Why Warhol Matters
"The old songs come back in a new way and the kids think they're new and the old people remember and it's a way of keeping people together, I guess, a way of living."If Andy Warhol had been given the 15 minutes of fame he allotted to the rest of us, he would have been forgotten 29 years, 364 days, 24 hours and 45 minutes ago. But for a person who celebrated the transience of our throw-away culture -- "Everyone's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic," he once wrote -- Warhol's legacy has been difficult to discard. He keeps coming back in a new way: the aging boomers think they remember him, and the kids keep thinking they've found something new.In a way, they're both right.The museum which seeks to be the resting place for Warhol's legacy is about to celebrate its second-year anniversary, and there are no less than three films about Warhol and his circle either already out or nearing release. We keep trying to find something new in Warhol, but every time our culture tries to re-define him, we only find another way in which he defined our culture."The one message I have," director Mary Harron says of her new film I Shot Andy Warhol, "is that whether someone is a success or failure often depends on the time in which they live. We should be careful of what we dismiss as a failure or as unimportant."No one understood that better than Warhol himself, who as Harron says made stars out of "people who weren't going to make it in Hollywood, and found a way to capture what was wonderful about them on film." And no one needed that understanding more than the woman who tried to kill him, Valerie Solanas.By any standard measure, Solanas was a failure. A self-styled lesbian revolutionary, her political movement, SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men), consisted only of herself. She dreamed of greatness, but her claim to fame was her attempt on Warhol's life, and she didn't even get that right. After the shooting, she was interred in a mental hospital, and when released got "lost in a gutter," as Harron puts it, and died, almost forgotten, in a welfare hotel.But Solanas longed to be publicized by a society she sought to overthrow, and before she shot Warhol, she was drawn to his promise a promise the film extends through the words of transvestite Candy Darling, who tells Solanas: "If anybody can make you a star, Andy Warhol can."After meeting Warhol, Solanas saw in him more than an opportunity: she saw a kindred spirit. Says Harron in a telephone interview from Los Angeles: "They were both very bright, both very uncomfortable with their appearance, uncomfortable with their bodies. They had a lot of difficulty with close personal relationships. They had very extreme notions of sex. They were both profoundly lonely, profoundly isolated people."In fact, throughout the entire film it is only Solanas who breaks through Warhol's detachment, and she only does it twice most infamously by confronting him with violence. But she also allows him to confront the loneliness they share.As much as Warhol was the center of Factory life, he was painfully apart from the parties he threw. And the movie's most strangely poignant moment takes place at one of those parties, where the two wallflowers, Solanas and Warhol, find themselves sitting together and begin discussing the emptiness of sex.Appropriately enough, Solanas also found in the Factory a highly Catholic environment which reflected both Warhol's religious upbringing and her own. (Harron's film shows Ondine, one of Warhol's "superstars," giving communion to a Factory denizen a gesture which, like most of those made within the Factory's silvered walls, is both ironic and telling.)If the Factory didn't promise absolution, it did provide an absence of judgment, divine or otherwise. The flash of Warhol's camera illuminated not the soul or the true self but how a self wanted to be seen as a star. The Factory offered a kind of secular redemption: celebrity. In a mass-media culture, celebrity is the state religion, and Warhol sought to be its pope.With its drag queens and its radical experimentation with art and sexuality, the Factory was the one cultural outlet where Solanas knew her lesbianism could be accepted. But it wasn't her sexuality that the Factory rejected, it was everything else about her zealous desire to act on her convictions most of all. As Harron says of the Factory's denizens, "They weren't remotely interested in trying to change the outside world. They were trying to create their own world."In the process, however, the Factory ended up re-creating much of the world it rejected and was rejected by. Warhol never challenged society's conventions directly; instead he sought to undermine them by making them all-inclusive. Anyone could be a starlet, even a man. As Harron says, "There was something very democratic about that."But while Solanas hoped Warhol would be democratic enough to publish SCUM's Manifesto, ultimately the manifesto would be as much of a critique of the Factory as it was of anything else. Shortly before shooting Warhol, Solanas reads from it and proclaims, "SCUM is out to destroy the system, not attain certain rights within it." Solanas wasn't interested in undermining social conventions; she was trying to overthrow society itself. "The Factory was the most extreme environment in the country at the time," Harron says, "and Valerie was too extreme for the Factory." Like Solanas, the Factory tried to subvert the conventions of patriarchy, but its ironic detachment was totally at odds with Solanas' deadly earnestness.Solanas grew progressively more frustrated by Warhol's refusal to treat her with anything other than the irony with which he treated anything else. ("Did you type this yourself?" Warhol asks, leafing through the Manifesto. "I'm so