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Andy Warhol: High Culture’s Surrender to Celebrity

A new exhibit unintentionally reminds us of his pathological insincerity—most of it financially activated.
Andy Warhol

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An important new HBO documentary, The Price of Everything, debuts this month, and it offers a smart, sometimes stunning, profile of the contemporary art market and the money and ethos fueling it. Smoothly edited, it relishes the art world’s luxe, while sympathizing with its idealists. It arrives just as a much-promoted Andy Warhol extravaganza opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The two events together make a cultural companion piece and diptych.

The Price of Everything takes a look at a high-end culture where art turns into assets so expensive that museums can no longer afford to buy them. It looks at price and intrinsic value, the wages of fame and money, and the possibility of a huge art bubble ready to burst. Nathaniel Kahn directs the film with minimal censure or political smog. Acclaimed for his 2003 documentary My Architect, Kahn records top-tier painters, critics, dealers, collectors, and auction house executives in action, getting some to speak with amazing candor. He weaves together from its parts the rarified—sometimes bizarre and crass—art production and sale scene.

What makes a work of art great? Why are Gerhard Richter and Mark Rothko venerated by connoisseurs and dealers alike? Where does great art belong, in a museum or private collection? These are among the fascinating questions that Kahn explores. His artist-hero Larry Poons, weathered and blunt, is a romantic survivor of the high-minded, pre-Andy Warhol Sixties. “Art and money have no intrinsic hookup at all,” Poons contends. “They’ve tried to make it much like that, like the best artist is the most expensive artist, same thing.”

We meet the captivating, mercenary Amy Cappellazzo at Sotheby’s, eager to work back from “priceless” on just about anything. Her acquisitiveness has an erotic edge. Barbara Rose, the modernist critic, is cool and intelligent, appalled at art changed into luxury goods. In self-involved rapture, art historian Alexander Nemerov emotes on a penthouse balcony beside a monumental Koons emerald.

We meet the oddly charming collector Stefan Edlis. In April 2015, Edlis and his wife, Gael Neeson, donated 42 works of pop and contemporary art, together worth an estimated $500 million, to the Art Institute of Chicago, a bequest made with strings to ensure exhibition at least until 2066. “To be an effective collector, deep down, you have to be shallow,” Edlis says. “You have to be a decorator.”

One of Edlis’s living room decorations is Damien Hirst’s pickled sheep. Another is Maurizio Cattelan’s creepy Hitler. This is by most standards unusual house decoration. Jeff Koons himself comes across as a mix of oily huckster and postmodern nutcase, but one worth an estimated $500 million. We hear Koons’ and Edlis’s defense of the “Rabbit” and “Balls.” (It is not a good one.)

As if to confirm The Price of Everything’s perspective, the Andy Warhol blockbuster at the Whitney is pure Gotham art bait. Encyclopedic and reverential, the exhibition documents how and why the Warhol brand has triumphed. “Think you know Warhol? Think again,” goes the Whitney’s carnie pitch. “It’s Warhol as you’ve never seen him before.” The “exhibition reveals new complexities about the Warhol we think we know, and introduces a Warhol for the 21st century.” These come-ons will undoubtedly fill the Whitney’s glossy Renzo Piano circus tent. But the expansive claims are just not true.

We’ve seen Warhol before—everywhere—often inescapably. “Few American artists are as ever-present and instantly recognizable as Andy Warhol,” the Whitney admits. There was Bob Colacello’s Holy Terror. There was Jean Stein and Edie. We know the story all too well. There are no new complexities here, only marketing and hype.

Why is Warhol important? Because he orchestrated high culture’s surrender to celebrity, taking mid-culture along for the ride. No doubt Warhol’s pieces can be arresting and eye-catching. The big 1972 “Mao” is formidable. Warhol hit pay dirt with his celebrity silkscreens, but most of his own painting is pretty bad. His genius was selling a peek into glam decadence.

Thirty-one years after he died, Warhol remains an art magnet, letting museum-goers look at easy images while feeling cool and with-it. Millions call his Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe iconic. “Flowers” possibly reminds them of Woodstock, when all the world was happy. We’re back at the Factory and Studio 54 with the doomed superstars, reliving the first blush of heroin chic and hardcore porn. “Andy Warhol’s works, persona, and entourage never lose their currency,” Artforum declares.

The Whitney show has a purpose other than making bank. The New York art establishment is eager to suppress lingering Warhol skepticism and erase Warhol’s standing among earlier critics as a facile, sinister talent. The goal is to render him impervious to criticism and secure his brand value.

“The Whitney show vividly restores him to full, commanding view, and reasserts his importance for a new generation,” declares a New York Times review by Holland Cotter. “I never thought I’d use the word exalted for Warhol, or transcendent, or sublime. And he probably never thought to use them either. But that’s what’s here.”

“Andy is in the air we breathe,” says New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, either whorishly or lyrically, but on a first-name basis with the painter. Saltz is a Pulitzer Prize winner widely admired by art insiders, and is among the supporting cast in The Price of Everything. He’s married to Cotter’s colleague, art critic Roberta Smith at the Times—small world.

Warhol offers, according to Saltz, “primitive hits of optical power, poisonously alive color that doubles as makeup and war paint, tragic glamour, coolness, heat, voyeurism, secret sexualities, bulletproof sincerity, visual originality, and brave refusal of and resistance to all pictorial norms.”

In fact Warhol is the opposite of the “bulletproof sincerity” that Saltz claims. The Whitney headlines its spectacle with a Jeff Koons epigraph: “Andy’s work really goes to the heart of the matter of what it means to be a human being and what our potential is…. It’s the real deal.”

Maybe this tagline is a subtle, postmodern joke. Maybe not. Whatever the case, Warhol and Koons radiate pathological insincerity—most of it financially activated. Warhol’s Whitney show epitomizes the price of everything that Nathaniel Kahn opens up for appraisal in his fine new documentary.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.