Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and Everyday Aesthetics

 An important event in the life of Andy Warhol was when he was shot.  In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he imagines how a close friend (called “B”) might describe this event to him.  However we need to understand that whatever a B says (an B stands for any close friend) throughout this work it is just as likely an expression of Warhol’s own views (Warhol uses A for himself): 

"The founder of the Society for Cutting Up Men [the shooter] wanted you to produce a script she'd written and you weren't interested and she just came up to your work studio one afternoon. There were a lot of people there and you were talking on the telephone. You didn't know her too well and she just walked in off the elevator and started shooting. Your mother was really upset. You thought she'd die of it. Your brother was really fabulous, the one who's a priest. He came up to your room and showed you how to do needlepoint. I'd taught him how in the lobby!"

As with many of his vignettes this one is quite funny.  The first four sentences are straightforward.  But, as with Nietzsche’s aphorisms, the twist comes at the end.  The next two sentences make sense since Warhol was close to his mother, although they are written in a deadpan way.  The last two sentences are more philosophically interesting.  His brother is typecast…he is a priest.  But he is not “fabulous” in the way priests are supposed to be.  Instead, he shows Andy how to do needlepoint, an everyday life skill used as a hobby more often by women than men in our society. The priest does the opposite of what he is supposed to do qua priest, i.e. directing Andy to God, especially at this moment when, according to his mother, he might die.  He learns this skill from B just before coming up to Andy’s room.  Divine salvation is rejected in favor of everyday life.

In this paper I will interpret The Philosophy of Andy Warhol as an important contribution to the aesthetics of everyday life, and, more broadly, to "life aesthetics" in general. (I have been influenced by several contemporary Chinese aestheticians in stressing the latter.)  But first we must deal with a possible confusion.  When most philosophers hear the name "Andy Warhol" in relation to aesthetics they immediately think of Arthur Danto.  Throughout his life, Danto frequently referred to the moment he walked into the Stable Gallery in New York City and saw Warhol’s Brillo Boxes as the moment in which he discovered the essence of art.  He first wrote about this in in his famous "The Artworld" in 1964.  But in 1975 Warhol writes this book which, I shall argue, basically refutes Danto’s entire philosophy of art.  Danto’s point was that Warhol provided him with an insight that gave him his definition of art.  That definition changed over the years, but basically, as in 1964, it was that something is art if it can be seen as art by someone with appropriate art historical knowledge.  In being seen as art it has the “is” of artistic identification.  Danto had asked what makes the Brillo Boxes art and their indiscernible counterparts in a warehouse owned by the Brillo Corporation not art. The answer is that because Warhol’s boxes are in an art gallery at a particular time in art history they are appropriately seen as art, i.e. appropriately seen under the artist’s interpretation, i.e. under Warhol's interpretation.  Brillo Boxes had been “transfigured” into the world of art.  

Danto shows himself to be essentially a dualist in that he holds that there are two realms:  the realm of art and the realm of “mere things.”  Of course this does not make him a dualist in the classical sense, for he does not hold that the realm of art is a realm of souls or a spiritual realm.  But his use of the term “transfiguration” should be taken seriously.  Just as Jesus is transfigured into the realm of heaven, so too the boxes are transfigured into the realm of art.   As Danto says later, the Brillo Boxes in the gallery have “aboutness” whereas brillo boxes, as "mere things," do not.  Thus even if we assumed that Danto did not literally believe in anything supernatural we can also assume that the structure of his theory is dualist.  

As a result, it would make no sense to Danto for us to talk about the aesthetics of everyday life.  Aesthetics has been reduced to the Philosophy of Art, and Philosophy of Art to Danto's own definition of art.  Moreover, for Danto, aesthetics isn’t important anyway since Brillo Boxes and the brillo boxes on the factory floor have the same look and hence the same “aesthetics.”  What distinguishes them is something the eye cannot descry!  The art work is a physical object plus its interpretation.  It is its interpretation that makes it art, just as, for a Christian, a person is a body plus a soul, and it is the soul that makes a person a person.

