Andy Warhol: High Culture’s Surrender to Celebrity

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

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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.

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21 Responses to Andy Warhol: High Culture’s Surrender to Celebrity

  1. PeterW says:

    Warhol was a populist, a blue-collar Polish boy who made good. He drew wonderfully; there was no lack of artistic talent. Warhol never liked radical chic. He liked Ronald Reagan and Roy Rogers, he didn’t like hippie festivals. He liked pro wrestling. The Americana that poseurs turn up their noses at delighted him. He liked capitalism because when the Queen buys a Coke she gets the same Coke that the poor man gets. Andy deserved better than this piece.

  2. Fran Macadam says:

    I don’t know much, but I know what I don’t like.

  3. David KI says:

    ooph. Hopefully soon I’ll get HBO so can see this.

    I have disgust for Warhol and Koons and Lichtenstein …and I might even for Kline or Pollock or Mondrian–except they were all doing their own work. Of a real exploration of art and expression.

    Anyway–Duchamp predicted this 100 years ago. His toilet was a warning for people to be disgusted with such “art”, not a guide.

    I probably misspelled names. Post-modernism is basically all about capitalism and a little clique of billionaires/status-seekers.

    And that said, new good art movements have also escaped even awareness of existence by most: For two examples: Comic books; and Video games.

  4. mrscracker says:

    I never appreciated his art & I had a pretty shallow understanding of Andy Warhol until I read more about his faith. It was quite humbling:

    “Embraced by Hollywood elites and the avante-garde for his offbeat artistic sensibilities, he avoided the glare of the spotlight and spurned public attention. Widely believed to be homosexual, he remained celibate and was, according to his closest associates, still a virgin at the time of his death.

    Warhol was a deeply private man, and among the secrets he withheld from his admiring fans was his lifelong Catholic faith. Born to Slovakian immigrants, he was raised in the Ruthenian Rite, an Eastern rite which is in communion with Rome and which uses the Divine Liturgy of the Constantinopolitan Byzantine Eastern Rite.

    As a boy, he worshipped with his family at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. Later, as an adult in New York City, Warhol stopped in almost daily at St. Vincent Ferrer parish on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Sometimes he would attend Mass; then, fearful that he would be recognized, he sat quietly near the back of the church — often missing the opportunity to walk forward and receive communion, in order to avoid being noticed. On other days, he stopped into the church in the mid-afternoon, lighting a candle and spending fifteen minutes in silent prayer.

    Beside his bed, Warhol placed a handmade plaster-of-paris shrine, with a crucifix and a worn prayer book on his bedside table. Under his white shirt, he wore a cross on a chain around his neck; and in his pocket, he carried a rosary.

    Andy Warhol’s Catholicism was evident in his philanthropy as well as his personal piety. He was a generous supporter of several organizations including a soup kitchen operated by the Church of the Heavenly Rest, an Episcopal church on E. 90th Street. Not content to only help financially, Warhol volunteered at the soup kitchen, ladling soup or helping in any way he could. And when his nephew announced that he wanted to become a Catholic priest, Warhol stepped up to finance the young man’s years of seminary study…”

    https://aleteia.org/2014/11/05/andy-warhol-a-celibate-catholic/

  5. JonW says:

    Thank you for this article. Art critiques rarely appear here, and I am grateful when they occur on TAC.

    One side of this dilemma as you have so adequately stated is the financial business of inflating the value of an elite’s chosen artists. What is the hoopla over Andy Warhol — a commercial artist who turned his product into l’objet d’art — a colossal coup in public relations? It is the epitome of this commercialization of what is in content commercial that is the sine qua non of this decline in society’s aesthetic sensibilities.

    However there is the supply side to this dilemma — that long term rebellion against the academy. France in its desire to preserve standards had erred on the side of preservation narrowing its aesthetic prejudices to a rigid neoclassicism. The rebellion against this orthodoxy commenced with Barbizon. The Salon des Refusés of 1863 marked publicly this transformation where the immediacy and freshness of work overrode the finesse of the, all too often, sclerotic old school.

    Work in many cases remained incomplete. Artists left their work unfinished, in the raw so to speak with impressions that might have served as underpaintings for later completion in the studio.

