The Critical Response to Andy Warhol

The Critical Response to Andy Warhol

Stinespring, John A

Ralph Smith (Levi & Smith, 1991) noted that criticism has many functions: “to cultivate artistic perception, to make a reasoned assessment of artistic quality, to improve the intellectual environment in which we think about art, and to appreciate art’s multifarious values” (p. 87). Terry Barrett (1990) cited a variety of methods for art critics that covers “a much broader range of activities than just the act of judging” (p. 2). Citing aesthetician Morris Weitz, Barrett summarized that critics describe, interpret, evaluate, and theorize about art. While critics may do just one rather than all of those activities, Weitz concluded that this activity would still be criticism.

Alan R. Pratt, the editor of The Critical Response to Andy Warhol, has selected 62 critical essays on the artist which provide an opportunity for students and scholars to explore many aspects of criticism. Pratt is an Associate Professor of Humanities at Embry-Riddle University, Daytona Beach, Florida. He seems to have heeded critic Donald Kuspit’s criterion for good critical writing with his selection of essays for the book as they are all “honest in their judgment, clear in their writing, straightforward in their argument, and unpretentious in their manner” (quoted in Barrett, 1990, p. 10).

The essays in Pratt’s collection show how Warhol achieved the position of interpreter of popular culture. In writing about Andy Warhol, Theodore Wolff (1996) observed that,

Some artists have the good fortune to appear at exactly the right time and place. One thinks of Jackson Pollock hitting his stride at precisely the moment his revolutionary approach to painting was most likely to be taken seriously by the American art community. And of Andy Warhol bursting upon the scene with his iconoclastic Pop Art images just as large numbers of art critics and curators were becoming bored with the highminded seriousness of Abstract Expressionism. (p. 11)

Pratt has arranged this book in chronological order, revealing a certain evolution in critical writing about Warhol. Serious critical literature about Andy Warhol began in 1962, the same time he began making “fine art” silk screen images of dollar bills, coke bottles, soup cans and celebrities. The early critical essays about Warhol in this book focused on detail about his studio techniques, technical information about his use of color (alizarin, cerulean), the registration techniques of his silk-screens, his choice of sculpture materials, and his film-making techniques. Efforts at explanation and evaluation at this stage by the critics were somewhat tentative. But by 1964, critics were more aggressive about explaining Andy Warhol from a more conceptual perspective. For example, Robert Rosenblum’s 1964 essay discusses how the fetishes of commercial art evolved into super-fetishes that were turned into icons in Warhol’s popular culture images.

About this time, Warhol also created works on more difficult subjects, such as his Death and Disaster Series on suicide, the death penalty, and automobile accidents, which were characterized in Lucy Lippard’s review (1966) as “one of the few forceful statements on this aspect of American life to be found in recent American painting” (p. 27). This sort of direct social commentary stands in contrast to his popular culture work but appeared to cause critics to attribute a deeper level of meaning to his pop art work. Increasingly in the literature, Warhol’s work was portrayed as an accurate reflection of the commercial, mass-produced, and somewhat sleazy nature of modern American society. In contrast, other critics branded him a fraud surrounded by adoring but amoral fans while offering, at best, second-rate art work. Bosley Crowther’s 1966 essay suggests that Warhol and those like him are “too solemn to see the absurdity in themselves” (p. 26). Michael Fried (1962) was “not at all sure that even the best of Warhol’s work can much outlast the journalism on which it is forced to depend” (p. 2). Warhol compounded the critics’ problem of understanding and judging by avoiding serious talk about his work. Pratt notes that primary source research into Andy Warhol is made difficult by his writings, which he describes as being “suspect and of little value in understanding his intentions” (p. xx). Pratt indicates the same problem exists with Warhol’s voluminous diaries. When asked to set the record straight about what his work meant, Warhol invited inquirers to “make it up.” This level of ambiguity, however, also provided critics free reign and helps account for the wide diversity of opinion about him.