Warhol, writing nine years later, pretty much refutes Danto, and retroactively, since what Warhol really meant had nothing ever to do with the apotheosis of objects into the art world or the creation of art as a two-sided thing, mere material object as body, and meaning as soul.  This idea, which Danto, none-too-originally, shared with earlier writers such as R. G. Collingwood, is deconstructed by Warhol's book.  The point of Warhol, even back in 1964, was deconstruction the world/artworld dichotomy, NOT setting up a wall between the two or a situation in which one is privileged and the other is only "mere."   

One cannot read TPAW as a normal book.  It is more like an aphoristic work by Nietzsche.  What readers have not generally recognized however is that it has a complexity of structure, and considerable depth.  It consists of fifteen chapters:  Love (Puberty), Love (Prime), Love (Senility), Beauty, Fame, Work, Time, Death, Economics, Atmosphere, Success, Art, Titles, The Tingle, Underwear Power.  The chapters most relevant to the concerns of aestheticians are Beauty, Atmosphere, and the last four.  The Tingle is worth an article on everyday aesthetics of its own since it is an obsessive dialogue between B and A about cleaning one’s apartment where it can be seen that cleaning can transcend mere cleaning and can take on an aura of its own, perhaps even of the sublime.  Underwear Power does something similar in relation to the activity of shopping.  However I will focus here on the early chapters and their relation to the aesthetics of everyday life and more broadly the aesthetics of life.

I say “life aesthetics” or "aesthetics of life" since in part I want to forestall those who would say that the art and work of Andy Warhol is as far from “the everyday” as one can get.  He seemed the apostle of fame and glamour.  Although he was fascinated by fame and glamour he was equally fascinated with the everyday.  One could say that he devoted his life to making the extraordinary seem ordinary and the ordinary seem extraordinary. 


It is significant that Warhol said “I believed in bluejeans too” in the context of talking about the value of uniforms.  Jeans were treated as uniforms in the early 1970s.  They were essential to everyday life.  Everyone wore them as a symbol of solidarity with the cultural left (the hippie movement) and the political left.  But Warhol treats them as objects of aesthetic delight. 

"The ones made by Levi Strauss are the best-cut, best-looking pair of pants that have ever been designed by anybody. Nobody will ever top the original bluejeans. They can't be bought old, they have to be bought new and they have to be worn in by the person. To get that look. And they can't be phoney bleached or phoney anything. You know that little pocket? It's so crazy to have that little little pocket, like for a twenty-dollar gold piece."

Bluejeans are not aesthetically simple.  There are levels of quality, for example Levi Strauss being at the top for a variety of reasons, including cut.  One aspect of their aesthetic excellence is that they are the originals.  However, there are those who intrude a phoney aesthetic onto jeans, where they think that the jeans have to look worn and that this is best effected inauthentically by various means that do not actually involve the owner wearing them for a long time.  Authentic beauty in jeans requires that something about the history of the jeans must obtain.  Another example of the phoneyness is the  bleaching of the jeans.  But an example of charming authenticity is the little pocket, which was more likely there for a small watch then for a gold piece.  

We realize that Warhol must have done thorough research on them, say in an encyclopedia, since the information and the set of aesthetic issues are essentially the same as those found in the wikipedia article.

he dialogue continues, when B says "French bluejeans?" and A replies "No, American are the best. Levi Strauss. With the little copper buttons. Studded for evening wear." "How do you keep them clean, B?" "You wash them." "Do you iron them?"

As observed in the anonymous Wikipedia article, the little copper buttons, which were put in for structural support, also had a secondary aesthetic function.  Thus, having the buttons which look  nonfunctional, yet are not, is enhancing.  

