Andy Warhol Demystified: Four Videos Explain His Groundbreaking Art and Its Cultural Impact

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

130,000 Pho­tographs by Andy Warhol Are Now Avail­able Online, Cour­tesy of Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty

When Steve Jobs Taught Andy Warhol to Make Art on the Very First Mac­in­tosh (1984)

Andy Warhol Dig­i­tal­ly Paints Deb­bie Har­ry with the Ami­ga 1000 Com­put­er (1985)

Warhol’s Cin­e­ma: A Mir­ror for the Six­ties (1989)

When Andy Warhol Made a Bat­man Super­hero Movie (1964)

Andy Warhol’s 15 Min­utes: Dis­cov­er the Post­mod­ern MTV Vari­ety Show That Made Warhol a Star in the Tele­vi­sion Age (1985–87)

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.

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