One of the most revealing examples of Warhol’s refusal to expose his ideas was reported by Marianne Hancock in Arts Magazine (1965) about a joint interview with Ivan Karp of the Castelli Gallery and Andy Warhol. Warhol responded to questions only by yes or no (mostly no). While Warhol maintained his enigmatic and inscrutable mask, Karp seemed eager to provide an extensive rationale for Warhol’s work. He equated tomato soup with the art’s sexual content. He placed Warhol among Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Renoir. He predicted the durability of Warhol’s art. This praise was heaped on the artist even though Theodore Wolff judged Warhol to be “modestly talented” while his work “was blown way out of proportion by a generation of art professionals, each of whom saw something in him he or she wanted or needed to see” (Wolff & Geahigan, 1997, p. 62).

In spite of this tendency by critics to project greatness on Warhol’s view of contemporary culture, other critics sharply rejected the whole concept of Pop culture in the 1960s. Charles Jencks, considered one of the preeminent cartographers of postmodernism itself, painted an unflattering picture of the bad taste or what might be called the “camp attitude” of the era. He defined camp as “an attitude that in effect strips art of its content in favor of an infatuation with style” (quoted in Levi & Smith, 1991, pp. 114-115). Jencks complained that this attitude “accepts monotony, cliche and the habitual gestures of a mass-production society as the norm without trying to change them… . Thus the epitome `it’s so bad that it’s good,’ which accepts the classification of traditional culture but reverses the verdict” (Levi & Smith, 1991, pp. 114-115).

What are the potential uses of this book by art educators? For those wishing to study contrasting critical perspectives, the collection of more than 60 samples of criticism about the same artist from all manner of sources from Playboy to Saturday Review, as well as a few original essays not previously published, provides access to material that is otherwise not easily obtainable. Andy Warhol was selected for this series of critical essays because, as the editor noted, “no other artist has ever aroused such impassioned praise and vehement condemnation” (p. xvii). There is an equal balance of favorable and unfavorable reviews of Andy Warhol’s work as an artist.

Critics cited in Pratt’s book who approved of Warhol described his work as being serious commentary and highly expressive. “The show was an ideological tour de force, with the dry goods distinguishing its essential nihilism” (Sidney Tillim, 1964, cited on p. 7). “Warhol’s work is a statement, not a song… . It is art of the machine, not about it. The machine is … representative of a unique field of twentieth-century experience….” (Paul Bergin, 1967, cited on p. 29). “Warhol’s use of color is quite superb” (Caroline Goldman, 1976, cited on p. 117).

In contrast, negative criticism seemed to focus as much on Warhol the person as on the artwork. “Warhol denies he makes any aesthetic decisions-a pretty piece of nonsense” (Ellen Johnson, 1966, cited on p. 21). “It has come time to wag a warning finger at Andy Warhol and his underground friends and tell them, politely but firmly, that they are pushing a reckless thing too far” (Bosley Crowther, 1966, cited on p. 24). Grace Glueck asserted that Warhol trivialized serious issues such as when he was asked to respond to Women’s Lib’s demand for equal pay, day care centers, and free abortions, he responded, “and lipstick for both men and women” (1971, cited on p. 77). Hilton Kramer ridiculed Robert Rosenblum’s claim that Warhol compared favorably with Manet and other great artists. Kramer suggested that it was as ridiculous as a claim that the Beatles’ songs were superior to those of Schumann (see p. 122).

Later critics found merit in Warhol’s work as that of a truly avant garde artist. Charles Stuckey found Warhol to be a kind of latter-day Marcel Duchamp who shared his indifference to conventional criteria for evaluating art. In Warhol’s case, it was indifference to originality and hand craftsmanship. David Bourdon found parallels in Warhol’s outeredge testing with John Cage’s silent 4’33″or the 18-hour performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations, an 80-second piano piece repeated 840 times. Editor Pratt found Andy Warhol’s importance rested on his assault on the values of modernism. Warhol “represented a complete transvaluation of the aesthetic principles that had dominated for several generations” (p. xxiii). His works ridiculed the self-absorbed passion of modern artists and the prevailing conventions of the artworld by blurring the “distinctions between commercial design and serious art” (p. xxiv).

