I had high expectations for ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’. I guess I was excited to learn more beyond the really famous stuff: soup cans and Marilyn Monroe screen prints. But when I got into it? My initial reaction was of disappointment. It opens with collections of short quotes or thoughts, almost like a book of Chinese Proverbs. Except not. I dunno, Warhol Proverbs? But I felt it was missing depth. Or maybe I was missing something?
Nevertheless, I pressed on and found a quote that really resonated with me:
I’m confused about who the news belongs to. I always have it in my head that if your name’s in the news, then the news should be paying you. Because it’s your news and they’re taking it and selling it as their product. But then they always say that they’re helping you, and that’s true too, but still, if people didn’t give the news their news, and if everybody kept their news to themselves, the news wouldn’t have any news. So I guess you should pay each other. But I haven’t figured it out fully yet.
Back in the 60’s, before social media, the internet or personal computing, Warhol used traditional media to cultivate his own celebrity. He worked hard at building his notoriety, and this quote hints at tension with his media relationships. It illustrates how this ‘two way street’ is a minefield fraught with danger. One side profiting with an easy to measure metric such as newspaper sales, while the other ‘profits’ in the much more vague metric of ‘exposure’. You can’t really compare the two and calculate a reliable exchange rate. So you have no idea if the trade for ‘my news’ in exchange for some quantity of ‘exposure’ is fair.
In contemporary culture the magnitude of this ownership problem has only gotten worse. Social media has made everyone ‘the news’. Just wade into any debate on privacy and Facebook and you will discover Warhol’s confusion over ownership at play. Something like two billion people are discovering that the news or the data that they have given Facebook is being diced up, resold and used in some pretty confronting ways. How third-parties use and profit from this data is hardly transparent. At least Warhol could see how others were profiting from his news - an interesting article meant they might sell more papers.
From here on out, there were more quotes that I enjoyed. So my impression of the book picked up. However, just before I got to the end of the book I was lucky enough to see Warhol’s 1972 screen printed portraits of Mao Tse Tung at the Tate Modern in London. The accompanying didactic read:
“I’ve been reading so much about China,” Warhol said. “The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen.” Warhol’s portraits of Chairman Mao coincided with President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing. Like many of Warhol’s subjects, the Communist leader was a contemporary icon. The official portrait used by Warhol appeared everywhere in China, while American radicals also knew it from the cover of the ‘Little Red Book’, an anthology of Mao’s quotations.
Wait. What? If this were a film, this is where we would Record Scratch Freeze Frame.
I finally got it. Warhol had written his own little red book of quotations, ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’ some three years after his Chairman Mao screenprints. This was the antithesis to the little red book. The counterculture. Reading at times like a Seinfeld episode, Warhol’s philosophy drips with American style populism, celebrity and capitalism.
During his career, Warhol explored different kinds of techniques for mass producing his art. Rather than calling his workspace ‘a studio’, he referred to it as his factory. And the most famous of his works, the screen-prints, originated from a technique he adopted so that he could mass-produce this work with less effort. This book was the next evolution down his path of mass producing art. He had turned his own thoughts and news into a product of his own, and packaged this artwork as the West’s response to Chairman Mao’s little red book.
So for $20, I had accidentally purchased myself a genuine Warhol artwork. It has since been defaced in the most loving of ways. Pages have been dog-eared, and passages I found interesting underlined. There is no other copy in the world like it, my copy is a one of a kind Andy Warhol and it didn’t cost $12.6 Million USD. It is exactly like Andy’s thoughts on capitalism:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
I give Andy Warhol’s ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol : From A to B and Back Again’ four out of five stars.
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