The talk about American being the best again has to do with authenticity, in this case cultural authenticity, even though that authenticity has its own inauthenticity in that one might think that jeans arose in cultural consciousness because of construction workers or cowboys, but it was really movie stars, westerns, and youth rebellion, all distinctly American that gave jeans their meaning.  Another sign of inauthenticity would be ironing:   "No, I put fabric softener. The only person who irons them is Geraldo Rivera." Ironing them would be inauthentic in the very way that Geraldo Rivera, with his fake hair and manner, was notoriously inauthentic, possibly the paradigm of inauthenticity.

A says "This talk of bluejeans was making me very jealous. Of Levi and Strauss. I wish I could invent something like bluejeans. Something to be remembered for. Something mass." It may strike one as odd that Andy Warhol envied anyone, and yet from his perspective, having this kind of impact on the aesthetics of everyday life would be massive, hence the reference to “mass.”  Of course he is remembered by us for his art.  It would be inventing jeans or something like that in the way Levi and Strauss did, something both tasteful and nearly universal, that he would consider truly memorable.  

On the Aesthetic Republic under a Warhol Presidency

"Oh, A," B said impulsively, "you should be President! If you were President, you would have somebody else be President for you, right?" This riff on being President is related to the idea of cultural importance.  Warhol would make a good President because he would delegate responsibility in a radically democratic way.

B says:  "You'd be just right for the Presidency. You would videotape everything. You would have a nightly talk show—your own talk show as President. You'd have somebody else come on, the other President that's the President for you, and he would talk your diary out to the people, every night for half an hour. And that would come before the news, What the President Did Today. So there would be no flack about the President does nothing or the President just sits around. Every day he'd have to tell us what he did, if he had sex with his wife . . . You'd have to say you played with your dog Archie—it's the perfect name for the President's pet—and what bills you had to sign and why you didn't want to sign them, who was rotten to you in Congress . . . You'd have to say how many long-distance phone calls you made that day. You'd have to tell what you ate in the private dining room, and you'd show on the television screen the receipts you paid for private food for yourself. For your Cabinet you would have people who were not politicians. Robert Scull would be head of Economics because he would know how to buy early and sell big. You wouldn't have any politicians around at all. You'd take all the trips and tape them. You'd play back all the tapes with foreign people on TV. And when you wrote a letter to anyone in Congress you would have it Xeroxed and sent to every paper."

At this time in his life Warhol was obsessed with a tape recorder he had.  He took it with him everywhere and taped every conversation he could.  He referred to the tape recorder ironically as his wife.  

Warhol realizes, as we found with Trump, that the Presidency is the ultimate platform for popularity and fame.  Unlike Trump, who was, after all, not a talk show host but a Reality TV host (a very different, less intellectual thing) Warhol would make his Presidency a nightly talk show, thus raising the level of intellectual discourse on a daily basis for the entire country.

My philosophy of everyday aesthetics has to do not just with description but also with serious thinking about the ideals of everyday life, as for example was engaged in by such thinkers as William Morris and Le Corbusier.   

Note that Warhol as President would not consume a great deal of time and space:  his show would be half an hour every night, and it would involve talking out his diary, which would be the same sort of stuff we are getting in this book, that is, reflections on the aesthetics of everyday life.  That is why it would come before the News.  News, in an important way, is NOT about everyday life, or ordinary things.  It is about murder and wars and other such things.  If it were everyday stuff it would not be “news.”  So although we may see the news every day, and although that is part, then, of our everyday experience, the news itself is precisely NOT a window onto anyone’s everyday world qua everyday. 

What is everyday includes such mundane, but probably immensely important, stuff as having sex with your wife or playing with your dog, and the work of actually signing bill, and the worries over moments of disrespect from colleagues, and what and where you age, including how you financed that eating.  So Warhol as President would be a hero of returning to the everyday.  The rest of the aphorism, if I may call it that, is influenced by Plato probably.  We are talking here about an ideal aesthetic republic here.  So instead of politicians Warhol would hire experts to, for example, buy and sell properly. And unlike Nixon or Trump or multiple other politicians, Warhol would tape but never hide his tapes.  So too with letters.  Total transparency.  Of course he would not agree with Plato’s idea of the noble lie.  So his politics would combine expertise and democratic openness in a way much more conducive to harmony, which was after all Plato’s own goal, then Plato’s own Republic.

