Andy Warhol's peculiar brand of subversion

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Andy Warhol's peculiar brand of subversion

By Louis Proyect

When Andy Warhol moved to New York City in 1958 after graduating from the Carnegie Art Institute (now part of Carnegie-Mellon) in Pittsburgh, he knew that abstract expressionism had no future. He wasn't quite sure what would take its place, so he kept his eyes open while pursuing a career as a commercial artist and window-dresser.

Warhol's drawings for up-scale clients appeared in quarter-page ads in the New York Times and made him a lot of money. Interestingly enough, these works were heavily influenced by the "faux naif" style of 1930s radical artist Ben Shahn, giving them a whimsical, folk-art quality. Some of Warhol's earliest gallery shows were inspired by these commercial works and helped to establish his reputation in the New York art scene.

Perhaps he would have become a pop artist without a background in commercial art, but it is safe to say that it accelerated his decision to take up this new style. He first became aware of it through the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who had both begun to appropriate bits and pieces of the everyday world in their paintings, such as advertising, grocery store merchandise or comic strips.

Pop art was undoubtedly a reaction to the overweening pretensions of the abstract expressionist school, which had invested figures like Jackson Pollock with a saintliness hard to take seriously. The clash between abstract expressionism and pop art was not just about style.

There is little doubt that there is a strong element of machismo among Pollock and his cohorts, which excluded not only gays but women as well. Many commentators have noted how Pollock's wife, artist Lee Krasner, subordinated her own career during their troubled marriage. Pop art, with its strong "camp" sensibility, moved in the opposite direction.

Warhol's decision to paint Campbell soup cans in 1962 was typically a marketing decision. He polled his friends and asked them how to avoid conflicts with Roy Lichtenstein, who had an opening scheduled at the Castelli Gallery that year. Soup cans were not part of Lichtenstein's show so Warhol plunged forward. The reaction was explosive. It seemed to strike a nerve in the mass media.

When pressed to explain why he chose to paint such a mundane subject, Warhol said, "I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about. I'm working on soups, and I've been doing some paintings of money. I just do it because I like it."

Marxist critics in Europe interpreted Warhol as some kind of caustic satirist, but this interpretation goes too far. Warhol withheld from commenting on anything, since this was not his intention. Probably the best way to understand him is as a barometer of society's drift, rather than some kind of conscious critic.

That said, Warhol's work certainly operates at a deeper level to subvert mainstream capitalist values, while embracing them on the surface. Warhol accepted art as a commodity and broke the unspoken rules that defined the artist as a saint rather than a small-scale industrialist. From a Marxist standpoint, it could be said that Warhol's main interest in art was to create exchange value rather than use value. When you openly make this your aim, you remove the halo from art.

As Warhol biographer David Bourdon comments: "Warhol's subjects ... were not chosen entirely for their flatness. Many of his replications, including the postage and trading stamps and dollar bills, are based on printed paper with a specific financial value, and offer evidence of Warhol's persistent wish to achieve a sort of artistic alchemy, transforming ordinary paint into actual cash.

"Warhol loved few things better than to barter his art for objects that had more value, at least in his eyes. He earnestly yearned for the power to transmute virtually everything he touched into something of greater financial worth." (Warhol, Abrams, 1989.)

As Marx stated in the Communist Manifesto: "The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers." Warhol's entire career operated under this insight.

Warhol's peculiar brand of subversion was certainly as much a part of the '60s rebellion as the anti-war demonstrations and the black and feminist movements. While street demonstrations undermined the authority of US capitalism through attacks on its political institutions, Warhol was busily at work destroying the cultural sacred cows that liberal anticommunists like Clement Greenberg or Hilton Kramer had taken so much trouble to set up. The pop artists had collectively drawn a moustache across the face of US culture and there was no way its reputation could be restored.

The Warhol Look — Glamour, Style, Fashion exhibition is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Circular Quay, Sydney, until April 5. It will then open at the Art Gallery of Western Australia from May to July.

[Louis Proyect is the moderator of the US-based Marxism List e-mail discussion list. For more information, visit <http://www.panix.com/~lnp3/marxism.html> or e-mail <lnp3@panix.com>.]

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