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Andy Warhol - the man who distrusted words

In his account of late capitalism Fredric Jameson describes its cultural logic as if it were a schizophrenic – broken in language, amnesiac about history, in thrall to glossy images, subject to mood-swings from speedy euphoria to catatonic withdrawal. No wonder that his exemplar is Andy Warhol.

‘Warhol distrusted language,’ Wayne Koestenbaum writes on the first page of his smart biography; ‘he didn’t understand how grammar unfolded episodically in linear time, rather than in one violent atemporal explosion.

Like the rest of us, he advanced chronologically from birth to death; meanwhile, through pictures, he schemed to kill, tease and rearrange time.’ Signs of this linguistic disturbance, real or staged, are abundant.

There is ‘virtually no correspondence in his hand’: photographs, audiotapes and films were his modes of inscription. He couldn’t spell to save his life: typographic errors recur in his commercial illustrations of the 1950s, sometimes introduced by his Czech mother, Julia. And he spoke in a deadpan that extended to his books, which were mostly edited from taped conversations. All of this evidence leads Koestenbaum to his initial diagnosis of Warhol: ‘Trauma was the motor of his life, and speech the first wound’ – speech understood here as the medium of ‘normal’ intersubjectivity or reciprocity with the world.  Warhol's autustic stare perhaps was reflective of his times.

‘Trauma’ is the lingua franca of much cultural analysis today, and trauma is central to  Warhol studies. From his mother’s colostomy bag (she had colon cancer) to the brutal scars that tattooed his torso (he was shot, almost fatally, in June 1968),

 Warhol always seemed to pick out the telling cracks in images and in people, whom he often regarded as another species of image. Warhol was porous,  porous in his art, and porour in assembling a motley rag bag of 'stars; around him - thiss steady stream of Pop effluvia created a Warhol myth.

Warhol countered his vulnerability with psychological defences and physical trusses of different sorts: buffering entourages, opaque looks (big glasses, silver wigs), protective gadgets (the omnipresent Polaroid and tape recorder), plus a weird ability to pass as his own double or simulacrum (even when he was right there in front of you he seemed somehow disembodied, His own persona was Warhol's ultimate work., Marshall McLuhan, a very different media figure of the 1960s, viewed new technologies as prostheses, Warhol used them as screens. Warhol embalmed images.
some of which were a punctum or the opening of a tear duct in sympathy for his relentlessly autistic stare.

His sayings on this score are well known: from his early motto, ‘I want to be a machine,’ to his late ode to repetition, ‘I like things to be exactly the same over and over again . . . Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.’
 He diarised the bric-a-brac of his life in ‘time capsules’, cardboard boxes filled with mementos and ephemera (there were over 600 in his estate). In a nice twist Koestenbaum adopts a nickname that Warhol dropped early on, ‘Andy Paperbag’, which evokes not only his compulsion to collect but also the fragility of this protective device.

Such customising of images is close to ‘camp’ as defined by Susan Sontag. Alert to the queer dimension of this sensibility (her celebrated 1964 essay reads in part like a field report on the gay underground of Warhol, the filmmaker Jack Smith and others), Sontag saw camp as ‘dandyism in the age of mass culture’ – that is, as a way of wresting the distinctive from the vulgar, of finding feeling in kitsch, of transcending ‘the nausea of the replica’. Some of this spirit, such as the attraction to degraded imagery, is maintained in Pop, but much is not: Pop hardly redeems sentiment, and it does not transcend the nausea of the replica so much as rub our faces in it.

there are countless examples of Warhol deferring responsibility for hisT choices,  a classic instance of this deferring of responsibility. Marcel Duchamp exacerbated the problems of artistic making and judging with his ready-made objects: ‘Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain or not had no importance. He chose it.’ Warhol complicated aesthetic choice further by passing it off, or at least around, often to his assistants.
In an attempt, or homage to Jackson pollock by ohter means: Warhol was wont to  pee onto canvases which were covered with metallic paint and set on the floor – or had his Factory workers pee (even here he deferred). The paint oxidised into misty veils or, when his female associates peed, murky puddles. These paintings ‘queered’ the drip paintings: suddenly the machismo of the Pollock gesture looked a little impotent, and the homosocial dimension of the old Abstract Expressionist circle like a circle-jerk (primal boys peeing on fire).
The campy sensibility continues apace n his Diaries (1989) Warhol refers this break to the death of his favourite cat in the early 1960s: ‘My darling Hester. She went to pussy heaven. And I’ve felt guilty ever since . . . That’s when I gave up caring/"

A day in the life of  Anday was very Andyish, he spent the das at the Factory with image-producers and scene-makers; evenings first at the bar-and-restaurant Max’s Kansas City and later at the club Studio 54 with the entourage; nights at home on the Upper East Side with Mom and the cats; and Sundays at Mass (he remained a Catholic to the end).

  • Andy Warhol by Wayne Koestenbaum
    Weidenfeld, 196 pp, £12.99, November 2001, ISBN 0 297 64630 3

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