Warhol and Sontag

Luke has pointed out a fine article on Andy Warhol, American Beauty

I particularly like Jonathan Jones’s observation that “Warhol became an artist when he stopped drawing an elegant Madison Avenue fantasy world and painted – with an honesty and lack of pretension that remains awe-inspiring – the universal pleasures and terrors of everyday life.” Well said. In many ways, I think of him as the peak of modernism.

What? You say, ready to take the postmodern line that Warhol was the dawn of appropriation and recycling— the curious gaming approach to art which has become the standard faire of those who came after. That’s what happens when you spend so much time talking about the medium, being totally unconcerned with the message. Warhol’s contribution was to take the modernist obsession with the mundane and take it up to the next level, exposing “universal pleasures and terrors of everyday life” to be their own kind of spectacle, the scariness of uniformity in the machine culture.

I will never forget reading his approach to interviews: “An interviewer should just tell me what they want me to say, and I’ll repeat it back to them” (paraphrased). But his mirror on pop culture is filled with distortions, disruptions which are the part and parcel of celebrity , of reading what we want to see, rather than what’s there. That is, to me, the high modernist principle: acceptance of the symbol, rather than the reality.

Also of interest today was another good article from the Guardian on Susan Sontag. She shares the same reputation of ambivalent aloofness which Warhol is famous for. I’ve had a hate/love/hate/love relationship with her for a long time. I hated On Photography when I first read it because she trashed my modernist icons. Then I loved Under the Sign of Saturn and Against Interpretation. Her thoughts on cinema seemed hopelessly elitist, and I hated them. Her thoughts on September 11th, recently causing controversy, caused me to rally to support her again. But then, when I read this bit, I felt sorry for her:

Her transatlantic lifestyle, shared between New York, Paris and, to a lesser extent, Berlin and London, seems to be born from a deeply ambivalent attitude to the US, which many American commentators understand as a sign of her aloofness. “I don’t like America enough to want to live anywhere else except Manhattan,” she says. “And what I like about Manhattan is that it’s full of foreigners. The America I live in is the America of the cities. The rest is just drive-through.”

The poetry of America is in the drive-through, not in the cities. Cities feed only on themselves, cannibalistically devouring themselves daily. The spectacle takes place there at a fever pitch, but to ignore the “terrors and pleasures” of ordinary life, life outside the crucible of the city, seems ultimately retrograde. It’s back to the old symbol vs. substance debate all over again. I do believe that there is substance out there, not just products to be consumed.