I (Pam Blehert) wrote the followng poem after seeing the second part of a PBS presentation on Andy Warhol as part of its "American Masters" series. It was a very well done presentation, but horrified me, as I don't agree that he's a "master" and I think that his lifestyle and influences on his cronies and on the US art scene were, in large measure, destructive. On reading this to a local poetry group, I got mixed reviews. I was told I should have seen the first part of the PBS presentation, which made clear his artistry. I was told that he really had expertise as a commercial artist. (I don't particularly care about that, because I think that "skill" and "great art" are two different things.) Art is essentially about communication. Warhol communicated that images were easy and cheap and "everyone would have his fifteen minutes of fame." I feel that art transcends the everyday.
Psychedelic pop superstar St. Vitus dancing
killed people: sycophants, hangers-on
( losers, they said) in the Factory.
After all, it was the 60s, time of turmoil anyway,
Vietnam war, assassins, Woodstock,
kids dying of heroin at 28.
(One young man waltzed out the
window on speed because
he knew he could fly.
Warhol said, “too bad I wasn’t there to
get it on film.”)
The uptown boys were
boring. The drag queens had
the better ideas. (Where are you now,
He stopped painting,
movies were the thing, music, multipmedia,
(panting, redefining Art as everything, anything,
nothing special about it: pornographic,
piss paintings, proliferation of photographic
Dying by SCUM
would have been appropriate
but he lived on, corseted, closeted,
finally killed by
in for a gallbladder op.
Pop pope, critics now catalogue your work
call you legend, man who destroyed people,
man who killed art,icon converting himself
into non-icon, non-person, perfect replication,
Someone should “do” Andy Warhol,
a silkscreen replica, garish colors,
scarred, scared pretender,
replicated thousands of times, each
for 15 minutes of fame.
Where are you now,
My husband, poet Dean Blehert, wrote, in response to our conversation about the poem and its controversy:
"Warhol had talent and brilliance. So did Hitler -- boy, was he a trend-setter and opinion leader and master of oratory -- and, by the way, an artist with moderate talent. (His architectural drawings show some draftsmanship abililty. His cartoons during WW I show some wit. Etc.)
"But let's look at Warhol's intentions as an artist during the time he built his reputation as an artist, the people in his "circle" whom he manipulated and how they fared in life, the man's tone level (which was, apparently, NOT from drugs -- he didn't use them significantly, but got his associates using them, as I recall).
"Now, I don't insist that others agree with me on that, and I don't have time to research Warhol newly (I read about him long ago) and try to prove anything. I'm just going to say that I think he was evil (not absolutely, but the way we think of many psychiatrists as evil) and used art reductively (to make less of art and of most of the values we'd consider positive).
"Most of his techniques were gimmicks that simply ran whatever they dealt with through a kind of mechanical process. There were aesthetic touches enough to make an impact, but the impact was usually restimulative. For example, the technique of making a "work of art" that consists of the same photo repeated many times on silk screen is a make-nothing-of-it technique in which everything equals everything else. A soup can equals Marilyn Monroe equals A = A = A. There was enough wit associated with the choice of things to repeat (various icons that some people had not yet spotted as being iconic) that they had a superficial overlay of social satire or (to some) an adding of beauty or other significances to things like soup cans. But for me (as an audience) that wasn't their main effect or their main intent.
"I think Warhol (like most dadaists, Marcel Du Champs and many other artists) aims at nihilism, an attempt to undermine values, sometimes associated with the idea that current values are lousy, so the thing to do is destroy them, so that new values may arise (which some Marxist artists profess), but I don't think Warhol considered that a "cool" enough viewpoint. He just liked to undermine.
"I do not mean to condemn all artists who seek to undermine values or to attack art. Some value systems do go rancid and deserve undermining (hence satire, for example). Also, even where that's not the case, some artists who buy into that idea and write works intended to undermine values do so with so much verve and enthusiasm and wit and even love of life that their art is life-affirming despite their ideologies. And most artists attack some values and promote others. Sometimes (as with Kafka) the values they promote are so subtle that superficial attempts to "explain" their work make them sound utterly negative (which they are not -- not in their impact on me, anyway).
"In Warhol's case, I think it's the other way 'round: His work is so trendy that people "explain" his works in ways that make them seem less negative than they are.
"For me the lack of affect in his work is that of the kid who pulls the wings off flies and burns puppies, that of the torturer, the psychiatrist. (After all, isn't art "play" and isn't the boy who tears wings off flies playing?) I think Warhol observed the people around him (including those "close" to him) the way a psychiatrist observes his subjects, altered or diverted their communications and interests in directions that entertained him and ruined them. I think he influenced a lot of artists and gallery owners and people with lots of money who fund the arts into creating and promoting art that pulled the culture down, validated what is worst in us, was generally suppressive.
"If you listened to how he dealt with an interviewer (which, Pam tells me, was shown on the special), he never answers an interviewer's questions, but instead tells the interviewer what the interviewer is trying to do by asking the question. That's the standard mode of discourse of a psychiatrist, of encounter group manipulators, etc. It's sometimes called "psyching people out."
"This wasn't a good kid from the mid-west who got corrupted. This was a Suppressive Person (SP) who went from being as quiet and polite as a serial killer is usually reported to have been (by the neighbors) to being a huge opinion leader in the arts. Sure, at some point on the track he had good intentions. But I find it refreshing, a poem that gets his suppressiveness and gets its flavor right and gets how it wasn't just his effect on his associates, but his effects on others (like artists, like most of us as artists).
