The death of Andy Warhol was bound to be a media event, and so it was. For the media, after all, it was like a death in the family. Here was a figure who was famous for being famous, for knowing the famous, and for serving as an avatar of fame, and nothing so pleases the media as an opportunity to celebrate one of their own creations. The front-page obituary in The New York Times, the special segment on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, the cover story in New York magazine, not to mention the many pictures and news stories in the daily tabloids and on the network news programs—the coverage could hardly have been better (or worse) if Warhol himself had orchestrated it. Which, in a sense, he had. The most distinguishing characteristic of this prodigious outpouring of commentary, homage, and celebrity-worship was the way it confined itself to the terms which Warhol himself had set for the discussion of his life and work. Even writers who, on other occasions, find it appropriate to apply more elevated standards to art (and life) proved ready and eager to suspend them in discussing Warhol and his significance. It was as if no language but Warhol’s own—the language of hype—could be expected to have any meaning when it came to explaining just what it was that made him important.

All the same, it is my impression that Warhol’s death caused some of these volunteer laureates of hype and celebrity a good deal of uneasiness. Suddenly they were on the spot. They couldn’t in good conscience bring themselves to say that Warhol had been a great artist even though they had often written about him as if he were. They couldn’t, in many cases, even bring themselves to explain why he should be considered an important artist even though they had long taken it for granted that he was. No one is under oath, of course, in writing obituary notices. Even so, there was a general tendency on this occasion to take refuge in the subject’s fame, in his personality, in his business affairs and his entourage, even his wig, and leave the art more or less unexamined. Amid the expected encomiums, there was in fact a discernible hedge and wariness to be observed in the claims advanced for Warhol’s artistic achievement. It turned out that almost no one could bring any conviction to the task of specifying what that achievement had consisted of.

It was as if no language but Warhol’s own—the language of hype—could be expected to have any meaning when it came to explaining just what it was that made him important.

The truth is, even among his friends and admirers it was widely recognized—even if seldom admitted—that, although being an artist was essential to his social position, Warhol was far more important as a social phenomenon that he ever was or could be as an artist. That was what gave him his special aura, after all—and his influence. As an artist he ended his career exactly as he began it— as a gifted commercial artist with a flair for the arresting graphic image and skillful layout. He was never much of a painter, and as a sculptor he didn’t exist. (As for his movies, it is probably enough to observe that, having served their purpose—which was to propagate the Warhol myth—they had long ago predeceased their creator. Of aesthetic merit they had none whatever.) Warhol’s “genius” (if it can be called that) consisted of his shrewdness in parlaying this essentially commercial talent into a career in an art world that no longer had the moral stamina to resist it: a career that would have been unthinkable, for example, ten years earlier.

To an extent that was unrivaled among his contemporaries in the Pop Art movement, if only because they knew so much less than he did about the dynamics of the fashion world, Warhol understood that something momentous had happened to the art scene in the late Fifties—that the relation which had formerly obtained between art and fashion (and hence between art and publicity, and between art and money) had undergone a decisive change. Which is to say that he understood the success of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns better than they did. (Not that they were slow to catch on— but that is another story.) Their success owed much to the international acclaim which Abstract Expressionism, having passed through its avant-garde phase, was receiving for the first time, and to their putative role as both the heirs and the rebels of that movement. Warhol understood that something else was involved; that with the success of Rauschenberg and Johns, the age of the avant-garde had drawn to a close. Their success had been, initially, an art world success, but it quickly developed into a much larger phenomenon. A boundary separating art and fashion had been breached, and never again would the really big successes of the art world be confined to that world. Henceforth success in that art world would be played on a much larger stage.

Rauschenberg and Johns came out of the school of Marcel Duchamp. They stood in relation to Abstract Expressionism very much as Duchamp had stood to Cubism— as plenipotentiaries to the world of publicity and chic, agents of “advanced” styles that offered just the right dash of scandal (the stuffed goat, the paint-splattered bed, the targets and flags, etc.) to excite a taste that had wearied of the rigors of abstract art. Warhol, on the other hand, belonged to the school of Condé Nast, where such “scandals” are recognized as marketable commodities and routinely processed as the materials of fashion. In moving from a career in fashion illustration to a career in this swiftly expanding art world, Warhol saw that the product needed only the most superficial modification to win attention and garner rewards—rewards far greater than any to be found in the realm of fashion illustration. Art, no matter how debased, still offered a kind of status that was denied to advertising, but otherwise there were now fewer and fewer differences separating the art world from the advertising world. The ethos was getting to be essentially the same. Success was the goal, the media would provide the means of achieving it, and what the media loved more than anything else—certainly more than art—was a product based on their own stock-in-trade. And that, from his “Marilyns” to his “Maos,” is what Warhol mainly specialized in giving them. Considering the magnitude of his accomplishment in this respect, it would be churlish to deny that he did indeed have genius of a sort. No ordinary talent could have done it—but the talent, alas, was not primarily an artistic talent.

As a movement Pop Art came and went in a flash, but it was the kind of flash that left everything changed.

As everyone knows, the art world never really recovered from this fateful incursion. As a movement Pop Art came and went in a flash, but it was the kind of flash that left everything changed. The art public was now a different public—larger, to be sure, but less serious, less introspective, less willing or able to distinguish between achievement and its trashy simulacrum. Moreover, everything connected with the life of art—everything, anyway, that might have been expected to offer some resistance to this wholesale vulgarization and demoralization—was now cheapened and corrupted. The museums began their rapid descent into show biz and the retail trade. Their exhibitions were now mounted like Broadway shows, complete with set designers and lighting consultants, and their directors pressed into service as hucksters, promoting their wares in radio and television spots and selling their facilities for cocktail parties and other entertainments, while their so-called “education” programs likewise degenerated into sundry forms of entertainment and promotion. The critics were co-opted, the art magazines commercialized, and the academy, which had once taken a certain pride in remaining aloof from the blandishments of the cultural marketplace, now proved eager to join the crowd—for there was no longer any standard in the name of which a sellout could be rejected. When the boundary separating art and fashion was breached, so was the dividing line between high art and popular culture, and upon all those institutions and professions which had been painstakingly created to preserve high art from the corruptions of popular culture the effect was devastating. Some surrendered their standards with greater alacrity than others, but the drift was unmistakable and all in the same direction—and the momentum has only accelerated with the passage of time.

There was no more telling symbol of this surrender of standards than Warhol himself, the cheerful nihilist who became the unlikely culture-hero of a new era. Anyone who was around at the time will remember exactly when it was that we were given our first taste of its lethal character. It came, of course, in the early Sixties with the false dawn and specious glamour of the Kennedy administration—the media-fabricated glamour that in retrospect has turned out to be the perfect political analogue for what was occurring on the cultural scene. There is an important book to be written about the cultural fallout of the Kennedy years, and Warhol’s would by no means be the only significant career that would require a place in the story. So, among many others, would Norman Mailer’s and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s and George Plimpton’s, and so too, in their own spheres, would the history of New York, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, not to mention less exalted branches of the media. Still, in any such study a special place would have to be reserved for the Warhol phenomenon, which gave to the art world—but not to the art world alone—a model that has proved to be so irresistible that it is now a permanent, and permanently disabling, component of cultural life. It was really that ghastly model, rather than the man or his art, that the media celebrated so copiously in their obituary notices of Andy Warhol—a model that continues to exhibit a potency his art could never achieve.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 9, on page 1
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