    Thus premier coup had become the defining moment separating the old orthodoxy from modernity. Yet, these artists featured in the Salon des Refusés exhibited there exquisite masterpieces such as Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe which was certainly a finished if not well polished masterpiece.

    The Salon des Indépendants followed with exquisite pieces. Art finally runs aground with the emergence of the Fauves with their penchant for intense pigment and flat perspective which we see in the works of Henri Matisse for instance.

    But that is not all. The violent disruption of the Great War caused a rupture in meaning so deep that we see it typified in Dada emanating from Cafe Voltaire in Zurich. The ensuing Expressionist movement including its subset der neue sachlichkeit also reflected a weltschmerz over the old ways of Europe. The nostalgia for antiquities sometimes showing in Surrealism and in particularly the works of Giorgio de Chirico who was for a brief moment associated with this school is virtually nonexistent in Expressionsism where society is parodied in a satirical rejection of the affairs of state and where history is sometimes erased in the oppressive present.

    Today this rawness in art is celebrated to the extremes where formally trained artists abandon their finely honed skills for primitivism and where the unskilled are extolled — a celebration of marginality and, yes, its commercialization. It is called Neo Expressionism and Art Brut as typified by the late Jean Michel Basquiat.

    Now here’s the rub: We have forgotten our way. No longer do we have enduring symbols pointing to a greater reality, a golden past, and the possibility of transcendence. We no longer have patrons who commission us to paint grand masterpieces such as a pietà or an annunziata. And church iconography is lost to us having only an archaic significance lost to modernity.

    The fine arts such as painting and sculpture no longer is regarded as crafts developed through long hours and years in workshops inheriting a centuries old legacy of perfection. Its artisanal potential is sacrificed for pure impulse while form is lost to feeling and content to abstraction. And the work, today, bereft of a cultural narrative but for the nihilism which seeks to extinguish meaning and a sense of the past, has long lost its charm having no enduring significance except the almighty dollar.

  6. Rick Steven D. says:

    A truly great artist should, at once, reflect, criticize, and admire the culture from which they emerge. Andy Warhol and The United States of America are a match made in heaven…

    The abstract expressionists didn’t like Pop Art. They thought it empty, arch. Camp poseurs. They were wrong. Pop Art reintroduced content, representation, subject matter, back into painting. In a way that made sense for the Mid-Twentieth Century.

    The magnitude of what Pop Art achieved is demonstrated by what came after it. Nothing, basically. The last iconic, towering Modernist art movement. While there has been plenty of art made since, it is mainly just commentary.

    Warhol has been described as the most philosophical of all great artists. In the sense that it is next to impossible to look at one of his works without contemplation, without trying to figure out what it means. Without thinking.

    His genius becomes apparent when you trace his development as an artist. Every artist searches for their ideal form. Warhol’s juvenilia shows this. The early, messy Batmans and Popeyes, while sometimes striking, would not have made his reputation. Too many others were doing the same thing. And better, in the case of a Lichtenstein.

    Then, there is suddenly a Campbell’s soup can. And at first, Warhol doesn’t know what to do with it. He paints it with a can opener coming out of it, a few other variations…

    Then, all at once: INSPIRATION. How does an American artist best reflect American culture, Warhol asks?

    He probably envied someone like Vermeer at that point. After all, Vermeer could just ask the milkmaid to pour milk, and then, VIOLA, there you have it, The 17th Century Dutch Middle Class. But how do you represent automation, the atomic age, Madison Avenue? More troubling things, like existentialism? Alienation? Everything that makes The United States both beautiful and terrible at the same time?

    So you paint one can. And then another. And then another. One may be Cream of Asparagus, one may be Scotch Broth, one may be Chicken Noodle. But they are all the same…

    Almost as brilliant as Warhol’s repetition is the off-register in his silk screens portraits. If something is beautiful, and we manufacture it a million times, is it still beautiful?

    I’m in recovery. More so in Narcotics Anonymous meetings than in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, if you ask someone what their drug of choice was, they will say just one word to you: “MORE!”