For students desiring to apply semiotic analysis, the Warhol book offers great opportunities. Steve Jones (original essay not previously published) discussed Warhol’s images as icons intended “to promote the gap between their original functions and their potentialities for resignification” (p. 278). Jones would have us understand that Warhol’s images rise above mere reflections of a very specific context doomed to lose their meaning as the memory of that particular segment of mass culture fades. Instead, Jones suggested that images like Marilyn “remain vital precisely because they have bridged the gap separating the participatory present from the past, and are located in the memories they have themselves created” (p. 278).

Teachers using traditional instructional modes of art criticism such as the Feldman and Mittler sequence of description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment will be hard pressed to find that pedagogical pattern clearly illustrated in this collection of critical writings. Nonetheless, advanced students will need to come to grips with the real world of art criticism, as practiced by the professionals. Geahigan (Wolff & Geahigan, 1997) is explicit about this point: “Art criticism cannot be reduced to a step-bystep formula….” (p. 125).

For teachers looking for opportunities to work with theoretical constructs with their students, discussing Theodore Wolff’s three types of criticism-diaristic (emotive, impressionistic, or autobiographical), formalist (properties and qualities of artwork), contextualist (art historical, psychoanalytical, ideological)-and using the Pratt book as a source for a variety of critical writing stances can provide some sophisticated analytical activities for students. Teachers will also note, after such analysis, that critics typically combine approaches when they actually write. As Wolff (1997) said, “No critic practices one or another exclusively” (p. 15).

Teachers can also work with Wolff’s (Wolf & Geahigan, 1997) point that art criticism can lend critical support to a student’s first tentative ventures into purely personal and original work by citing examples of others [in this case, Warhol] who risked derision and worse in order to give voice and form to what most demanded expression within them. (p. 69)

Wolff asserted that art criticism has a major role in supporting children and young artists in making art that is “all of a piece and authentic” (p. 8) so that it can uniquely and effectively express the voice of its creator.

When thinking about use of this book for primary and secondary students, one must face the difficulties of presenting to young audiences in conservative communities, the subject material of Andy Warhol’s films which are about drunks, homosexuals, drug addicts, rape, murder, orgies, sadomasochism, fellatio, transvestites, voyeuristic nudity, and obscenity. Even the movie titles, Blow Job, Fuck, and Harlot, are likely to inspire heated school board meetings about discontinuing the school’s art program. Perhaps the 6-hour film, Sleep, can be mentioned since it shows a man sleeping for six hours, but its point may be lost on young people (and maybe everybody). On the other hand, Warhol’s commentary on the commercial aspect of American society as represented by the soup cans, Brillo boxes, and portraits of celebrities would work well for young people who often are drawn to the bold color and recognizable iconography of Warhol’s work. Young people could focus on the most commonly understood interpretation of what the Campbell’s tomato soup image was saying. Ivan Karp, in an interview at the Society of Illustrators conference in 1965, explained, by taking a can of Campbell’s tomato soup out of its context in a supermarket, by blowing it up, putting it on canvas, and adding something ineffable of his own-and what Mr. Warhol added is very subtletransfigured that can of soup and raised it to the level of spiritual importance. By his act of transmutation he created beauty and meaning. (p. 280). This analysis was not enhanced by Warhol’s response that he selected tomato soup because he loved to eat it for lunch. His irreverent and noncritical responses are cited as examples of his contribution to, or reflection of, Pop culture.

In spite of these difficulties, a skillful teacher can assign certain readings from Pratt’s book and thus provide an excellent pedagogical structure for inquiry. In many ways, this collection of essays on Andy Warhol comes very close to primary source research as students examine the writings as instructive illustrations of art criticism.

Copyright National Art Education Association Fall 1998

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