By Debbie Wells
Why are people enamored with Warholmania? Based on the crowds at the recent Andy Warhol exhibition at the Whitney, it’s not surprising that the Warhol brand is as powerful today as when it first exploded on the art scene. Warhol’s pop art, especially his celebrity portraiture, has endured the test of time – they are colorful and stylistic depictions of beautiful people.
Fascination of youth and beauty was a preoccupation of the artist and has proven to be just as potent an appeal now. In Andy’s world, he was a star in the art world, but personally felt more like an outsider. To combat this, he liked to surround himself with an entourage. He was a staple at Studio 54 or Max’s Kansas City nightclubs, hobnobbing with socialites, rock stars, artists, movie stars, and political leaders. However, at the end of the evening, he would retreat to his brownstone and had dinner with his mother and several pet cats. Throughout most of his career, he had an open-door policy at his art studio, which he dubbed The Factory, in which all types of people wandered in and out (until one day, a disgruntled hanger-oner shot him!) He was a guarded and somewhat paranoid person with the goal of presenting himself as a brand, rather than a man. He wore his Fright Wigs, spoke little and manipulated people much. Rather than interact with people freely, he relied on his camera and his tape recorder (he called it his wife, Sony) to socialize at arm’s length. He was very protective of the Andy Warhol image and his life and career were a series of calculated moves to become rich and famous by immersing himself in glamorous high society.
Fast forward to our current era of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reality TV, Photoshop, You-tube, blogs and more. The similarities between what we now value and Warhol’s perceptions are uncanny. How did he know that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” would be our new normal? Think about Reality TV. Just like Warhol machine created Superstars like Candy Darling and Edie Sedgewick, our present-day Kardashians and Real Housewives are also stars, independent of Hollywood. Even Bravo’s Andy Cohen has likened himself to Warhol and was inspired enough by Warhol’s diaries to publish his own version. Both Cohen and Warhol brilliantly interweave various medias to support the massive brand. For example, Warhol’s portrait business profits carried his film projects, while Interview Magazine promoted the films and its stars. The Bravo network is also far reaching, including the reality shows and its many franchises, interview shows, reunion shows, Radio Andy, book publishing and more. The stars of both eras are also equally troubled to some degree. Many Warhol Superstars met sad fates and none made it to mainstream fame. Likewise, there are rumors of the “Real Housewife curse” with an incredible percentage of divorces, suicides, convictions, bankruptcies, etc. afflicting the stars and their families.
Look at his celebrity portraits from Marilyn Monroe to Mohammed Ali. He used the same square format for every canvas. Sound familiar? Isn’t that what a Facebook profile shot looks like? Take that face and repeat with every “friend” you’ve ever had and it forms a grid-like repetitive pattern. Want more friends? Grab more faces and plug them into your format. Glorify and beautify. You can change the color, change the look, but every face fits the Warhol formula. Do you really have relationships with each of these people or are you piling up a series of superficial representations of friendship? If you think about how our present society’s views of friendships and relationships through social media, then you can understand its primal beginnings could have evolved from the Warholian philosophy.
When Warhol created his innovative silkscreen technique, he used printmaking methods, painting and graphic design practices to craft black and white portrait photography (frequently Polaroids) into fine art. He improved on the original by deleting the imperfections, smoothing our wrinkles and intensifying the colors. Does this sound eerily similar to the tricks of Photoshop or the joys of modern-day plastic surgery and Botox?
Glorify the ordinary! Warhol put Campbell’s Soup and Brillo on the pop culture landscape. Now, with social media and the internet, anyone can make any ordinary person or object important. Every time someone takes a selfie or an Instagram shot of their meal, Everyman and the commonplace are elevated to iconic status. There is a saying that “the camera eats first” which puts the image above the reality because it is now considered more important to document and possibly brag about it than to truly experience. Self-importance trumps all – meaning that everything that revolves around you in your world is paramount to anything or anyone else. This new kind of intensity of the everyday has its roots in the Warhol philosophy.
In this age of almighty social media, we fancy ourselves as stars of our own story. We can communicate our lives in pretty packages, present it through a number of filters and brand it as we wish. The joys and sorrows of humankind as it really exists is not high priority. It is possible that this idea of heightened perfectionism and distorted reality is not as new as we thought. Maybe Andy Warhol had the vision first.