Saturday, January 30, 2016

Robert Hughes on Andy Warhol

I've begun to read The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes. Hughes lived from 1938 to 2012, and these essays cover a variety of topics over a long period of time. Rather than reading it straight through, I'm going to jump around and read chapters that interest me. Perhaps because I hadn't been paying much attention to art journalism, I didn't notice Robert Hughes until recently. As he speaks in The Mona Lisa Curse documentary mentioned earlier, Hughes writes robustly and eloquently and displays a deep knowledge of his subject. He reminds me a little of Frank Rich, who used to write opinion pieces for The New York Times: he writes vigorously and reinforces each point. However, Hughes seems more interested in finding the truth than Rich, who often came across to me as a bombastic, ideological bully. I was particularly interested in reading what Hughes had to say about Andy Warhol, who was a key figure in the transition of the art world to a predominantly commercial enterprise. Hughes is worth reading for his prose alone, but he is even more valuable for his understanding and insights. I'll give you a few examples.

On the Factory, Warhol's famous studio, he writes:
Its silver-papered walls were a toy theater in which one aspect of the sixties in America, the infantile hope of imposing oneself on the world by terminal self-revelation, was played out. It had a nasty edge, which forced the paranoia of marginal souls into some semblance of style, a reminiscence of art. If Warhol's "Superstars," as he called them, had possessed talent, discipline, or stamina, they would not have needed him. But then, he would not have needed them. They gave him his ghostly aura of power. If he withdrew his gaze, his carefully allotted permissions and recognitions, they would cease to exist; the poor ones would melt back into the sludgy, undifferentiated chaos of the street, the rich ones end up in some suitable clinic.

On publicity:
Warhol was the first American artist to whose career publicity was truly intrinsic. Publicity had not been an issue in the forties and fifties. It might come as a bolt from the philistine blue, as when Life made Jackson Pollock famous; but such events were rare enough to be freakish, not merely unusual. By today's standards, the art world was virginally naive about the mass media and what they could do.

On the avant-garde:
Warhol did his best work at a time (1962-1968) when the avant-garde, as an idea and a cultural reality, still seemed to be alive, if not well. In fact it was collapsing from within, undermined by the encroaching art market and the total conversion of the middle-class audience; but few people could see it at the time. The ideal of a radical, "outsider" art of wide social effect had not yet been acknowledged as fantasy. The death of the avant-garde has since become such a commonplace that the very word has an embarrassing aura.

On Warhol's talent:
The perfunctory and industrial nature of Warhol's peculiar talent, and the robotic character of the praise awarded it, appear most baldly of all around his prints, which were recently given a retrospective at Castelli Graphics in New York and a catalog raisonné by one of his German enthusiasts. "More than any other artist of our age," it gushes, "Andy Warhol is intensely preoccupied with concepts of time"; quite the little Proust, in fact. "His prints above all reveal Andy Warhol as a universal artist whose works show him to be thoroughly aware of the great European traditions and who is a particular admirer of the glorious French Dixneuvièm, which inspired him to experience and to apply the immanent qualities of 'pure' peinture." No doubt something was lost in translation, but it is difficult to believe that the author even looked at the prints he speaks of. Nothing could be flatter or more perfunctory, or have less to do with those "immanent qualities of 'pure' peinture," than Warhol's recent graphic efforts. Their most discernible quality is their transparent cynicism and their Franklin Mint approach to subject matter. 

On the Iranian art market:
One of the odder aspects of the late Shah's regime was its wish to buy modern Western art, so as to seem "liberal" and "advanced".... Not since the death of Tamerlane had there been so much kissing Persian arse.... The main beneficiary of this was Warhol, who became the semi-official portraitist to the Peacock Throne.

On Warhol's embrace by the Reagans:
Great leaders, it is said, bring forth the praise of great artists. How can one doubt that Warhol was delivered by Fate to be the Rubens of this administration, to play Bernini to Reagan's Urban VIII? On the one hand, the shrewd old movie actor, void of ideas but expert at manipulation, projected into high office by the insuperable power of mass imagery and secondhand perception. On the other, the shallow painter who understood more about the mechanisms of celebrity than any of his colleagues, whose entire sense of reality was shaped like Reagan's sense of power, by the television tube. Each, in his way, coming on like Huck Finn; both obsessed with serving the interests of privilege. Together, they signify a new moment: the age of supply-side aesthetics.

As you might expect, I agree with all of the above. I knew that there was something wrong with Andy Warhol even when I was a teenager during the 1960's, but I would not have been able to articulate it as well as Hughes does here. Although Warhol didn't create pop culture all on his own, he was the central figure during its inauguration as a public norm. Hughes acknowledges that Warhol had genuine artistic talent as a commercial artist but laments his subsequent effect on the art world. The tradition of hawking dubious art to the wealthy is still healthy among the nouveaux riches in China and throughout the world. What is refreshing to me is that Hughes highlights qualitative changes for the worse and contextualizes them sociologically, unlike most commentators, who are reluctant to draw attention to the fact that an actual aesthetic decline has occurred.


  1. Enjoyed reading. Thank you, Paul.

    1. If you would like to read the full article online, it is "The Rise of Andy Warhol" in the February 18, 1982 issue of the New York Review of Books – however, you would have to pay a fee. Hughes is a fantastic writer, and I have only summarized some of his main points.

  2. Interesting. I am a little like Andy - I started as a commercial artist, being one of the first and few "un-white" folks creating ads and commercials for the world's biggest companies, ad agencies and brands.

    But I tend to agree with Hughes. I admire Warhol more for his promotional talents than his art - although I also like some of his art (what's not to like? It's bright. It's big, it's graphic and it's familiar).

    I'm actually in the process of becoming the next Warhol, but I've combined my experience as a madman with my desire to solve America's oldest, biggest and most potentially devastating problem - the residue of its white supremacist founding. My big idea? A coloring book I've branded "Some Of My Best Friends Are Colored". To find out more, just Google it plus Lowell Thompson.


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