain forever in his debt, yet thankfully free of guilt about it since Warhol neither lived, nor worked, nor suffered, nor died for me. In fact, as I recall the times, it was Andy's adversaries, the whole P.T.A. of American culture, who lived and worked and suffered and died on my behalf.

Still, for a whole generation of strangers and loners, the promise of the Factory was simply everything. The dark glamour of its dystopian frenzy functioned for us as the emblem of a possible Saturnalia--as a vision of slaves in the role of masters, of American books and movies and pictures and music all together, at once, in gorgeous disarray, out beyond chastity and sobriety, sanity or sympathy. It was only a moment, of course, but it was great to know that a working-class homosexual from Pittsburgh could remake the world in the image of his own desire, even for a moment. And we knew all along that Andy could never live up to our idea of him, nor even begin to keep the promise that the Factory seemed to make, but he showed it to us. Other artists had shown us art made out of trash. Andy showed us a world made out of trash--intelligence and trash. He gave us a vision of the margin as the centre, of civilisation as a cornucopia of its discontents, of culture as a confluence of its raggedy, stylish subcultures. And we were all changed having seen it.

The images remain, of course, and, excepting an occasional batch of atelier pot-boilers, they remain splendid throughout. So an Andy Warhol Museum will be nice, I suppose, although it can't compensate for the images we lost on account of some nurse's carelessness, nor can it evoke his greatest creation--the Factory, the corporation as work of art. In a cultural sense it was a triumphant experiment. The whole idea of an artist emptying the institutions of America--its jails and asylums, its prep schools and country clubs--into his studio and learning to speak through the medium of that tumult, in a new demotic, is still astounding.

In individual cases, of course, it was more often calamitous. Real lives make the best content for art, but they are an unreliable medium--and the big wave of absolute permission is hard to ride as it rolls toward oblivion. So, the cold fervour of the Factory aesthetic, its rough democracy, illuminated a possible future for us and proposed a vision that was almost immediately occluded by its own tough factuality--when Valerie Solanis forgot her lines, took out her silver pistol and broke the artist's heart.

Ultimately, though, the Factory was doomed by it own success, by the light it threw off, and by the contradictions in Warhol's personality that the Factory as Andy's fiction--the Great American Fairy Tale--so exquisitely embodied: His courage and sophistication, his innocence and insecurity--Dracula and Cinderella, or Drella, as he was known. Most dangerously, the artist innocently believed that no one was innocent, that we were all as sophisticated as he thought himself to be. On any number of occasions after the shooting, he would remark that he thought we all knew he was kidding. He thought we realised that he was an artist, that he was not creating a culture but a representation of culture, edited, manipulated and enhanced according to his own desire.

He thought we 'got it,' you know--that everyone could see that the celebrity he was manufacturing (for himself and for his superstars) was not real fame but a representation of fame, a rhetorical simulacrum of fame. He thought we would be amused and delighted that he was still practising advertising, just as he always had, but 'pure' advertising now, advertising as a high art. Thus the sophistication--but also the innocence, since I have no doubt that Warhol, somewhere in his heart, believed in real fame--as the essence of true charisma. He believed in the Real, Fucking Thing, I think, as opposed to the smoke-and-mirrors that he practised so skillfully with so much manipulative pleasure. Before Valerie Solanis, in fact, I doubt if he even thought of equating the celebrity that he had constructed with the awesome 'true celebrity' that he perceived in Marilyn or Liz--or even in Liza.

So, over and above the horrible pain, I'm sure that Andy was mostly surprised at being shot--as if he were a 'real celebrity'--as surprised as Zeuxis would have been had the birds actually pecked at his painted grapes. Somehow, Andy had made one of two tragicomic mistakes, and I don't think he ever decided which. Either there was no true fame, and he and Marilyn were equally creatures of the image; or, unbeknownst to himself, little Andrew Warhola had all along been one of the anointed--a possessor of fame's true essence--like Marilyn and Liz--and perhaps even more so than Liza. Speaking for myself, I am theoretically inclined to the idea of 'constructed fame', but my instincts tell me that Andy Warhol was really something special, that, like Duane Allman and Bugsy Segal, he was one of nature's children--one of those dominant, homeless spirits whose bright trajectories justify the whole idea of democracy--and demonstrate its problematic.

Warhol's sins and failures, however, seem less crucial now than what remains of the Factory, which is simply the idea of a free popular culture--a practice of music and words and images that coolly subverts both high and low, that picks its way through the predation of commercial entertainment and the arrogance of institutional virtue to some vernacular synthesis. The immediate possibility of this brand of culture died in 1968--and, not long thereafter, the progress of high art and low music diverged for the first time in the decade. Art retreated into the citadels of culture from which it had only recently emerged; rock went into exile on Main Street; and most of the true children of the Factory, myself included, given the choice between Keith Richards and post-Minimalism, went with the music.

But that idea remains, along with Warhol's doomed vision of it, so I think that, somewhere in the Andy Warhol Museum, there should be this cavernous silver room with peeling white pipes and a dirty floor. In the centre of this room, there should be an old round couch, the grungier the better, sitting naked in the gaze of an antique camera mounted on a tripod. That would be enough, I think; just the room, the couch and the camera to memorialise the moment when the barriers gave way, and the place where the Lost of this Earth and the Dregs of Society once preened and performed before Andy Warhol's unblinking lens, as the court of Spain once deployed itself before Velázquez' icy gaze.