B says:  "You'd be a nice President. You wouldn't take up too much space, you'd have a tiny office like you have now. You'd change the law so you could keep anything anybody gave you while you were in office, because you're a Collector. And you'd be the first nonmarried President. And in the end you'd be famous because you'd write a book: 'How I Ran the Country Without Even Trying.' Or if that sounded wrong, 'How I Ran the Country with Your Help.' That might sell better. Just think, if you were President right now, there'd be no more First Lady. Only a First Man."

 This relates not only to politics but also to ethics, one based on aesthetics.  So niceness is more important than duty since niceness demands empathy and sympathy, which require imagination, which is the aesthetic faculty.  This faculty would compel him to be an aesthetic minimalist President in his tiny office.  He would not take up airs.  He would not let ego take over.  Also, along an aesthetic dimension, Warhol allows for primacy given to collecting of loveable objects.  And of course he is a Taoist, trying to achieve goodness in the state through action through non-action, i.e. through aesthetic simplicity.   The Taoist says you can run the country best when you follow the Way and do not even try.  You do not make being the ruler a matter of power and glory but a matter of elegant action that achieves harmony as in the work of a master craftsman.  And then it is no surprise that the alternative version of his book entails a great democratic modesty, more appropriate to the true spirit of America.  So, the title of “First” is moved from the pathetic secondary position of the first lady to the primary position of a man of excellence who follows the Tao and actualizes will to power in an authentic way, to paraphrase Nietzsche. 

 “You'd have no live-in maid at the White House. A B would come in a little early to clean up. And then the other Bs would file down to Washington to see you just like they file in to see you at the Factory. It would be just like the Factory, all bulletproof. Visitors would have to get past your hairdressers. And you'd take your extra-private hairdresser with you. Can't you see her in her inflatable jacket, ready for war at any moment? Do you realize there's no reason you couldn't be President of the United States? You know all the bigwigs who could get you in, all of society, all the rich people, and that's all anyone's ever needed to get to be President. I don't know why you don't declare yourself in the running right away. Then people would know you weren't just a big joke. I want you to say every time you look at yourself in the mirror, 'Politics: Washington, D.C.' I mean, quit fooling around with the Rothschilds. Forget about those long trips to Montauk in the Rollses. Think about a little helicopter to Camp David. What a camp it would be. You'd have such a camp. Do you realize the opportunity of the White House? A, you've been into Politics since the day I met you. You do everything in a political way. Politics can mean doing a poster that has Nixon's face on it, and says 'Vote Mc-Govern.'"

Warhol recognizes the inevitable hypocrisy of everyday life when one hires maids.  In our household we learned this I think per necessity during the pandemic.  Previously we had cleaners who came in once every two weeks.  We prided ourselves in our democratic treatment of them.  But that was false in a way.  After he had to lay them off because we were in partial quarantine, we had to clean everything as the same level of perfection once per week.  We achieved this, and by doing so we avoided the hypocrisy of false smug appeals to democratic sentiments.  We also became much more mindful, along the lines of Thich Nhat Hanh of the minutiae of dirt and grime, and ofthe subtle joys of cleanliness. 

His Factory and His Business

It is wonderful the way Warhol conceived his own studio workplace as something everyday by calling it a factory and treating it as such.  We are just a business, he implied.  We on the outside always saw the setup as one of glamour.  But it was quite the opposite, just as it was the opposite of Danto’s idea of an isolated Artworld.  To repeat my introduction, Warhol was the non-Danto.  So, instead of the Presidential world being like Plato’s world of Forms or Kant’s transcendent or transcendental domain, Warhol’s Presidency would not involve a President-World (Danto being himself just another Platonist with dualist assumptions and thin surface of anti-dualism) or an Artworld, but just another factory making things for the people.


