back to Andy Today

The Look of Being Looked At

His famous line about being famous bored him. It was a throw-a-way that turned out to be a message in a bottle. Andy’s prediction/warning/fortune cookie for the future washed up on the shores of Facebook and the X-Factor, American Idol and Twitter. In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes. Tweet perfect.

The new generation is up-load. We exist by posting photos of ourselves on the Web. Anonymity is a temporary condition – where you are before your video goes viral. Celebrity is visibility. Visibility is celebrity.  The desire to be seen – not simply noticed or known – is so tangled up with contemporary ideas about identity that it is impossible to talk about identity as a private matter anymore.  That philosophical absurdity – Does a thing exist if no one is looking at it? – has a new answer: No.

Warhol understood early that brand identity would become the definition of success – for people as well as products. Instant recognition – the shoes, the hair, the face, destroys the distinction between public and private. The famous have no private life and everybody else wants to be famous. The famous endorse the merchandise, the merchandise defines the look.

The visual culture we live in now began in the 1960s – the world of TV and Polaroid, glossy magazines and mass advertising. It’s a culture with a strange paradox at its heart; designed to be instant and disposable, temporary and replaceable, it is terrified of being invisible.  Warhol recognised the art of being visible. His famous 15 minutes was the perfect modern mix of novelty and throw-away.

Warhol loved the throw-away – except that he didn’t throw it away. There are 600 Time Capsule boxes in The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. These sealed cardboard boxes contain Andy’s litter – his used plane tickets, newspaper cuttings, bits of uneaten food. His day-to-day detritus is fetishized into meaning like the leftover body parts of a saint.

He collected obsessively – when he died it took Sotheby’s nine days to auction his possessions. He photographed, stored and exhibited his life as though he were conducting a forensic investigation into himself. Evidence = existence.  Andy pre-figured – literally – our CCTV world where every act is witnessed.  The age of Photo-ID has a nice Freudian pun: the Id, the instinctive subconscious self has been replaced by the Ego – the surface self.  Photo-Ego is what Andy started. It’s what happens when identity is confused with recognition. How we see ourselves becomes dependent on how others see us. The surface is all there is.

The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.  This is Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey for the Airbrush Age. The image is everything – even though it bears no resemblance to the real. But that doesn’t matter because the image reassures us that we are really here.

A Warhol image – Monroe or Elvis, Mick Jagger or Mao Tse Dong, combines instant recognition – visibility – with a highly stylized look. The subject is intimate and remote at the same time. The trick of celebrity is to feel that we are up close. Warhol the portrait painter understood celebrity better than anyone because he understood it as a brand. The photographs and screen prints are tantalizing in what they simultaneously offer and withhold.  Their fascination is undimmed; the longer we look at a Warhol the more mysterious it becomes.

That is a good test of a work of art. If it is novelty, we shall soon see all there is to see and tire of it. We have been looking at Warhol for half a century now. The instant appeal – the advertising gimmick – gives way to what is more difficult.  The familiarity of subject – look there’s Elvis – and the object itself – look, this is a Warhol – strips back to a sense of bafflement. What exactly are we looking at? Bafflement then gives way to unease – the unease we experience when we think we know something well and start to discover that we don’t. Like marriage. Like marriage when you find out about the affair. Forget the famous face, forget the Warhol. What do you see?

Art is about looking. What else can you do with it if you aren’t going to look at it? Every day galleries and museums are full of people looking at art.  Advertising is about looking too. No need to go into a gallery or a museum. Every second we are confronted with images of desire; vacations, Viagra, face cream, ice cream, lingerie, liquor, the perfect body, the perfect life. Visual culture is homogenized like nothing else. Whether we are in New York or New Delhi, in a hotel room or our own bedroom, we will be looking at the same images of desire.

What do we see? Brand names. Celebrities. Dollar signs.  The things that Andy loved and made into his art. So what’s the difference between advertising and art? Or: Why is 100 Soup Cans not the same thing as 100 cans of soup?

As early as 1962, Andy Warhol was accused of crass commercialism. Pop Art was collapsing the notions of what could or couldn’t be art. This was liberating and frightening. Liberation is frightening. It was also democratic. Everybody sees advertising, so why shouldn’t everybody see art?  Warhol said, Most people in America think Art is a man’s name.

Warhol had an instinct for both the value and the vacuousness of the culture of the visible. He wasn’t interested in distinguishing between the two. He had been successful as a commercial artist because he knew how to package product. He wanted to make money and he hustled for wealthy patrons. To him that was part of the art process. If that seemed like a vulgar outrage in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a cliché by the 1980s, the Reagan/Thatcher years when money wasn’t worth anything unless you showed it off.

Warhol was expensive, and he liked being expensive, but he is the artist who did the most to democratize art until Charles Saatchi – another ad-man – launched the YBAs in Britain.  The controversy Warhol generated – real thing or cheap fake, the flamboyant lifestyle at The Factory, the assistants, the piss paintings, the deliberate statements – art is what you can get away with – all of that was good for art.

