In two weeks, the National Book Critics Circle will vote on this year’s awards, and so, of late, I am reading until my eyes bleed. Well, not literally. At least, not yet. But it is a constant reminder of one's limits -- especially of the brain's plasticity. The ability to absorb new impressions is not limitless.
But one passage in Edmund White’s City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s (a finalist in the memoir category, published by Bloomsbury) did leave a trace, and it seems worth passing along. The author is a prominent gay novelist who was a founding member of the New York Institute for the Humanities. One generation’s gossip is the next one’s cultural history, and White has recorded plenty that others might prefer to forget. City Boy will be remembered in particular for its chapter on Susan Sontag. White says that it is unfortunate she did not win the Nobel Prize, because then she would have been nicer to people.
But the lines that have stayed with me appear earlier in the book, as White reflects on the cultural shift underway in New York during the 1960s. The old order of modernist high seriousness was not quite over; the new era of Pop Art and Sontag's "new sensibility" had barely begun.
White stood on the fault line:
"I still idolized difficult modern poets such as Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens," he writes, "and I listened with uncomprehending seriousness to the music of Schoenberg. Later I would learn to pick and choose my idiosyncratic way through the ranks of canonical writers, composer, artists, and filmmakers, but in my twenties I still had an unquestioning admiration for the Great -- who were Great precisely because they were Great. Only later would I begin to see the selling of high art as just one more form of commercialism. In my twenties if even a tenth reading of Mallarmé failed to yield up its treasures, the fault was mine, not his. If my eyes swooned shut while I read The Sweet Cheat Gone, Proust's pacing was never called into question, just my intelligence and dedication and sensitivity. And I still entertain those sacralizing preconceptions about high art. I still admire what is difficult, though I now recognize it's a 'period' taste and that my generation was the last to give a damn. Though we were atheists, we were, strangely enough, preparing ourselves for God's great Quiz Show; we had to know everything because we were convinced we would be tested on it -- in our next life."
This is a bit overstated. Young writers at a blog like The New Inquiry share something of that " 'period' taste," for example. Here and there, it seems, "sacralizing preconceptions about high art" have survived, despite inhospitable circumstances.
White's comments caught my bloodshot eye because I had been thinking about Arthur C. Danto's short book Andy Warhol, published late last year by Yale University Press. (It is not among the finalists for the NBCC award in criticism, which now looks, to my bloodshot eye, like an unfortunate oversight.)
It was in his article “The Artworld,” published in The Journal of Philosophy in 1964, that Danto singled out for attention the stack of Brillo boxes that Warhol had produced in his studio and displayed in a gallery in New York. Danto maintained that this was a decisive event in aesthetic history: a moment when questions about what constituted a piece of art (mimesis? beauty? uniqueness?) were posed in a new way. Danto, who is now professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University, has never backed down from this position. He has subsequently called Warhol “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced.”
It is easy to imagine Warhol's response to this, assuming he ever saw The Journal of Philosophy: “Wow. That’s really great.”
Danto's assessment must be distinguished from other expressions of enthusiasm for Warhol's work at the time. One critic assumed that Warhol's affectlessness was inspired by a profound appreciation for Brecht’s alienation effect; others saw his paintings as a radical challenge to consumerism and mass uniformity.
This was pretty wide of the mark. The evidence suggests that Warhol’s work was far more celebratory than critical. He painted Campbell’s soup cans because he ate Campell’s soup. He created giant images based on sensational news photos of car crashes and acts of violence -- but this was not a complaint about cultural rubbernecking. Warhol just put it into a new context (the art gallery) where people would otherwise pretend it did not exist.
“He represented the world that Americans lived in,” writes Danto in his book, “by holding up a mirror to it, so that they could see themselves in its reflection. It was a world that was largely predictable through its repetitions, one day like another, but that orderliness could be dashed to pieces by crashes and outbreaks that are our nightmares: accidents and unforeseen dangers that make the evening news and then, except for those immediately affected by them, get replaced by other horrors that the newspapers are glad to illustrate with images of torn bodies and shattered lives.... In his own way, Andy did for American society what Norman Rockwell had done.”
It seems like an anomalous take on an artist whose body of work also includes films in which drag queens inject themselves with amphetamines. But I think Danto is on to something. In Warhol, he finds an artistic figure who fused conceptual experimentation with unabashed mimeticism. His work portrays a recognizable world. And Warhol’s sensibility would never think to change or challenge any of it.
Chance favors the prepared mind. While writing this column, I happened to look over a few issues of The Rag, one of the original underground newspapers of the 1960s, published in Austin by students at the University of Texas. (It lasted until 1977.) The second issue, dated October 17, 1966, has a lead article about the struggles of the Sexual Freedom League. The back cover announces that the Thirteenth Floor Elevators had just recorded their first album in Dallas the week before. And inside, there is a discussion of Andy Warhol’s cinema by one Thorne Dreyer, who is identified, on the masthead, not as the Rag’s editor but as its “funnel.”
The article opens with an account of a recent showing, of the 35-minute film Warhol film “Blow Job” at another university. The titular action is all off-screen. Warhol's camera records only the facial expressions of the recipient. Well before the happy ending, a member of the audience stood up and yelled, “We came to get a blow job and we ended up getting screwed.” (This anecdote seems to have passed into the Warhol lore. I have seen it repeated in various places, though Danto instead mentions the viewers who began singing “He shall never come” to the tune of the civil-right anthem.)
Dreyer goes on to discuss the recent screening at UT of another Warhol film, which consisted of members of the artist's entourage hanging out and acting silly. The reviewer calls it “mediocrity for mediocrity’s sake.” He then provides an interpretation of Warhol that I copy into the digital record for its interest as an example of the contemporary response to his desacralizing efforts -- and for its utterly un-Danto-esque assessment of the artist's philosophical implications.
“Warhol’s message is nihilism," writes Dreyer. "Man in his social relations, when analyzed in the light of pure objectivity and cold intellectualism, is ridiculous (not absurd). And existence is chaos. But what is this ‘objectivity’? How does one obtain it? By not editing his film and thus creating ‘real time’? By boring the viewer into some sort of ‘realization’? But then, is not ‘objectivity’ just as arbitrary and artificial a category as any other? Warhol suggests there is a void. He fills it with emptiness. At least he is pure. He doesn’t cloud the issue with aesthetics.”
And so the piece ends. I doubt a copy ever reached Warhol. It is not hard to imagine how he would have responded, though: “It gives me something to do.” The line between nihilism and affirmation could be awfully thin when Warhol drew it.