Warhol insists “I've never met a person I couldn't call a beauty.” (61)  He sees beauty everywhere.  This makes him like one of my ideals in the aesthetics of everyday life:  Plato’s Diotima, who speaks of the ladder of love in which the rung next to the top is one in which we see a vast sea of beauty.  As Warhol puts it, “Every person has beauty at some point in their lifetime.” (61)  He does not share the common belief that personal beauty is stable and exclusive.  As he says, “Sometimes they have the looks when they're a baby and they don't have it when they're grown up, but then they could get it back again when they're older. Or they might be fat but have a beautiful face. Or have bow-legs but a beautiful body.”  (61)  Neither beauty nor ugliness is permanently attached to any person.  I know a woman who is obese, and yet she spends a couple hours day attending to her face.  She is perhaps beautiful in that one area.   

Experience of personal beauty and evaluation of it is part of the aesthetics of everyday life.  Like an ordinary language philosopher, Warhol thinks about what we say when we use the word “beauty”: 

“I always hear myself saying, "She's a beauty!" or "He's a beauty!" or "What a beauty!" but I never know what I'm talking about. I honestly don't know what beauty is, not to speak of what "a" beauty is. So that leaves me in a strange position, because I'm noted for how much I talk about "this one's a beauty" and "that one's a beauty." For a year once it was in all the magazines that my next movie was going to be The Beauties. The publicity for it was great, but then I could never decide who should be in it. If everybody's not a beauty, then nobody is, so I didn't want to imply that the kids in The Beauties were beauties but the kids in my other movies weren't so I had to back out on the basis of the title. It was all wrong.”

In short, everybody is a beauty.  Warhol is quite aware that he is doing philosophy.  He even pins down the difference between beauty and “a beauty.”  He can judge it, but cannot define it.  He further says: “I really don't care that much about "Beauties." What I really like are Talkers. To me, good talkers are beautiful because good talk is what I love.”

This could be straight out of the Symposium.  Diotima places love of the soul of the interlocutor at a higher stage of the ladder of love than mere physical beauty.

Unlike Plato, however, Warhol prioritizes fun.  He just thinks it more fun to be with talkers, and generally, with people who are doing things, than with beauties, who are just being something.  “Fun,” we might also observe, is a primary category in the aesthetics of everyday life.

Warhol’s Platonism extends to his handling of portraiture. He observes that, “[w]hen I did my self-portrait, I left all the pimples out because you always should. Pimples are a temporary condition and they don't have anything to do with what you really look like. Always omit the blemishes—they're not part of the good picture you want.” This must have been how the idealistic Greek sculptors saw it too.

Returning to the question of relativism, Warhol says “When a person is the beauty of their day, and their looks are really in style, and then the times change and tastes change, and ten years go by, if they keep exactly their same look and don't change anything and if they take care of themselves, they'll still be a beauty.”  This seems to imply there can be a kind of permanence even in a world dominated by fashion.

For Warhol, there are certain looks and styles that are eternal in a way in that they are right as long as authentic: “Schrafft's restaurants were the beauties of their day, and then they tried to keep up with the times and they modified and modified until they lost all their charm and were bought by a big company. But if they could just have kept their same look and style, and held on through the lean years when they weren't in style, today they'd be the best thing around. You have to hang on in periods when your style isn't popular, because if it's good, it'll come back, and you'll be a recognized beauty once again.”

Warhol spends considerable time thinking about what does and does not make one a beauty.  It might be a matter of lighting, as good lighting can make all the difference.  He makes a big difference between a temporary beauty problem and a permanent one.  "Being clean is so important. Well-groomed people are the real beauties. It doesn't matter what they're wearing or who they're with or how much their jewelry costs or how much their clothes cost or how perfect their makeup is: if they're not clean, they're not beautiful. The most plain or unfashionable person in the world can still be beautiful if they're very well-groomed."  Previously I had written about cleanliness, but in fact it is very important to beauty.


No comments: