Warhol and "The Original"

by on Dec.24, 2010

The 43 Million Dollar Painting

In my last post, I tried to think about the challenges to the priority of ‘the original’ caused by a specific work disseminated (legally and illegally) across the internet: David Wojnarowicz’s Fire in My Belly, currently accessible on line in at least four different versions (one un-authorized version with the Damianda Galas soundtrack on YouTube and three official versions, one labeled ‘original’, on the P.P.O.W. gallery’s Vimeo channel.)

The new exhibition of Andy Warhol films, including the 13 Screen Tests and the films Empire, Kiss, and Sleep at MOMA, raises connected issues. After five columns discussing the films, Ken Johnson’s NYT review concludes with a paean against the digitalized format in which these films, originally shot in 16 mm, are displayed at MOMA. Johnson argues that Warhol was a forerunner of “Structural Film, which, like Modernist painting, calls attention to the properties of the medium.” Regarding MOMA’s exhibition of digital versions of the film, he concludes,

“You don’t have to get too close to the projections to see the pixels, which are distracting. It is like seeing a movie on television, and that casts in doubt their status as works of art.

“Are they authentic artworks, reproductions, documents, or some kind of in-between hybrid? With popoular movies that focus on plot, character and illusory scenes, it matters less whether we see them as film or digital projections. With Structural Film, truth to the original is more imperative.

“We would not accept a machine-made reproduction as an adequate substitute for a famous painting; a purist justifiably would say the same about film. So here we are between a rock and a hard place. We get to see the films, but once removed and not the way Warhol meant them to be seen. Then again, were he alive today, would he care? Probably not.”

Johnson’s review, while thoughtful, to me mashes together a lot of contradictory ideas about Andy Warhol. The idea that his work would be degraded by being on TV is itself an a-contextual reading of Warhol, taking him out of his own heady absorption in mass media and television in particular. As Warhol writes in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), “A whole day of life is like a whole day of television. TV never goes off the air once it starts for the day, and I don’t either. At the end of the day the whole day will be a movie. A movie made for TV.” [5]

Andy Warhol’s dream, as revealed in The Philosophy, was to have a TV show of his own. If he was President of the United States, he fantasizes, he would have his own TV show and show himself doing such things as cleaning the toilet. Addressing himself through a ventriloquized interlocutor, he fantasizes:

“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[…] You’d take all the trips and tape them. You’d play back all the tapes with the foreign people on TV. And when you wrote a letter to anyone in Congress you would have it Xeroxed and sent to every paper.”

This fantasy of the President’s TV show is not about authenticity or transparency of access but presents power as the power to create and disseminate copies, including a copy of the self, ‘the other President.” The passage is rife with the almost uncanny ability of media to generate and disseminate triplicates and doubles—tapes of foreign people on TV, Xeroxes of letters in the paper. In fact it’s not clear that generation is anything but dissemination.

Johnson asserts digital media, which makes Warhol’s movies appear like movies on TV (let alone the further degraded genre that Warhol imagines, the made-for-TV-movie, in all its chintzy melodrama), “casts in doubt their status as works of art”. It seems to me that the fluctuation of values and status across media is precisely the crux of so much of Warhol’s thinking and production (and thinking about production). For Warhol, I think, the materiality of the media is as much about calling attention to the instability of any sort of truth or value across media as anything else. This notion of the instability of values across media is played up most directly in his paintings of currency, such as “200 One Dollar Bills,” which sold in New York for $ 43.8 million in the depths of the recession in 2009. This painting is one of Warhol’s earliest silk screened works; as he remarks about the silk screen process in POPism: The Warhol Sixties,

“That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple—quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. […] when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face—the first Marilyns.”

This quote is interesting because of its paradoxical contention that the silk screen medium gives “the same image, slightly different each time.” Temporality, then, creates difference; another word for temporality’s production of difference is “chance”.

Similarly, “chance” temporal contact with the event of Monroe’s death gives Warhol the idea to make “screens of her beautiful face”. One “beautiful face” makes multiple “screens”. He calls these “the first Marilyns”, paradoxically attributing originality to a multiple, and also contesting the originality of “the first Marilyn”—Monroe herself (although “Monroe herself” was also multiple—self-invented, existing on many screens.)

In her essay “Film Falls Apart: Crash, Semen, and Pop”, Karen Bader construes Warhol’s film Empire as a kind of medial intervention in painting; the intervention is seen as temporal as well as material:

“As film enters into the space of the still image, it imbues the idea of painting with film’s temporal dimension, recognizable in spite of the image’s stillness through the visible disintegration of a moving strip of film {…} these acts of translation throw the medium’s limits radically into question, disorienting our sense of where, if anywhere, the borders of film, painting, sculpture, and literature might lie.”

Contact is distintegration. Media degrades borders, rather than preserving an originary truth or version of itself. Art makes holes in Art; media make holes in media, allowing temporal interventions and excessive productions to leak in and out as flow. Einstein tweeted, “Time is so that everything doesn’t happen all at once.” Media is so that it does.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    This “structuralist” drive for authenticity, against the kitschy inauthenticity of the plot-driven TV movies, reminds me of the neo-high-modernist impulse of a lot of contemporary poetry, especially when discussing literature in the new media of the Internet Age. I’m thinking about the people who argue that the true e-literature has to use programming, the “structure” of computers so to speak. This strikes me as an attempt to maintain order, stability, hierarchy, against the proliferation of writing (and we’re back to people who don’t want to wade through the plague grounds).


  2. Jake Levine

    I watched that Exit Through the Gift Shop movie and thought about Andy… How Banksy and Shepard Fairy feel somehow slighted by Thierry mimicking their mimicry. Or is it all staged? I sometimes think how great it would be if it was.

    For Warhol too, his originality is in the unoriginality of spectacle? He creates a scene, a debate, and that is the real art no? I find joy to see the Warhol soup cans on fridges in suburban homes and the velvet underground banana on t shirts in malls. it kind of compounds the message by drowning the image in its infinite multiplication; the artist being long dead, but his work continues to be cloned, shrunk, blown and turned into all kinds of kitschy shit. I bet he’d love it. When you continue to produce even long after you are dead, well isn’t that the closest you can get to actually being a machine?

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