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In The Painted Word, Tom
Wolfe's brilliant exposé of the insecurity, egoism, avarice, and hypocrisy of
the pioneers of American Modern Art, Andy Warhol is chosen by Wolfe as the
archetype for the greedy upstart artist. Wolfe quotes with undisguised disdain
and disgust a classified ad that in 1966 Warhol had printed in the Village
Voice to the effect that he would endorse anything for money. For
numerous intellectuals familiar with or interested in art or especially
aesthetics, Wolfe's characterization was and still remains, more or less, the
regnant take on Warhol. Andy Warhol, it is often pronounced, was a phony.
Warhol's autobiographical book from
1975, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, at first does very little to force
one to change his or her opinion on this: it begins, in lieu of an
introduction, with a transcript of a phone call between Warhol (who is called "A")
and another unnamed person (who is called "B"), redacted by Warhol,
who inserts his thoughts regarding the conversation into the text to create a narrative.
This banal, at times even pathetic, 11-page introductory conversation is
entitled "B and I: How Andy Puts His Warhol On," and it is ostensibly
meant to inform the reader of Warhol's famous candor, his ability to speak
critically of himself openly, and of some of his essential characteristics,
such as the fact that he cannot bear to be alone (5). But what it instead conveys,
especially to anyone even mildly suspicious of Warhol on account of
presentations such as Wolfe's, is that Warhol is superficial, shallow and
He is also full of contradictions.
For example, though one of the first lines of the book is Warhol stating that
he cannot be alone, he tells us in the first chapter--entitled, "Love
(Puberty)"--that he is essentially a loner (23). He informs us that he did
not have any psychological problems of his own (23), after already having
narrated that he "had had three nervous breakdowns" when he was a
child (21), and also describing in detail how pathologically jealous he was: "I
get jealousy attacks all the time...I may be one of the most jealous people in
the world....Basically, I go crazy when I can't have first choice on absolutely
everything....As a matter of fact, I'm always trying to buy things and people
just because I'm so jealous somebody else might buy them..." (49-50). No psychological
The Philosophy of Andy Warhol,
then, presents the critical reader with a portrait of the artist as a shallow,
egotistical, superficial, self-contradictory man. Tom Wolfe is vindicated--Warhol
is a phony. But wait. Warhol is a phony what?
In chapter five, entitled "Fame,"
Warhol confesses something that actually begins to force the critical reader to
reconsider the grounds of his negative attitude against him: "People used
to say that I tried to 'put on' the media when I would give one autobiography
to one newspaper and another autobiography to another newspaper. I used to like
to give different information to different magazines..." (79). This is
intriguing. Is that what Warhol is doing here, too? Is he providing just one
among several possible autobiographies of himself? Indeed, Warhol published
other books, other autobiographies, such as POPISM: The Warhol Sixties,
and perhaps he enjoyed portraying a different Warhol in each of them.
And keeping this in mind, we must
ask ourselves, what obligation does Warhol actually have to us, to his readers,
not to dissemble, to fool around, to exaggerate or underplay, to seduce or
mislead--aren't these partly the essence of art? While we are engaged in demanding
of him, Will the real Andy Warhol please stand up?, Warhol, for his
part, is sitting back and retorting, First prove to me why I should.
And I think he's got a point.
Although admittedly I started off
in Wolfe's camp, and the first fifty pages of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
only serve to entrench a reader's negative biases, eventually, in middle
chapters such as chapter 5, "Fame," chapter 6, "Work," and
chapter 7, "Time," considerations such as those above mentioned began
to eat away the ground of my critical stance. The reader begins to wonder, what
right do I have to demand anything more from Warhol than his art?
This is not to say that Warhol is
not a phony. Perhaps he is. But first it must be made clear by the accuser what
he is a phony of. It is true that The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
is not a great book. It lacks cohesive structure. For example, the later
chapters (chapter 11, "Success," chapter 12, "Art," chapter
13, "Titles," and chapter 15, "Underwear Power") simply become
short stories, which are entertaining and contain excellent dialogue, but have
scarce connection to the first ten chapters. Furthermore, chapter 14 is a
pointless waste of time. Additionally, in other chapters, such as 10, "Atmosphere,"
Warhol speaks of art and his preferences regarding space in a room and similar
matters, and it is nearly impossible to believe that he really means a word of
it. The book is bad. But on the other hand, Warhol never pretended to be a
great writer. On the contrary, he admits that he wanted to write books only
because many people he knew were writing books (jealousy) and of course he
wanted to make money (greed).
In sum, The Philosophy of Andy
Warhol may be a bad book by a jealous, greedy, dissembling, upstart artist.
But through this bad book, my own opinion of this artist was slowly transformed
from one of mild contempt into fascination and then ultimately both awe and
respect. Perhaps Tom Wolfe is right, and Andy Warhol is a phony. But I must
confess that Warhol won me over. Due to this book, I will now always be forced
to query, upon hearing Wolfe's oft-repeated accusation, Warhol is a phony what?
© 2007 Aakash Singh
Aakash Singh, Reader in Philosophy,
University of Delhi, South Campus, India