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Art vs. Life vs. Pop: A review of Andy Warhol (Icons of America series) by Arthur C. Danto

by Gary Comenas/London/2009

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Meghan McCain enjoying a "spontaneous night in" with Arthur C. Danto

Arthur C. Danto's new book on Andy Warhol had already become one of the most publicized books on the artist in print within days of its publication. This was not because the world had suddenly developed an overwhelming appetite for Danto's Hegelian theories of aesthetics, but because Meghan McCain - the daughter of Senator John McCain who ran against Obama in the last U.S. presidential election - had posted a rather voluptuous "twitpic" of herself and the book on the social networking site Twitter, noting that she was reading Danto's book during a "spontaneous night in." The "busty" photo (as described by the press) generated a storm of negative comments among her 25,000 or so followers (which quickly rose to over 75,000) on Twitter and the controversy was picked up by a plethora of newspapers, magazines, and blog sites, particularly when Ms. McCain added fuel to the fire by defending herself with a blog titled "Don't Call Me a Slut" in The Daily Beast. Although the combination of high-brow and low-brow could be described as very "Pop," or at least "kitsch," I'll resist the temptation to say that Andy Warhol would have loved it, as some press reports have intimated.

Although Ms. McCain referred to the book as a "biography" of the artist in her "tweet," it is not - although it does mention most of the major incidents of Warhol's life. Danto issues a disclaimer regarding the book's status as a biography in the very first sentence of his preface when he writes, "there is no way in which I could write a new biography of Andy Warhol. My competence lies elsewhere. Fortunately there are several quite good 'lives' of Warhol that I could draw on, since my book is, roughly, chronological, and such writers as Victor Bockris, David Bourdon, and more recently Steven Watson have, collectively, constructed a fair narrative of Andy's life..." But both the Bockris and Bourdon biographies were written about twenty years ago and a lot of new information about the artist has come to light since then. By depending too heavily on those biographies Danto runs the risk of repeating any inaccuracies in them as well as furthering the previous authors' subjective viewpoints of Warhol's life and the motives and resentments of their interviewees at the time. Writing a biography is more of an art than a science.

For instance, Danto's characterization of Warhol's superstars, such as Edie Sedgwick, as people who were "in many cases... destroyed by the Factory's permissiveness, whether of sex or substance" perpetuates a vision of the Factory that has become a part of its legend but is also an exaggeration. The Factory was as much a work place as a party place. Warhol got a lot of work done there. Leo Castelli's assistant, Ivan Karp who was instrumental in bringing Warhol's early Pop art to the attention of collectors and gallerists, recalled that in the first two years of the Factory "it was all about production all the time. He [Warhol] was a hard worker... There were never more than three, four, five people there... The only reason to go there was to watch the silk screens being made on the floor." (SC201) Warhol's main art assistant, Gerard Malanga, has also noted that "People have this impression there was an on-going party at the Factory, which is really not the case. It's interesting how with time a myth gets built up about a situation that people never really witness..." (GP) Most of the drugs used by Warhol's superstars were either used off-site or discreetly. Warhol was as afraid of getting busted as anyone else. It was noted in POPism:The Warhol Sixties, first published in 1980 when Warhol was still alive, that the artist "definitely did not want any trouble from the police" and Warhol's cohort, Billy Name, would "hang up a sign that said 'No Hanging Out' or 'No Drugs Allowed on the Premises' to discourage people who weren't discreet." (POP111) Warhol star and amphetamine addict Brigid Berlin can be heard saying in Warhol's film The Chelsea Girls, "This is why I don't go around the Factory - Andy's paranoia about me and my drugs." The police visited the Factory on several occasions, including during a wedding party held by Billy Klüver and his wife (SC211) and they were even caught on film in January 1966 when Warhol was filming a rehearsal of the Velvet Underground. On November 15, 1965 the Factory's landlord wrote to Warhol warning him about having parties at the venue: "We have been advised that you have been giving parties, generally large parties, held after usual hours" and that "Your lease, of course, does not permit such use, and you are thereby directed not to have any such parties in this building." (SC277)

This is not to say that drug taking did not occur at the Factory, of course, but many of the wild events recounted by the surviving superstars took place outside the Factory where the permissive 60s' were in full bloom. Warhol's superstars didn't need the Factory to destroy themselves. They were doing fine on their own. Edie Sedgwick, for one, was already taking drugs by the time she met Warhol and had also been in and out of mental hospitals several times before she got involved with the Factory. Genevieve Charbin who starred in My Hustler and stayed with Edie for a few weeks recalls that rather than "destroying" Edie, Warhol "really, really cared about her" and "was always the last to call at night and the first in the morning." Charbin observes, "There's absolutely no way that anything was going to save Edie Sedgwick... She was very far gone, right from the beginning." (SC295)

