I begin this series for three topical reasons that seem to come together into a ball, or a mini-Zeitgeist. One, next week would have been the 84th birthday of Andy Warhol. Two, the Olympics has come to town and I am paying more attention to the dynamics of the event than ever before in my life. Three, the government has released the results of its Index of Wellbeing – a fantastically ill-timed survey to find out how happy we all are. O the japes. The study discovers nothing beyond confirming the obvious, and essentially is an insult to the intelligence of us sitting here patiently suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageously fortunate.
So the other day I saw a picture that gave me a start. It was as refreshing as it was surprising, and thus was this series born.
It was a picture of Andy Warhol smiling.
Warhol commodified and was commodified by his face. He embodied postmodernist life in his very breath: commodification, advertising, commerce, commercialisation, cross-reference, was the subject of his art. He said, ‘I love plastic. I want to be plastic’.
Those were the days. In our current straitened times, postmodernism is declared dead and there isn’t even a name for what we have now. It’s post-postmodernism – or austerity. There’s no shining vision, no spaceman, not even a frontier that we can identify. As I begin this series, the Olympics – megalithic and behemoth – have begun in London. Their corporate sponsors are running the show – and, by extension they’re running us, the consumers. If we’re able to see this clearly, it is partly because Warhol showed us.
Warhol also, however, said this:
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.
Everyone knows what Andy Warhol looked like. Inscrutable, darkly deep, above the fray the rest of us inhabit. He said, ‘In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes’. Like a deadpan spaceman he used his life and work to navigate the outer limits of this entity – fame. He explored its quarks and black holes, its quantum mechanics. And he never smiled.
Or did he?
This Sunday morning series will, for a number of weeks, explore the inner limits of post-postmodern life through the medium of the quiet man Robert Hughes called ‘the white mole of Union Square’.
If Warhol could smile, we can too.