    There is nothing more American than that “MORE!”. And Andy Warhol, the spirit of the age, the absolutely most American of all great artists, knew it WAY before the rest of us…

  7. Bob Loblaw says:

    I agree with PeterW. Warhol’s appreciation of pop culture is deep and sophisticated, and his ability to insert pop culture into high-art venues remains revolutionary. However, as with all innovators, he’s spawned an entire genre of vapid, vacuous imitators, with Koons being the most egregious example.

  8. Anonymouse says:

    An interesting question: how did Andy Warhol’s scrupulous attendance at R. C. mass every day – so we are told – impinge on his secular life?

  9. Louism says:

    Im not going to comment on Andy Warhol as a person. I never met him but the comments have enlightened me to virtues and values which are admirable.

    However, I never liked his artwork or any modern artwork for that matter. Somewhere along the line art stopped being a craft and a skill honed after years/decades of study and practice. It became a means of debate, discussion, controversy, vulgarity, offensiveness, heresy, shock, notoriety, celebrity, etc…it became everything but art.

    Andy once said, everyone will get 5 minutes of fame. I would have thought that fame would cease to exist once it became that common but fame and celebrity still exist and infact have grown. It is society that have become more gross and common because now all society descends to the lowest and the poorest and the least civilized. Society has become as deconstructed as its art. All cycles eventually burn out and this is one that I hope burns itself out with something that calls us to be greater than we are.

  10. Tim says:

    Interesting comments here, and good responses to what is essentially a take-down piece. The 21st century art world richly deserves it, but that won’t take anyone by surprise. That Warhol was a devout Catholic may give some pause, though that is known to anyone who ever read anything more about him than the odd bit from sanctimonious nay-sayers. He can’t be held responsible for the reception he got or his current rarefied status (newsflash: he’s been dead longer than Reagan). And lambasting him for pandering to the rich is ironic, given the clever way he exploited consumerism. He was something different than what he was taken to be by both his fans and detractors, as is often the case with famous artists. But a piece like this does serve as a dreary reminder that self-proclaimed cultural conservatives are usually the biggest, most tenacious fans of artistic inertia. One needn’t be a flighty, vacuous member of the Manhattan culturati to find that attitude a tiresome dead end.

  11. snapper says:

    I, too, would like to defend Warhol. He got the joke. He never claimed to be a great artist. He knew he was scamming the literati. Just the fact that he called his workshop “The Factory” and didn’t do much of his own art shows that he knew the score.

    According to all appearances, he was a good, religious man, who took advantage of the free market to separate some rich, gullible, poseurs from some of their money. Sounds like a hero to me.

  12. Martin Mugar says:

    A good art critic to read who should have won a Pulitzer over Jerry Saltz is Jed Perl.I write here about his review of the Koons Show.He just feels you have to say No and NO!! to Koons,Warhol etc
    https://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2014/09/jed-perls-review-of-koons-retrospective.html

  13. Chris says:

    Warhol is critic proof, which is why the Whitney curators know his show will be a hit. This article is about the contemporary art market, folks, not Warhol, who offers little compared to other artists like Rothko and Richter, as noted, but who towers over much finer artists as a brand. Critics are dismissed as tenacious fans of artistic inertia, thus Andy’s claque misses the whole point of the article, Kahn’s documentary, and money-driven art exhibitions / valuations.

  14. Richard says:

    “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.

    If this makes Warhol oxygen, I’m fetching a plastic bag to cover my head with so I can swoon to the sweet, sweet scent of carbon dioxide.

    Warhol knew his art was crap and made a mint off it. I can respect his achievement as a sign of the times he lived in. I recently went to the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, and took a great many photos of the work there (Degas, Gauguin, Renioir, Winslow Homer).

    Art is primarily craft. It requires technical knowledge and constant practice. Call Warhol an artist if you want to, but he was primarily a salesman.

  15. mrscracker says:

    One of the interesting things I read about Andy Warhol was the connection between the icons he grew up with in the Byzantine Rite Church & his art work:

    “Pop Artist. Provocateur. Catholic. Who was Andy Warhol?”