"There's nothing new about attacking Warhol. But most of the attacks on him are too narrow, based on the idea that the avant-garde is bad, that artists who undermine conventional values are bad, or maybe that he led a disorderly life or that his art was too gimmicky, etc. That's missing the point. There are avant-garde artists who are not suppressive and who do great work. There are artists who undermine conventional values who create newer better values and who do great work. There are artists who lead disorderly lives or who are too gimmicky who are, yet, productive artists who create positive effects on the culture. (Most of you can think of your own examples on all these points.) In other words, most of the usual attacks on Warhol don't spot him as a Suppressive Person (SP) and spot how he operated as an SP. If you attack him as avant-garde, you simply get anyone who loves the avant-garde to admire him. That's how we end up with a confused, overly significant view of this "controversial, but important artist" (not quoting anyone in particular -- just trying to communicate how it becomes impossible to see the guy for what he is, after wrong indications [e.g., he's bad because he’s avant-garde] stir up tons of pro-and-con significance.)
"So I find it refreshing to see a poem that conveys what he was with a correct evaluation of importances and that doesn't confuse his suppressiveness with other things that resemble it in some way, but aren't it (e.g., the disorderly life of Dylan Thomas, the trend-setting avant-garde quality of the impressionists or, later, of Picasso and many others, etc.).
"Another thing that the poem doesn't get into that I find fascinating is the way a suppressive art system tends to embrace a suppressive artist. This is a study in itself, worth a few books. Warhol very much benefited from an art system that was based on a group of very wealthy patrons (Rockefellers, etc.) who would buy their work from a few art dealers, mostly in NY, so that, since that's where the money was (maybe still is), the way to "make it" as an artist was to go to NY and somehow break in to that circle, which meant one had to pick up the tone level of that circle of dealers and international-banker types and their wives and daughters, and produce art aimed at persuading the patrons that they were the latest thing, so that the dealers would take them on as money makers and trend setters.
"This is how the field of poetry has worked for many decades -- it's not just artists and sculptors who operate this way. But there's a lot more money spent on painting and sculpture, so they get more publicity. But those who "make it" as poets (win MacArthur grants and big awards and get to give workshops for which they are well paid and good positions at prestigious universities and become judges of big poetry contests, etc.) usually have to play the same political games as those at which Warhol excelled. And for poetry as well, New York has long been the place where one "makes it", and has its wealthy patrons and its opinion leaders who can make or break a poet and its closed circles of "in” poets and of a few particularly influential editors and critics who decide whose poetry is worth looking at.
"I don't know how much this has changed in recent years -- because of the opening up of new communication lines (Internet) and because perhaps opinion leadership is less centralized in New York than it was at least through the 70s. But even if less NY-based, many of the communication lines are similar. (Keep in mind that the most prestigious poetry magazine in America -- by most accounts -- is POETRY (U. of Chicago), which is operating on a 100-million-dollar gift from Ruth Lilly, heir to the Ely Lilly drug fortune.
"Much of what was wrong with Warhol was also wrong with the system at that time. Many artists went PTS to that system or to the SPs who operated it and dictated what was cool and what wasn't cool in art and in lifestyles of artists. I don't think that Warhol went PTS to it. I think he was an SP who figured out how to exploit it. He moved in and took over part of it.
"Re "uptown" and "downtown", uptown is more than just collegiate. Uptown usually means north of Mid-town (but south of Harlem, Spanish Harlem). In other words, Uptown would include the upper east side (stylish, expensive) and the upper west side (some areas stylish, would include Columbia U., upper Broadway). On the West side it would be from about 59th St. to around 125th Street. On the east side, it would be from around 59th St. to around 96th St. But probably Warhol would also have thought of areas on Park and Madison Avenue well south of 59th as "uptown". On the West side, it would include a lot of wealthy areas on Central Park West and Riverside Drive. (Downtown didn't lack its own collegiates. NYU is in the Village, around Washington Square.)
"But I think it's a class thing referred to in the poem. There are some pretty seedy areas "up town" (along Amsterdam, for example). But basically the uptown neighborhoods are usually thought of (or were in Warhol's day, anyway) as more prosperous and high-class trendy areas, whereas the Village (and these days SoHo) are thought of as more Bohemian, gay, seedier. (Though there are some very expensive town houses in the West Village.) The art galleries and museums uptown are (or were) thought of as classier, but less bohemian. (There are lots of expensive galleries uptown on Madison Avenue, for example.)
"But the distinctions are superficial. An artist might insist he despised the uptown people and live a life of showy down-town seediness in order to make an impression on the uptown people, some of whom considered seedy bohemian types cool, got a thrill out of "slumming", etc. There were very wealthy society women who got their thrills by being screwed and maybe abused by seedy, trendy artists. There were upper crust social circles where a party wasn't hip if it didn't include some "outrageous" guests. There were artists who were valued all the more by frustrated wives of bankers because the artists were rude to them, unclean, etc. I think Warhol was one of the artist-pets of the Uptown, though the associates in his personal "circle", people he exploited, people who modeled for him and acted in his films and camped out in his place, artists he promoted, etc., were mostly downtown people, often people who had no communication line to the "uptown" people except via Warhol."
The above essay by Dean Blehert is published with his permission. The hyperlink references were added by Pam Blehert.
The following insert is from Pam Blehert:
As a final note, I found an article on the web: "Are Warhol's 15 Minutes UP?" (Business Week online, Oct 2, 2002) in which coloumnist Thane Peterson says:
"...if I were paying millions for a Warhol painting (no danger of that, of course) I'd have a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. Only a hopeless Philistine would even ask, I guess, but was Warhol really such a great painter? The silk-screen technique he used didn't require a lot of skill. And you have to wonder if the celebrities, products, and other pop-culture images he painted will seem compelling 20 or 30 years from now." more...