Andy Warhol

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

“People's fantasies are what give them problems.”

I feel a bit undone by Andy Warhol‘s (August 6, 1928 – February 22, 1987) The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, or perhaps a bit done up. The curtain of words, like bullets aimed from a man who “longed to be a machine” is unnerving.

Funny people are the only people I ever get really interested in, because as soon as somebody isn’t funny, they bore me. But if the big attraction for you is having somebody be funny, you run into a problem, because being funny is not being sexy, so in the end, near the moment of truth, you’re not really attracted, you can’t really “do it.” But I’d rather laugh in bed than do it. Get under the covers and crack jokes, I guess, is the best way. “How am I doing?”

“Fine, that was very funny.”

“Wow, you were really funny tonight.” If I went to a lady of the night, I’d probably pay her to tell me jokes.

Warhol is like The Wizard of Oz. Projecting his amplified voice broadly while hiding its source behind a curtain. A consummate controller.

Or is he?

In her portrait of humans who inhabit and the physical space of loneliness, Olivia Laing notices Warhol’s vulnerability: “The loneliness of difference, the loneliness of undesirability, the loneliness of not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance.”

Warhol hid these vulnerabilities in plain sight and, as Laing points out, they became who he was. “You wear the mask long enough,” wrote Stephen Fry in his own memoir, and it becomes who you are.1

Warhol continues:

When I did my self portrait, I left all the pimples out because you always should. Pimples are a temporary condition and they don’t have anything to do with what you really look like. Always omit the blemishes – they’re not part of the good picture you want.

Photograph of Andy Warhol, 1972. Featured in Andy Warhol's "The Philosophy of Andy Warhol" in the Examined Life Library.
Andy Warhol in 1972. “Photography is the most successful vehicle of modernist taste in its pop version” observed Susan Sontag in her essays on the visual code of photography.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol is a piece of Warhol’s art. Projected into a megaphone of machine-gun sentences and lidless convictions. Projected onto the reader, I think my skin is pink or neon green.

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 can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke 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.

This is the commoditization of taste and of humans themselves for which Warhol became famous. Warhol saw the ultimate commercial entity, a Campbell’s soup can, and said to the world “this is art” with the same complexity and irreverence as he said “People’s fantasies are what give them problems” and then admitted he longed to be a machine and TV was his best friend.

“People’s fantasies are what give them problems. If you didn’t have fantasies you wouldn’t have problems because you’d just take whatever was there. But then you wouldn’t have romance, because romance is finding your fantasy in people who don’t have it. A friend of mine always says “Women hate me for the man I am not.”

“I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you?” He asks his imagined reader. The “you” is everything. He drags us into the spotlight. The fabricated green glow of the late night TV.

The TV he used to reduce emotions and automate himself.

When I got my first TV set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships with other people. I’d been hurt a lot to the degree you can only be hurt if you care a lot. So I guess I did care a lot, in the days before anyone ever heard of “pop art” or “underground movies” or “superstars. So in the late 50s I started an affair with my television which has continued to the present, when I play around in my bedroom with as many as four at a time.

But I didn’t get married until 1964 when I got my first tape recorder. My wife. My tape recorder and I have been married for ten years now. When I say “we,” I mean my tape recorder and me. A lot of people don’t understand that. The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it’s not a problem any more. An interesting problem was an interesting tape. Everybody knew that and performed for the tape.

“Perform for the tape” Warhol asks of everyone. His instantly recognizable artwork, screen prints and commercial Pop Art was done in the early 1960s followed by stints as a movie director and editor and in the 1980s, producer and host of a talk show called “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes” (a riff on his supposed quote “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”)

A future that has come to pass. Are we all just performing for his tape? Oh there I go again, seeing everything but Warhol.2

A friend really hit it when he said, “Frigid people really make it.” Frigid people don’t have the standard emotional problems that hold so many people back and keep them from making it. When I was in my early twenties and had just gotten out of school, I could see that I wasn’t frigid enough to not let problems keep me from working.

When you step away from Warhol’s canvas, (I had to take many deep inhales during this book, throw my face into the sun for a second or two) some beautiful connections can be found in Joan Didion’s essays on a slice of rotten American life, or my own study of the complexity of emotions.

Installation view, Andy Warhol Retrospective, MCA Chicago, Photograph by Frank J. Thomas © MCA Chicago
Installation view of the Andy Warhol Retrospective, MCA Chicago from July 1970 – September 1970. Learn more. Photograph by Frank J. Thomas © MCA Chicago

I found this passage in Patti Smith’s memoir of her creative/sexual/spiritual relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe which speaks to an apt and contemporary view of Warhol:

In early June, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol. Although Robert tended not to be romantic about artists, he was very upset about it. He loved Andy Warhol and considered him our most important living artist. It was as close to hero worship as he ever got. he respected artists like Cocteau and Pasolini, who merged life and art, but for Robert, the most interesting of them was Andy Warhol, documenting the human mise-en-scene in his silver-lined factory.

I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did. his work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it.

From Patti Smith’s Just Kids

There is a line in “The Philosophy…” where Warhol admits his favorite sculpture is “a solid wall with a hole in it to frame the space on the other side.”3

Always framing, always hiding, that is Warhol. Life aware of itself.