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Friday, May 4, 2012

Using Art

The Warhol roots sprouted from this
bland duplex in a working-class
neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
Whether we stop to think about it or not, most of us, as artists, do more than just create art. Even if we're, at best, only modestly successful in what we do, we're also guilty of using art. We use it for our own self-gratification, to make money, to try to obtain some degree of prestige, and to insure some form of lasting commemoration after we're gone. As art has evolved over the centuries the rich and powerful have used artists and their art for much the same reasons. However, it has only been in the last hundred years or so that artists themselves have gotten very good at it. In 1928, in Pittsburgh, there was born an artist who, we might say, very nearly wrote the book (or rewrote it) on how artists could use art. He was the third son of Czechoslovakian immigrants who, at fourteen, got his first taste of art from a free workshop in art appreciation at what was then the Carnegie Institute of Technology. It was from there he later graduated, having learned how to use art to lift himself from the drab existence of his lower class ethnic background into the bright and shiny world of New York's most chic fashion magazines and hottest nightclubs, hobnobbing with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Truman Capote, Liza Minelli, Mick, and Bianca Jagger.

Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol, 1986
Andrew Warhola was no instant success on the art scene. Shortening his name to Warhol, his first paying job was teaching art while still in college. Then he worked for a dozen years through the fifties as a commercial artist for slick New York publications such as The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue. With this background, when Pop Art came along in the early sixties, he was in a position to not only hop on the bandwagon, but to drive it. He used every slick, production technique he'd ever seen in business, advertising, and marketing to impose his world of commercial hype upon a tired art scene wrestling with the gradual realization that the much-touted New York School and its Abstract Expressionism was sowing the seeds of its own destruction as it nonetheless rocketed down what he saw as a dead end road. He, along with fellow Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns saw themselves as the next generation waiting to use art to obtain fame and fortune. But no one (except possibly Salvador Dali) in any generation, before or since, used art the way Warhol did.

Pop Goes the Warhol, 1968, the artist's studio,
"the factory," became the hottest art spot in
New York: an entourage can be dangerous.
It wasn't so much that he knew how to use art, but that he also knew how to use the entire art scene, the media, the gallery system, the economic system, the social scene, everything that went into making Art with a capital "A". It wasn't just the aluminum foil coated parties he held in his factory-studio, or the boring, day-long, underground movies he produced as backdrops for his alcohol soaked soirees, or the carefully nurtured cult standing he developed. In 1968 he was shot and nearly killed by a member of the Society for Cutting up Men, or S.C.U.M. It mattered not that the would-be assassin, Valerie Solanis, was not only the founder, but the sole member of her group. He used the incident as the basis for cementing his place in the celebrity world far beyond the meager brilliance the art world had to offer. It was, indeed, ironic that, in 1987, this eccentric media giant was brought down, not by a bullet, but by the routine medical procedure of gall bladder surgery. In 1996, by the way, the shooting incident was the basis of an independent film, I Shot Andy Warhol (below).  Andy would have regretted not having come up with the idea himself.

I Shot Andy Warhol (poster), 1996,
Solanis using both art and artist.

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