Who was Andy Warhol? He was an American pop artist who showed us that industrialisation and its products, including celebrity, are worthy of consideration.
Today, Andy Warhol’s posters and paintings are everywhere, absorbed into western culture. It can be difficult to imagine how, in the 1960s, 70’s and 80’s, his silk-screens of Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo boxes and Marilyn Monroe enraged gallery-goers. Even now, across the web, his art is derided as childish or not “creative” because the viewer can see little evidence of traditional drawing skill. But these exasperated critics are missing the point, they’re often choosing to ignore the important concepts and ideas that Warhol wants them to confront.
Warhol wanted his art to look mechanically reproduced, as he puts it: “more of an assembly-line effect”, because the modern world is industrialised, commoditised and saturated by images – and he believed that our surroundings were worthy of attention and reflection.
Andy Warhol – Soup can
In his career in magazine illustration and advertising, Warhol saw the impact of American industry’s shift from fulfilling basic human needs to creating new ones.
As Charles Kettering, director of General Motors Research, wrote in 1929: “If everyone were satisfied, no one would buy the new thing because no one would want it. The ore wouldn’t be mined; timber wouldn’t be cut. Almost immediately hard times would be upon us”.
Warhol was listed in LIFE magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. Also on that list is Edward L. Bernays, the influential Public Relations executive who wrote: “Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses”.
Where does Facebook come into this?
I was reminded of Andy Warhol’s contemporary relevance by this 1963 interview with Gene Swenson in Art News. In the interview, Warhol mentions “liking” – such a popular activity with the many millions of us who use social media. Here’s an extract:
AW: Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself without being under a strict government; so if it’s working without trying, why can’t it work without being Communist? Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody.
GS: Is that what Pop Art is all about?
AW: Yes. It’s liking things.
GS: And liking things is like being a machine?
AW: Yes, because you do the same thing every time. You do it over and over again.
GS: And you approve of that?
AW: Yes, because it’s all fantasy. It’s hard to be creative and it’s also hard not to think what you do is creative or hard not to be called creative because everybody is always talking about that and individuality Everybody’s always being creative. And it’s so funny when you say things aren’t, like the shoe I would draw for an advertisement was called a “creation” but the drawing of it was not. But I guess I believe in both ways. All these people who aren’t very good should be really good. Everybody is too good now, really.
Like, how many actors are there? There are millions of actors. They’re all pretty good. And how many painters are there? Millions of painters and all pretty good. How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract-Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something. I think the artists who aren’t very good should become like everybody else so that people would like things that aren’t very good. It’s already happening. All you have to do is read the magazines and the catalogues. It’s this style or that style, this or that image of man—but that really doesn’t make any difference. Some artists get left out that way, and why should they?
Andy Warhol August 6, 1928 – February 22, 1987