We all have a few images to associate with Andy Warhol — Campbell’s soup cans, colorized Marilyns and duplicated Elvises, that wig — and also a few words, usually something to the effect of everyone in the future being famous for fifteen minutes. Now that we seem nearly to have arrived in that future, we might well wonder what else Warhol understood about our world. But we can’t know that until we have a clearer sense of just what he was up to, and these four short primers offer a solid start on grasping the whole Warholian project. Just above, Alain de Botton’s School of Life introduces Warhol as “the most glamorous figure of 20th century art” whose great achievement was to “develop a generous and helpful view of two major forces in modern society: commerce and celebrity.”
“We spend too much of our life wanting something better and extraordinary,” says de Botton. “Andy Warhol aims to remedy this by getting us to look again at things in everyday life” — the soup cans stacked up at the grocery store, for instance. Warhol’s work also reveals an understanding of glamor and prestige, ever more powerful forces in the 20th century in which he lived as well as ones that, in his view, “needed to be redistributed in such a way that society could work better.”
His dual interests in art and changing the world in an unprecedentedly industrial age led him to mass production: “He wanted to translate the things he cared about, like sensitivity, a love of glamor and spectacle, and playfulness into objects and experiences that could touch many people” — as many people and as often, ideally, as Coca-Cola.
But does what Warhol did quite count as art? Khan Academy founder Sal Khan and its Co-Dean of Art and History Steven Zucker get into that question in their Smarthistory video on the silkscreened soup cans from the early 1960s. On one hand, the cans exemplify what Zucker calls “one of the central ideas of modern art,” that you can “take something that’s not necessarily based in technical skill” and relocate it so as to make us “think about it in a different way.” But on the other, Khan says, if Warhol had made them half a century earlier, “people would have thought, ‘This guy’s a quack,'” and if he did it now, “they would think he was just derivative.” Was it really “just that time where people happened to think this was art?”
Certainly there can be no separating Warhol from his time. He asked, as Zucker puts it, “What is it about our culture that is really authentic and important?” The answer, as he saw it, “was about mass production, it was about factory.” No coincidence, then, that he named his New York studio “The Factory,” nor that he displayed a great fascination with industry and commerce in all its forms. He started his career as a commercial illustrator, but ultimately, “instead of making art for advertisements, he started making advertisements as art.” Those words come from the Art Assignment video above, which makes “the case for Andy Warhol,” whose work, says host Sarah Urist Green, “charts the development of our obsession with fame and questions the growing commercialization and uniformity of most areas of American life.”
Warhol wasn’t just an artist, Green says, “but also a filmmaker, band manager, magazine publisher, and TV producer who fearlessly explored and embraced new media.” Writing a diet book was perhaps the only way Warhol didn’t tap into the American zeitgeist, but perhaps, as demonstrated in the longer Art Assignment video called “Eat Like Andy Warhol” above, that task is best left to his scholars. In it Green and company work through “a tasting menu that explores Warhol’s life through the food he depicted as well as the food he actually ate.” It includes not just Campbell’s soup and Coca-Cola but frozen hot chocolate, a banana (remember, he gave Velvet Underground their start), diet pills (now known as amphetamines), and perhaps most Warholian of all, something listed only as “cake.” It’s a diet fit for what Green describes as “the ultimate producer and consumer and product all in one” — as well as an artist who both defined and embodied 20th-century America.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.