It was often said of Oscar Wilde that his greatest work of art was himself; he certainly knew how to project a prefabricated image of The Artist to sell to the public and this was a lesson not lost on many who followed him in the succeeding century. Salvador Dali latched onto this with his elaborate moustache and theatrically eccentric persona, and Andy Warhol picked up the gauntlet when he progressed from the superficial environs of the American advertising industry and turned himself into a brand as convincing as a can of Campbell’s soup or a bottle of Coca-Cola. Warhol wasn’t operating in isolation on the Pop Art scene of the 50s and early 60s, though he managed to overtake the pioneering presence of Roy Lichtenstein by upgrading the tactics of Wilde and Dali for the mass-media age; with his trademark toupee, shades and hooped tops, Warhol was transformed into a living logo of himself, as instantly recognisable a product as any of his celebrated silk-screens, and in the process eventually becoming more well-known than his actual work.
As one of the first artists propelled to household name status by discerning that something which had always been regarded as disposable had a relevance that transcended its crassly commercial purpose, Warhol mass-marketed ‘Pop’ by utilising the tricks he’d learnt when working in advertising. He recognised that the billboard, the comic book, television and Hollywood were America’s most culturally potent contributions to 20th century Low Art and imported them into the High Art environment of the gallery. Early on, he even managed the impressive feat of combining his adoration of celebrity with social commentary; his prints of the electric chair or the violent attempts to prevent desegregation in the Deep South were relevant and important observations on the state of the nation on a par with anything from Bob Dylan’s ‘protest’ songbook of the period.
When invited to fill an empty space at New York’s prestigious World’s Fair of 1964, Warhol mischievously decided to decorate it with mug-shots from the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list, a gesture that went down so badly with the authorities that he was asked to paint over the mural within days of its appearance. Again, however, this seemingly shit-stirring decision to apply advertising techniques to the flipside of the American Dream was in itself an astute comment that a nation forged in bloody insurrection and forever revelling in the romanticised mythology of both the Wild West and 1920s gangsters had already sold its villains like Brillo Pads; those outraged by his ‘most wanted’ mural were probably eagerly consuming ‘Wagon Train’ on TV and feasting on sensationalistic reports of Mafia massacres in their daily papers – yet couldn’t join the dots; all Warhol was doing was reflecting a cracked mirror back at them.
Warhol pursued his association with the cutting edge by sponsoring avant-garde rock band The Velvet Underground in their formative days and adding his brand name to the amusingly decadent Paul Morrissey movies featuring some of the drugged-up drag queens hanging about the Factory, though not long after David Bowie’s initial encounter with him had inspired the line ‘Andy Warhol, silver screen/can’t tell them apart at all’, Warhol no longer had anything left to prove and settled back into the lifestyle of the wealthy celebrity for the rest of his life.
He’d already withdrawn from the public eye to a degree following the assassination attempt by unhinged radical feminist and Factory hanger-on Valerie Solanas in 1968, though even when he had submitted to the interview circuit he’d played the part of the enigmatic artist by famously answering questions with a characteristic ‘err…yeah’ or ‘err…no’, so his mystique was always intact. By the 1980s, he had become known as someone who would attend the opening of an envelope, so ubiquitous was he on the guest list of every notable social event in New York; and there was often the feeling he had been reduced to a fashion accessory when every wannabe model or pop star sought him out for a photo-op in the hope some of his lingering stardust would rub off on them. Andy Warhol died following gallbladder surgery in 1987, with many claiming his fragile frame had never entirely recovered from the bullets Valerie Solanas had pumped into it almost 20 years before.
Reminded of Warhol’s achievements and his ever-alluring public persona via a new documentary series airing on BBC2 this week, I thought the timing interesting, coming as it has just days after the verdict in the trial of four ‘BLM’ protestors who’d participated in the notorious removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol last summer. This quartet of middle-class…erm…radicals with such ‘street’ names as Sage Willoughby and Milo Ponsford are all, naturally, as white as a slice of Sunblest and received an easy ride because they – and it would seem, the justice system – regard themselves as being on ‘the right side of history’. The verdict would appear to imply that as long as one has the correct opinions it’s perfectly fine to indulge in vandalism; not a massive surprise, really; the contrast between police treatment of anti-lockdown protestors and Extinction Rebellion has already highlighted the politicisation of what constitutes a crime, so the verdict was essentially a foregone conclusion.
The brave Woke warriors also received the sponsorship of fellow ‘radical’, the artist Banksy. The eternally anonymous muralist, long the darling of Guardianistas, contributed to the cause by designing a T-shirt that would help pay for their defence. Once more, the inherent conservatism of so-called subversives in the grotesquely wealthy art world evokes images of Rik the People’s Poet from ‘The Young Ones’; yeah, f*** you, ye fascist Tory! It’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of unimaginative careerist charlatans daring to think outside their Identity Politics box and provoke the kind of outrage their YBA predecessors did back in the 90s; they’re so in tune with privileged, establishment thinking that they’re about as dangerous as yer average episode of ‘Call the Midwife’. Andy Warhol may well have progressed into comfortable middle-age once he’d accumulated enough wealth for the son of poverty-stricken East European immigrants to not have to worry about paying the rent ever again; but at least for perhaps the first decade of his career in the public eye he had his finger on a cultural pulse that is now very much deceased.
SIDNEY POITIER (1927-2022)
Many years ago, I remember seeing an interview with Denzel Washington whereby he spoke frustratingly of being compared in reviews to a young Sidney Poitier; the actor firstly aired his frustration at Poitier’s name being evoked, as though that was the only yardstick reviewers had to measure his own performance by – as though there’d never been any other notable black thespians in Hollywood. Then Washington’s expression suddenly changed, beamed a smile and said something along the lines of ‘On the other hand…yeah, I’ll take that.’ No wonder. For a long time during America’s most turbulent struggle with the racial question, Sidney Poitier was the prominent coloured face on the silver screen; even if some of the most successful movies Poitier appeared in dealt with racial issues, these were all thought-provoking, intelligent examinations of a subject US cinema preferred to avoid.
1958’s ‘The Defiant Ones’ (where he and Tony Curtis play escaped convicts chained to one another), 1967’s ‘To Sir with Love’ (where he plays a Caribbean teacher at a rough East End school), and that same year’s ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ (where his marriage to a white woman tests the strength of her parents’ liberal views) were all critically and commercially successful. Perhaps the role for which Poitier will always be associated was that of black police detective Virgil Tibbs (‘In the Heat of the Night’, also 1967), sent into the Deep South to investigate a murder alongside a racist, redneck cop played by Rod Steiger. Benefitting from the increased broadening of Hollywood’s brushstrokes in the late 60s, ‘In the Heat of the Night’ is one of the first mainstream movies to look this uncomfortable aspect of American life squarely in the eye without shying away, and it remains one of the most brutally honest and less preachy examples of doing so as a consequence. The death of Poitier at the ripe old age of 94 genuinely ends an era, one in which he was a true trailblazer.
© The Editor