Andy Warhol’s art clearly exposed our culture’s “Dance of Death.”

EDWARD C. KNIPPERS, JR.Edward C. Knippers, Jr., is a painter living in Arlington, Virginia. His work was reviewed inct, (March 6, 1987, p. 63).

Deadpan comedian Steven Wright reminds American consumers, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Artist Andy Warhol, as a mirror of American culture, spent his life illustrating that such wisdom doesn’t fit our consumer society.

Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, an exhibit that this year drew crowds to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Chicago’s Art Institute, profoundly exemplifies how Warhol has portrayed Americans as consumers—not only of Brillo soap pads and Campbell’s soup, but of images, events, and people. Take, for example, his disaster series: works consisting of large canvases covered with the repeated images of, say, a news photo of a car accident, with a body hanging from a shattered window, and seemingly extruded from the smashed and twisted metal like paint from a tube.

A single photo might well be horrific, but a dozen photo/silkscreen images are as numbing as the nightly news. Normal human responses are sedated by a glut of consumption. After a moment or two, we are tempted to contemplate the “disaster” as one might glance at cheap reproductions of Monet’s Waterlilies. The disaster has become a part of art, not life, and as art it seems to be parody rather than reality.

It is no mistake that vintage Warhol seems manufactured, not created. Warhol’s studio was known as the Factory. And recalling a 1962 switch to silkscreen technique, Warhol said, “I wanted something … that gave more of an assembly-line effect.”

Like the silkscreen process, the photo/video process was natural to Warhol. He produced approximately 65 films during the sixties. In a sequence of vapid video images (“The lighting is bad, the camera work is bad, the projection is bad, but the people are beautiful,” said Warhol), he gave us a perfect metaphor for much contemporary experience. Warhol understood the importance that the camera gives to anything it touches. He therefore understood the nature of celebrities and the modern cult of fame—hence, his dictum that everyone should be famous for 15 minutes. With the camera, fame seems within reach, giving Americans a craving to be seen, turning them into video people, incessantly filming mini-docudramas of their lives. Rather than looking to the works of their hands and the lives of their progeny as a record of their existence, as their forebears did, moderns are coming to see themselves as mechanically produced pictures—existential moments interrelated only by fading memories in a desperate attempt to prove to others and themselves that they were here.

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A New Heaven And A New Hell

In the show’s catalogue, Robert Rosenblum says, “Warhol not only manages to encompass in his art the most awesome panorama of the material world we all live in, but even gave us unexpected glimpses of our new forms of heaven and hell.” Rosenblum may well be right, and it should scare us to death. Warhol hangs our feet over the hellfire of banality. (He said, “I like boring things. I like things to be the same over and over.”) But, even more frightening, he reflects the way moderns have lost the capacity to conceive of anything more than a cardboard heaven.

There is a frantic edge to the Warhol exhibition. One is assaulted by the repetition of the shallow images of what have become icons of American culture (the cowboy Elvis, Mao, Warhol’s self-portraits). Like being in a supermarket, hungry and tired at the end of the day, the viewers seem driven from gallery to gallery, except that in the Warhol show they know suppertime will never come. The museum is like a bargain basement where making the “good buy” is more important than the what and why of the buying—here the reason for looking is lost in the consuming of a media blitz. The equality of images in the exhibition is dehumanizing, both to the viewer and to the people “immortalized” in Warhol’s art.

This exhibition makes it clear that it is time for a re-evaluation of our culture. Are we being consumed by our consuming? The emotions and passions that drive moderns toward consumption also inadvertently define their personhood. It is therefore easy to fall into the trap of depending on consumerism as a surrogate for being—defining ourselves and our worth by the things we own. In such a state, consumers are nonpersons looking to the purveyors of goods to provide meaning, much as Warhol approached interviews: “The interviewer should just tell me the words he wants me to say and I’ll repeat them after him. I think that would be so great because I’m so empty I just can’t think of anything to say.”

Warhol said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” It is not surprising that Warhol’s celebrity portraits, his Marilyns and Elvises, his sports personalities and rock stars, are among his most profound work. Using silkscreen and quick-drying synthetic polymer paint, he lets the techniques crudely show, exposing the objects of star worship for what they are—pure media and no substance. The overall message of this exhibition seems to be that twentieth-century America is also pure medium and no substance—a victim of its self-inflicted materialism and greed.

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Wretched Excess

What should be the Christian response to consuming excess?

The easy response to materialism in our society is asceticism. The plainer the life, the more godly the person, we want to think. Yet God, in principle, does not demand exterior plainness of us, for God judges the heart. The simple life is no guarantee of a life with God—it, too, might be for show, and in no way assures we will not hate our neighbor.

Neither is any reincarnation of the old heresy of gnosticism, which accentuated the spiritual while denying the goodness of physical reality, an antidote for the sins that accompany materialism. God was capable of creating any kind of world he wished, and he has given us a material world. Of course, the success of Madison Avenue depends on the exploitation of this basic truth about God’s world and our place in it. Nevertheless, to try to avoid that physicality is not to live in his world. The secret is to “be in the world, but not of the world.”

More often than not, we define who we are by the things we have around us. This reality, I believe, is what gives the still-life paintings of seventeenth-century Holland such a human presence. The moderate expression of our personhood in the creation of a life-enhancing environment is quite different from relying on the accumulation of things for our personhood. But for many of us, our emotional attachment to and need for inanimate objects might well be the roaring lion we must pass without being devoured in order to be with God.

In a society in which some believe increased consumption is necessary for economic survival, the temptation to cross the line between moderate expression of our personhood and a substitute for it is always present. But it is too easy to blame rampant materialism solely on capitalism. This is knee-jerk and thoughtless in the face of the intricacies of the human heart and its penchant for self-deception. Materialism can exist in any economic system. Different economic and governmental systems simply allow the ever-resourceful human personality a variety of opportunities to expose its grasping nature. To regiment society in order to thwart this bent with severe external restraints results in pyrrhic victories, feeding the totalitarian megalomania of the few.

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Perhaps Warhol is the artist moderns deserve. One would expect our society to produce such an artist—a child of the media and of the world of advertising. One does not expect to find that Americans needed him so much. He said, “I’ve made a career out of being the right thing in the wrong space and the wrong thing in the right space. That’s one thing I really do know about.” We needed an inside man to show us the sham of the advertising world—the brain center for the consumer society—and to do it in such a way as to catch us off guard. The “wrong space” of the art museum makes his message abundantly clear. Fine art from the famous sells for big bucks. (Warhol’s Flowers, 1964, sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s on May 2 of this year.) But regardless of price, a commodity is a commodity. When a Warhol is sold, “fine art” seems a misnomer, and somehow we are reminded of what we all do daily as “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

The organizers of this huge retrospective are telling us to remember Andy Warhol. But it is best to remember him as seen in his Self-Portrait with Skull (1978), a painting that conjures for us the art that came from the plagues of medieval Europe. We should remember that he has clearly exposed our own “Dance of Death.” To come face to face with the raw reality and crudity of the consumer society as one does in the art of Andy Warhol is a healthy, even vital, exercise. One only hopes that such an encounter will clear the sight of our jaded eyes, so that we can see clearly the devastation wrought by a grasping heart.

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