40 years of faulty wiring

Pop Culture, Andy Warhol and the Origin of Reality TV

Long, long ago in the last millenium Andy Warhol, the controversial cult figure, helped define the notion of “pop culture“through his unique perspective within the visual art movement. Warhol, a painter, avant-garde filmmaker, record producer, and author defined key aspects of the 1960’s. Warhol’s collection of multi media including silk screen, film and other material, reflected the everyday lives of 20th century society, an approach that is still relevant with the dawn of the new century.

Warhol’s claim to fame lies in his exploitation of the mundane, puzzling and intimate nature of human beings belittled even further by our superficial worship of iconic American products. His laissez-faire attitude towards the outcome deepens the insult.

 Years ago I visited the AGO in Toronto to view a posthumous display of Warhol work. It is as though I just left the Gallery. Suicide, Fallen Body, a silk screen of Evelyn McHale, 23, who’d committed suicide by jumping off the Empire State Building  slid unexpectedly into view. The effect was both devastating and hypnotic: the curve of the woman’s seemingly undamaged body left its imprint atop a luxurious limousine as deeply as her bizarre serenity imprinted itself on the American public. It is a beautiful, deeply disturbing image of desperation and self destruction. She haunts me.

And therein lay Warhol’s genius in a single print. McHale’s flight from the sky apropos of nothing, white scarf streaming softly behind her and the coup de grace of her horrendous end was precisely the effect Warhol had on the pop culture of the 1960’s: unexpected, a startling arrival that echoes fiercely between two millenia. He recognized in the suicide a cry not for help, she was far beyond that, but for her 15 minutes of fame in death if not in life.  Warhol was only too happy to give it to her and in so doing she absconded with more than her 15 minutes. Sixty years on, she remains a hapless princess fallen from her tower without rescue.

As I recovered from the still, silent shock of death, the living ecstasy of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job Movie  accosted me, molten lava ecstasy layered over the frigid cold of Evelyn McHale’s angst.  The film was pornographic yet not pornographic, it’s obscenity lies in what is not seen rather than what is seen. A deliberate mockery of our deliberate intrusion upon this intimate act Andy Warhol’s Blow Job is a classic Warhol signature. Better still, those critics that attempt to dismiss it as mere pornography and unworthy of art reveal their own superficiality: if it’s so unbearable why do they insist on obsessing over the film throughout the decades?

It would appear that long before Valerie Solanas , someone shot Andy Warhol in a drily humorous film of himself in Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger, a reflection on the mundanity of human biology: sometimes you have to waste precious time eating. The wonderful snub in this piece is his refusal to enjoy the iconic symbols of a Burger King sandwich sweetened by Heinz Ketchup. Pop culture’s futility lies in celebrating its own commercialism on television and other media yet it’s promise cannot ever live up to it’s own premise and vice versa.

Valerie Solanas became an eternal, baffling chapter in Warhol’s life. She worked briefly with Warhol for the purpose of submitting a self-penned film manuscript that Warhol literally and figuratively discarded.  Filled with rage at yet another rejecting male in her life, the schizophrenic Solanas, an American radical feminist and author of The SCUM Manifesto, shot Warhol point blank three times in his chest. Solanas’ desire to decimate pop art was as futile as the SCUM manifesto: Warhol survived, pop culture triumphed, she was jailed and life went on.  

Perhaps Warhol recognized the redundancy of exploiting Solanas’ hatred to the masses. In penning SCUM she’d already told the tale. Yet Solanas’ attack plagued Warhol. Internal damages forced Warhol into a girdle for the remainder of his life. Invisible trauma nearly destroyed him. Nervous and uncertain, a man who jumped at shadows terrified that Solanas might return to finish the job, he was never the same man or artist again. Solanas indeed killed Andy Warhol. 

Warhol’s reality, the shocking and the mundane, were depicted on film and in newspapers long before there was reality tv. In fact it is fair to state that Andy Warhol planted the seeds of reality television last century: consider the film of Warhol eating a hamburger, the blow job, the kiss. He filmed in short segments but he directed, he didn’t script, an unusual approach for its day. 

In today’s reality programs, scenes are shot and re-shot until the director has his take, the exact opposite of Warhol’s approach since reality on film is meant to unfold spontaneously, rather like well, reality, accounting for why today’s shows are banal, lacklustre and of little cultural value.  No doubt he pictured aspiring directors attempting to develop his reality media, envisioning they would come nowhere near the ethereal quality of his work. 

Warhol’s reality film is an intentional irony. Ignorant of his manipulation, we are a living piece of Warhol’s reality.  He offers us the opportunity to spy on ourselves as much as the film’s participants and we do so with hunger rather than appreciation.  We grasp the forbidden opportunity to glimpse the hidden nature of being human among human beings, rather like Adam and Eve suckling the succulent fruit of knowlege at their own expense. This is the art Warhol brought to the screen regardless of his media. It is mangled by 21st century pathos.

A reigning icon of pop culture in Warhol’s era, Ziggy Stardust (aka David Bowie), recognized his kindred spirit. Prompted by their oneness, Ziggy wrote an ode of sorts to Warhol entitled Andy Warhol.

The lyrics describe Warhol’s work with accurate simplicity:

Dress my friends up just for show
See them as they really are
Put a peephole in my brain…
Andy Warhol Silver Screen

Can’t tell them apart at all

Warhol’s raison d’etre.

Watch video A Picture is Worth a Thousand Bucks
Watch video 15 Minutes of Shame


October 30, 2010 - Posted by | Pop Culture | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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