Danto correctly points out that the drug of choice among Warhol's coterie was amphetamine or, as it was referred to on the streets - "speed" - and acknowledges that Warhol, himself, took a "mild level" of a "mild" amphetamine in the form of Obetrol, prescribed his his doctor. Obetrol may have been milder than the injections of speed that some of Warhol's superstars were known to enjoy, but it was also sought after by drug addicts on the streets because of its purity. Rene Ricard, who appeared in Kitchen and was filmed for The Andy Warhol Story, described it as "the best" and "very hard to get, rare and very good... very lovely speed." Although POPism has Warhol taking "a fourth" of an Obetrol day, it was probably a lot more in reality. A tape recording of Ondine and Warhol at lunch at Stark's restaurant has Warhol giving Ondine five Obetrols and then taking two himself. Photographer Stephen Shore remembers a lunch with Warhol in 1965 where the artist "would very discreetly open up a pillbox and take speed." It is likely that Warhol was much more of a "druggie" than Danto or others have given him credit for. (See here.) (POP33/SC261/SC263)

Danto has Warhol stopping his Obetrol after being shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968. This seems to be based on the Bockris biography which notes that when Warhol returned to the Factory after recuperating from the shooting that "he moved stiffly and was much slowed down, not only be his injuries but because, on doctor's orders, he had stopped taking Obetrol. A night creature before the shooting, Andy was now home each evening by eight." (LD311-12) But where did Bockris get his information from? His book is poorly footnoted and it is difficult to trace the source of specific details. In another account of life with Warhol - Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up - by Interview editor Bob Colacello, Colacello writes that, according to Warhol's confidante, Brigid Berlin, Warhol "took one or two Obetrols... every day until he died." (BC50) Colacello also recalls Warhol telling him in 1972 that he has to take a pill "to get going" in the morning. When Colacello asks "what kind of a pill," Warhol responds "Oh, uh, just a little Dexamyl. It's nothing." (HT117-18) Dexamyl was amphetamine with a bit of barbiturate thrown in to take the edge off.

The extent of Warhol's drug taking is relevant because Danto brings it up in his book, asking, "how great a role in Warhol's art can we explain through even the mild level of amphetamines he took between 1961 and 1968? Since many in his circle were on amphetamines during those years, are we to say that the Age of Warhol is the Age of Speed?" Although Danto notes that the question is "impossible to answer" he seems to suggest the possibility of an answer by bringing up Billy Name who was a regular speed user and compares Billy's use of speed with that of Warhol. Danto writes "Billy Name took dilute amounts of the drug - and how much good did it do him? Subtracting the amphetamines leaves the difference between Warhol as a genius and Billy Name as muddlehead intact." I'm not quite sure what Danto means by that sentence. "Dilute" amounts of the drug would indicate it was less strong than purer forms. By "subtracting" does he mean subtracting both Warhol's speed and Billy's speed and that without the speed there is still the difference of Andy Warhol the genius vs. Billy Name the "muddlehead?" Is Danto actually referring to Billy as a "muddlehead?" In order for the "difference" to remain "intact," it would have had to have existed before, but I don't recall Billy Name ever having been characterized as a "muddlehead" prior to Danto, if that is, indeed, what Danto is implying by his sentence which seems a bit, well, muddled. According to Billy Name, it was he [Name] who installed the exhibition of Warhol's box sculptures that Danto refers to in his book as a "transformative experience." About the exhibition, Name recalls that "Andy sent me up to do it" just as Warhol would "in the early Factory years... send writers and interviewers to me [Name] to explain to them what Andy was doing." For Danto, the importance of the box sculptures was that they led to a new definition of art - that Andy "negated pretty much anything philosophers have said about art." The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné points to another important aspect of the show - "The Stable installation vividly demonstrates the radical character of the transformation in Warhol's work at the beginning of 1964. Painted compositions cede at this time to serial accumulations of objects, whose quantity and likeness undermine conventional orders of number, composition, and visual distinction." Name's photographs of Warhol and the box sculptures have been widely reproduced and, according to the catalogue raisonné, "offer crucial information with respect to the facture of" the sculptures. (RNA054)

One specific Warhol project that POPism credits with having been influenced by amphetamine is the film, Sleep, which Danto covers in his chapter on Warhol's films titled "Moving Images." The explanation given for making Sleep in POPism is that "seeing everybody so up all the time" (because so many people were on amphetamine) caused Warhol to decide that he'd "better quickly do a movie of a person sleeping" before it became obsolete. (POP33) The origins of Sleep and the influences leading up to it are much more complicated than that of course - Warhol was notoriously evasive about his influences in general - but where Danto errs is in giving the impression that Sleep was unedited. He writes that Warhol took "hundreds of four-minute reels of film but knew little about how to edit them" so decided "just to use everything." In reality, Sleep was actually heavily edited - probably the most edited film of Warhol's oeuvre, with Sarah Dalton hired by Warhol to do the editing. As Callie Angell pointed out in 1994, "Story board drawings found on the original 100 foot film boxes for Sleep indicate that Warhol experimented with a number of different camera styles and complex editing techniques" and that "the final editing of Sleep is a complex montage of many shots of portions of Giorno's body, varying from a few feet to 100 feet in length." (FAW10)

For Danto, the film which was Warhol's "masterpiece" was Empire. Danto writes about Empire, "in my view, it is a philosophical masterpiece, nearly as profound as Brillo Box." Comments on Warhol's Brillo Box are scattered throughout Danto's book and he explains in his preface why the Brillo Boxes (one of which he owns) are so important.

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