December 2012


Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years
Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 18 - December 31, 2012

The Apotheosis of Andy Warhol

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes

Does one need yet more evidence of the intellectual, esthetic, and moral poverty of today's artworld? If so, Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, closing soon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, supplies it in abundance.

Since the emergence of Andy Warhol (1928-1987) on the artworld scene in the early 1960s, his work has by most accounts exerted an incalculable influence on what passes for contemporary culture. This is the first major exhibition to examine the nature and extent of that influence, however. The problem is that it has come only to praise Warhol, not in any way to bury him.

Breathlessly heralding Warhol's "transformative contributions to the worlds of art and media" as "cultural milestones of the modern era," the Met then proceeds to document them. First, there was his "fascination and engagement with the imagery of everyday life" and his "interest in commonplace or banal subject matter found in newspapers and magazines." Presumably, they have given us such artistic achievements as Robert Gober's Untitled (1992). The label next to the Met's version says it was made of "photolithographs and twine." But you would be forgiven for supposing it was just stacks of newspapers tied up for recycling.

Then, too, Warhol's groundbreaking Brillo Soap Pad Boxes (1964) paved the way for notable works such as Damien Hirst's Eight Over Eight--not to mention a whole new theory of art promulgated by philosopher Arthur Danto, arguing that works of art need no longer be perceptibly discernible from non-art (see pp. 580-584 of his influential essay "The Artworld"). Hirst, by the way, thinks that his piece is "sculpture," but no one could blame you for thinking it is nothing more than a display case lifted from your local pharmacy.

There was also Warhol's "engagement with portrait making"--which consisted mainly of lifting photographic images from the mass media and having his "Factory" assistants revamp them through largely mechanical silkscreen processes. So much for the idea that a portrait "does not merely record someone's features . . . but says something about who he or she is, offering a vivid sense of a real person's presence" (to quote the Met itself from its web page on Portraiture in Renaissance and Baroque Europe).

The exhibition's third section--entitled "Queer Studies: Camouflage and Shifting Identities"--"outlines Warhol's importance as an artist who broke new ground in representing issues of sexuality and gender in the post-war period." That breakthrough is credited with ushering in a "new openness toward different varieties of queer identity . . . largely through work by photographers such as . . . Robert Mapplethorpe."

Never mind that jurors in the infamous 1990 Mapplethorpe obscenity trial expressed a concern no doubt shared by many reasonable people. They deemed the images in question to be merely "obscene"--defined as "appealing to prurient interests and depicting sex in a patently offensive way." It was only the testimony of purported experts from the artworld as to the images' "artistic" merit that saved them from being ruled as pornography.

Then, too, Warhol's "interest in artistic partnership through filmmaking" produced such stellar achievements as his film Lonesome Cowboys (1968). The Met's wall label praises its "exuberant energy." If you were to sample this YouTube clip from the film (not from the exhibition), however--showing two cowboys gabbing about hair care, fashion, and ballet positions--you might find it mind-numbingly boring. And if you paused at the exhibition to view the more provocative clip that was screened there, you would have good reason to wonder if you were really in an art museum or had instead stumbled upon a pornographic peepshow.

In a lengthy 2010 New Yorker article entitled "Top of the Pops: Did Andy Warhol Change Everything?" cultural critic Louis Menand argues that the "essence of Warhol's genius was to eliminate the one aspect of a thing without which that thing would . . . cease to be itself, and then to see what happened." As Menand observes, Warhol

made movies of objects that never moved and used actors who could not act, and he made art that did not look like art. He wrote a novel without doing any writing. . . . He had other people make his paintings.
And he demonstrated, almost every time . . . , that it didn't make any difference. His Brillo boxes were received as art, and his eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building was received as a movie.

True. But that is not a testament to Warhol's "genius." It is instead compelling evidence of the artworld's folly.

Did anyone at the Met consider whether Warhol's influence might be more destructive than creative, more negative than positive? At the press preview, I put that question to Marla Prather (Curator of the Met's Department of Modern and Contemporary Art), who co-curated the exhibition. She replied: "We didn't, but many people do." Since many people do, shouldn't she and her co-curator, Mark Rosenthal, have acknowledged such dissenting views--rather than simply perpetuate the misguided notion of Warhol as a latter-day culture hero?

When I further suggested to Prather that in promoting "contemporary art" along Warholian lines the Met systematically excludes painters and sculptors adhering to a more traditional view, her assistant objected. The museum had just held a "wonderful" exhibition of Ellsworth Kelly's Plant Drawings, she declared.

Could Kelly's unimpressive minimalist drawings have gained notice, however, had he not already been an artworld celebrity "for his rigorous abstract painting" (to borrow the Met's words)? Though I did not get to pose that question, the answer is "not likely. " (For comparison, see work by accomplished little-known artists featured in the 15th Annual International exhibition of the American Society of Botanical Artists.) In any case, the conversation ended with Prather's opining that "art can't just be painting and sculpture any more--that's over," before she walked away.

Further reading and viewing: