The Warhol Delusion
The VIA Rail train I was taking from Toronto to Montreal the other day was delayed for three hours just short of Kingston when some poor soul threw him or herself in front of it. I was riding directly behind the engine in the business class car (serves me right), so I clearly felt a slight shudder and heard a faint, muffled sound—a kind of muted and diffused thump and splatter that I’m having a hard time getting out of my head. It was accompanied by the vague burning smell of the emergency brakes, which the conductor was kind enough to inform us didn’t mean that the train was on fire. Even more disturbing was the blasé attitude of everyone as the whole episode unfolded, including the people who responded to my somewhat anguished tweets about it. The two obnoxiously loud Anglophone businessmen across from me getting drunk and trying to impress an all-too-willing female French victim with their banal travel stories immediately began to make cheap comparisons to squirrels being splattered by speeding cars, while the conductor kept us up to date in a monotone about the arrival of the cops, a coroner, and a clean-up crew, as if it were just another episode of the CSI franchise. Meanwhile, the horrible video I regrettably once watched at the Museum of Death in San Diego of a woman being hit by a deceptively slow-moving train and shattered into a million pieces now had a soundtrack to go with it in my mind, two horrors that I will never be able to unwatch or unhear.
As if that weren’t bad enough, at the time of the incident I was reading an irritating review in the New Yorker of the Warhol exhibit at the Met by the annoying art critic Peter Schjeldahl, which, despite my aversion to its author, had a few interesting observations about the homosexual Prince of Pop Art. “We are all Warholians,” he starts out not unreasonably, “immersed in a common chaos of signs, gadgets, and sensations, and somehow detached from it, too.” Fair enough, but I think it’s high time that someone acknowledges that this “detachment” isn’t necessarily something that needs to be elevated into some mystical, transcendent state of artistic godhead. I mean, even I, a homosexual artist who also spent his formative years in pre-liberation purgatory, and who has been influenced by Warhol as much as the next tortured sissy, can still be critical of the cruel legacy of Andy, his ushering in of the zombie apocalypse, as it were, without setting him up as a miracle-enacting saint of some kind.
Schjeldahl, the ultimate high art snob, who can’t help unnecessarily comparing Warhol’s color palette to that of Matisse, blithely goes on to talk about “… the historical collapses that Warhol heralded—of elite culture into mass culture, of creativity into commerce, and, with a metaphysical shudder, of reality into the appearance of reality…” as if this were all not only inevitable, but kind of a good thing—for art and for the world. But is it? As Melanie Griffith once shouted at me on the set of John Waters’ Cecille B. Demented, “And that makes it OK?”
Anyone who has read the Warhol Diaries knows that Andy Warhol was an emotionally damaged, sociopathic sissy who, by his own admission, “stopped caring” after several of his cats died in the 60s, and subsequently showed virtually no emotion or empathy for anyone or anything after that trauma. (I happen to know what this is like; as a bullied, closeted fairy in high school whose first pet, a kitten named Chloe, was squashed flatter than a tortilla in front of his farmhouse by a tractor-trailer, I showed absolutely no emotion when I was told of the accident, much to the alarm of my mother. You see I had already been hurt enough, and rather than be destroyed by the incident, I merely shut down as a kind of defense mechanism. It took me years to recover.) But Warhol wasn’t merely identifying the zeitgeist or presciently commenting on the direction of a detached, ironic culture more concerned with the surface of things, the shallowness of celebrity, and the status of art only evaluated by fame and monetary value—he was actively creating that culture, like a kind of faggot Frankenstein’s monster, or a gay King Midas whose art not so miraculously turned banal objects and casual death into golden calves. Why do critics like Schjeldahl have to turn this into a mystical form of alchemy, as he does by consistently using terms like “metaphysics,” “clairvoyance,” and “ghostly omniscience” to characterize Warhol? I like Drella, don’t get me wrong, but she was also just an artist, albeit a genius, who turned her anguished homosexual persecution into an international tendency in art and life to desensitize, to superficialize, and to lay the groundwork for the rise of the human machine. Let’s not turn it into some kind of witchcraft, or something to be worshipped with a breathless religiosity.