You didn’t have to be educated or cultured to look at a Warhol. You didn’t need a curator or a headset to explain the symbolism and subject matter. Pop Art was uninterested in connoisseurship, in love with access and immediacy.

Warhol was a celebrity chaser but he wanted more than an invited audience. He was shrewd but he wasn’t cynical. His Coke Bottles and Soup Cans are not, in the end, gimmicks or brand, consumer throw-away or icon. I think of the early work as Starter Art – for Warhol and for an audience who thought art didn’t include them. If art was soup and coke, then we could all have it.  The grocery store as gallery space.  But if everything is art, nothing is art. And we know that’s not true.

Art isn’t what you can get away with – nice Tweet Andy, but I don’t believe you believed it. The work tells a different story.  Art is what gets away with you. Every encounter with a work of art is an elopement. The seduction of the self, the abandonment of the self to a different kind of experience, is what art offers. Every renewal of the artistic method and process is an attempt to wrestle art out of the marriage and into the love-affair. By which I mean the Keep Out signs of convention, respectability, familiarity, jargon. The high priest cult of ‘art’ is a lie about what art is. Art is feeling and experience and excitement before it hardens into meaning. Warhol believed that meaning is over-rated.  I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.

I don’t read that as negative or defeatist or flip. What does meaning mean after two world wars, the atomic bomb, Vietnam, Watergate, Iraq, the global crisis we are in right now?  In a data-driven world where the accumulation of content is a sign of deep discontent, meaning will have to mean something new. Warhol hit on the truth that individuality – the loadstar of advertising – would accelerate into nothing more than packaging. Our minds were being cloned to want the same things. The wrapper offered difference but the product and the people buying the product were all the same. For all the yak about individuality, there is no ‘me’ in meaning.

If advertising is a kind of identity theft – a misrepresentation of the self as an extension of the product, then art, acting as a lie-detector will do two things; show us the rift in this so-called reality, and offer instead a process of identification – a clue to what we really feel, a means of discovering who we really are.  Art is authenticity. Which is amusing when authenticating a Warhol has recently proved so tricky. Warhol was jealous of his product, controlling the editions, signing and numbering, but that’s the art market not the art. What he delivered was beyond signing and numbering, beyond the expert opinion. Andy Warhol reconfigured both the art object and our experience of it. That’s worth more than every dollar in the sale room – and it’s free.

It’s irresistible Andy – why he sells, why we want to own a piece of him – even if it’s a T-shirt. He’s authentic. Look at a piece of Andy art and it does what it says on the tin.  Even when the tin says SOUP.

Thirty is better than one was another Andy aphorism for the Tweet generation. Less was not more. The repeats, the editions, the revisions, the repackages, came out of advertising culture, but they were not only about consumerism – although they were about consumerism, which was fine with Andy.  Advertising, like porn, has a numbing effect –that’s why we need a new ad every two minutes, like electric shock treatment. Warhol knew all about that. By repeating himself with changes of colour, texture and tone, by multiplying the same image, Warhol focuses the eye. He asks for concentration. Sure you can skim a Warhol and dismiss it as all surface – his detractors do – but I think that is a misreading that comes out of a mis-seeing. Warhol is surface but not veneer.

And how do we learn as children? By repetition. Andy had a childlike quality to him – artists often do and it is part of their strength. Art scholarship makes everything so serious it can be a disservice. Play is a big part of Pop Art. You can have fun with Andy.

Repetition has a religious element too. Warhol was a devout Catholic, though eccentrically so. The rosary is repetition, the liturgy is repetition, the visual iconography of the Catholic Church depends on repetition. It is worth remembering that for most of history most of humanity has been both religious and illiterate. The image/icon was everything – and recognition comes through repetition.  Warhol’s repetitions are a way of reminding us that indifference (seen it all a million times) becomes difference when we are able to stop skimming and start seeing. The surface gives way to what is under the surface.

Warhol was gay, though eccentrically so. The self-conscious self-parody of gay culture is present in Andy’s art. The drama, the glamour, the So what?, is both defence and defiance. Warhol was part of the first wave invasion of gay culture into the mainstream. Many artists are gay – it’s not a coincidence. Creativity happens at an angle. Warhol thought of himself as the odd man out. He was out when it was dangerous to be so. He looked unusual. He felt weird and he longed to belong. Art is only autobiography in so much as the awkward self at an angle is always in there. But. The grit is not the pearl.

Advertising always starts with the same question: What’s the angle?  As soon as you know what the angle is, it’s a straight line. Straight line. Bottom line. Warhol understood all of that. But. Look again. The intense self-consciousness of the image. The play. The So what? The look of being looked at is what we know from celebrities and superstars. Warhol invented that look – and saw through it to the other side.

“For the roses had the look of flowers that are looked at.”  -T.S. Eliot