    “..Romaine explained that in the Eastern Catholic churches, religious icons play a vital role in worship and spiritual life. As opposed to altar pieces or other sacred art in the Western Church, “the icon is more of a specific presence of the saints there with an icon,” he said. “The sacred image is not directly bringing the Virgin Mary into the Church, whereas with the icon, the presence of the saints is believed to be more directly there.”

    He said that by viewing Warhol’s work – particularly his paintings – with an eye towards iconography, “I see all of Warhol’s work as potentially sacred.” As an example, Romaine pointed to the now-iconic printing of the Campbell soup can.

    “Soup cans are disposable food,” he said. “But the way Warhol depicts them, he removed them from a time and place context in which they’re disposable, into a timeless realm in which they’re almost like icons.”

    The soup can also had a ritual tie to Warhol’s life. He recalled Warhol’s brother mentioning “Andy eating Campbell’s soup every day, having a soup and sandwich every day, and the importance of religious imagery in their home” – including over the kitchen table where Warhol ate his soup.

    Similarly, Romaine said, people are presented in a glorified, redemptive manner in Warhol’s paintings…”

    https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pop-artist-provocateur-catholic-who-was-andy-warhol-28151

  16. Tim says:

    Chris says:”Warhol is critic proof, which is why the Whitney curators know his show will be a hit. This article is about the contemporary art market, folks, not Warhol, who offers little compared to other artists like Rothko and Richter, as noted, but who towers over much finer artists as a brand. Critics are dismissed as tenacious fans of artistic inertia, thus Andy’s claque misses the whole point of the article, Kahn’s documentary, and money-driven art exhibitions / valuations.”

    No, that point isn’t missed, and recognizing critical tendencies isn’t tantamount to defending the embarrassing, mega-bucks driven spectacle of the art market and its many stooges. I, too, would rather own a Rothko than a big picture of a Campbell’s soup can. But one reason Warhol made a splash in his day was the cheekiness of his ironic enshrinement of the mundane. The timing g was excellent; as any fan of early Tom Wolfe can tell you, the 60s were the dawn of the new era of mass marketing, largely thanks to the dominance television began to exert on American culture as it paid the bills selling Coke, the Ford Mustang, and other signifiers of the good life. Having made a living as a commercial artist, Warhol must’ve laughed all the way to the bank. And why kill the golden goose? His faith was clearly vital to his inner life and conscience, but, having grown up in very modest circumstances, he would’ve had to aspire to sainthood to reject his chance to cash in. Ultimately his creativity was best expressed and reached its zenith in his work as an impressario who had other people do a lot of the grunt work, a move that could have been inspired by Rubens, among other art-history heavyweights. For all that, I must admit that sharp new takes on the art world may well be in order, though none will ever top “The Painted Word” for gleeful mischief.

  17. Rick Steven D. says:

    Mrscracker,

    Thanks for the mind-bending collateral about Warhol and his faith. Love the connection between the soup and The Saints. The schoolgirl Sandy in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie grows up to become a contemplative nun who writes a book entitled: The Transfiguration of Everyday Life.

  18. JonW says:

    mrscracker,

    Contrary to Romaine, there is nothing sacred in Warhol’s pieces. A rendering of a Campbell soup can as an altar piece in a church or as an icon? I don’t think so.

  19. mrscracker says:

    JonW ,
    I tend to take things in a literal fashion, too but I don’t think the person quoted in the article actually meant that Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup images belonged on a church icon screen.
    It was more about what Rick Steven D. references in his comments:
    “The Transfiguration of Everyday Life.”

  20. mrscracker says:

    Rick Steven D,
    Thank you so much for your comments.
    I love stories like Andy Warhol’s because they can shatter preconceptions & help us gain humility. The older I get, the more I understand the importance of first assuming the best intentions in people.

    I don’t have TV reception at home but I can access Utube on my smartphone & one of the random Utube recommendations that came up was “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”
    So, thank you for reminding me to check that film out.
    God bless!

  21. JonW says:

    mrscracker

    Ah there’s the rub. What can be sacred about a totally secular work of art? It was his attempt in bringing to the public something aesthetic about package design but nothing more. His religious observance is in a different category as he successfully kept it away from the public eye and away from his art.

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