impressed.") In a desperate bid for approval, she even asks him if he'd like to head the Men's Auxiliary of the Society for Cutting Up Men.But the only other time she breaks through his irony is at the film's end, when he begs her not to shoot. By then, of course, it was too late for Warhol's sincerity to do either him or his assailant any good. As Amy Taubin writes in the Village Voice, Solanas shot Warhol because it was the only way to get his attention.Solanas may have lashed out against Warhol's incessant irony, but it was almost all that survived her attack. And that irony paralyzed him in a way Solanas' bullets never could have. After the shooting, Warhol cut himself off from the fringe elements he had lived by and nearly died from. Instead of promising celebrity to nearly everyone he saw, he refused to be seen with anyone who wasn't already a celebrity. His work lost its freshness, became slicker. Years later, Warhol himself confessed that "I [haven't been] creative since I was shot, because after that I stopped seeing creepy people."Once a vaguely liberal McGovern supporter, Warhol ended up fawning over the likes of the Shah of Iran, Imelda Marcos even the Reagans. Some Warhol critics contend that his cynicism inevitably betrayed the original promise of his work. As Robert Hughes has written, Reagan "might allot $90 million for military brass bands while planning to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts; who cared? Not Andy Warhol."But in the 1960s, Harron contends, Warhol's refusal to take a stance was a radical stance in itself. "It put a question mark over everything. The '60s came out of the '50s, a time of great cultural certainty, and Warhol threw all of that into question."Warhol's irony was an antidote to the self-assured certainty that afflicted not only 1950s conservatism but also the hippies who challenged its assumptions. Harron's film has some fun with the presumptuousness of the latter group: two would-be revolutionaries describe themselves to Solanas as being "like a street gang, only with an analysis."And as Harron points out, while the hippies' utopian vision never took hold, Warhol initiated some of the '60s most lasting legacies. Society today is more tolerant of the sexual diversity the Factory celebrated. "People can see much more that they have in common in the world of the Factory than they can see in the 1960s communes," Harron asserts. "They were breaking a lot of taboos, and playing around with a lot of things in art, and film, and sexuality.""I don't think of it as purely cynical or superficial," Harron says of Warhol's studied cynicism. "It was a pose to be cool, but underneath it everyone was excited to be there."A well-developed sense of irony might have leavened the deadly seriousness of the 1960s, but today it may be the only certainty we have, the one thing we still do take seriously. "In the 1960s, everyone considered hippie culture, west coast culture as the cutting edge. The Warhol thing was dismissed. But I think that now that we're less optimistic and our culture's quite cynical, we actually feel more in common with the New York scene," Harron says.And with Warhol himself.Warhol was at the center of the Factory's sensory and sensual spectacle, and yet he remained oddly isolated from it. He was an artist in the voyeuristic tradition of Charles Baudelaire and Stuart Davis, a "cool spectator at hot events," as Davis put it. And because our mass-media culture offers us no end of televised, or cinematic spectacles even more jaded than those Warhol was privy to, on the surface his passivity is very much like our own. If voyeurism can be a kind of aesthetic practice, in a media-saturated culture we're all artists.The difference is that Warhol actively embraced a detachment the rest of us have simply come to accept. His cynicism has translated into the hipper-than-thou insincerity of David Letterman. We're barraged with films like Reservoir Dogs, which have a distinctly Warholian detachment about them; their characters smirk their way through the violence as if it were a joke only they (and the audience) were in on. Like what took place in the Factory, much of what happens in these films is an excuse to strike a pose of indifferent cool against a hot background.Harron herself admits frustration with the fact that in today's culture, it's often impossible to speak except out of the side of your mouth: "There's a posture of New York irony in which you don't express anything without sneering. I just don't like that attitude. It's an attitude Warhol bequeathed to us, but I think it can be a way of not saying anything, too."Harron says of her film, "It's not a message movie. I'm not trying to make anyone a better person." That's a goal Warhol himself who never sought to make people anything other than what they already were would admire. But in the end, both Warhol's success and Solanas' failure ask the same question: how are we to say anything meaningful in a culture in which too much has been said already?Like one of the party-goers in Harron's film who clutches one of Warhol's silvered balloons and dances with her mirror image our culture embraces its own reflection. And just as a sullen Ondine casts the balloon out the window when the party is over, we ultimately reject those reflections, seeing in them the same loneliness that first compelled us to seek them out.So, like Warhol, we end up isolated by the very mass-media culture we define and use to define us. And we struggle alongside Solanas to find a way to mean something in a world that seems wholly indifferent to what we have to say. Perhaps a good way to start is to follow Harron's lead: to dig Warhol up and shoot him again, this time to make sense rather than senselessness out of the art that was his life, and the life that was his art.