Andy Crush: Warhol, Boredom, and Technology

What does the art of Andy Warhol tell us about the nature of boredom and the ways we try to escape (and enjoy) it?

Andy Warhol should have lived to see the age of smartphones. Before his death in 1987, Warhol witnessed the dawn of the personal computer and even played around making images on an Amiga. For someone like Warhol, fascinated by time’s fleetingness — most famously, his “15 minutes of fame” quip — today’s technology and its ability to save us from boredom anywhere, anytime would seem miraculous. Scholar Scott C. Richmond recently examined what Warhol’s art, especially in his “Stillies” films, says about the nature of boredom (profound, vulgar, and mediatic) and how we use casual games such as Candy Crush to escape or enjoy it.


Image: Two frames from Andy Warhol’s 1963 film Empire. Image source: Wikipedia. “Empire Andy Warhol” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Empire_Andy_Warhol.jpg#/media/File:Empire_Andy_Warhol.jpg

Richmond begins his article, “Vulgar Boredom, or What Andy Warhol Can Teach Us about Candy Crush” (in the April 2015 issue of The Journal of Visual Culture), with an anecdote about a recent showing of Warhol’s 1964 film Empire at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Consisting of six hours of footage of the Empire State Building slowed down one third to make it feel even slower, Empire (stills from which appear above) is “perversely” (as Richmond puts it) designed to bore you to tears. Rather than fight the current, “MoMA invited its viewers to engage in a form of ‘bad behavior’ typical of our 21st-century media culture,” Richmond writes, “to pull out their phones in a movie theater so they could be just a little bit elsewhere, just for a little while.” Being bored (and responding to that boredom) became part of the aesthetic experience of watching the film. Inspired by that story, Richmond set out to see what else Warhol can say about the 21st century, boredom, and technology.

Image: Andy Warhol, 100 Cans (1962). Image source: Wikiart.

Richmond focuses not only on Empire, but also on other “Stillies” films by Warhol, including 1963’s Kiss (50 minutes of multiple couples in multiple combinations making out), 1963’s Sleep (five-plus hours of watching a man asleep guaranteed to put you to sleep), and 1964’s Blow Job (35 minutes of a man’s facial reactions to fellatio performed [or not] off-camera). In the midst of all that repetitive boredom, Richmond finds profundity. As you watch Empire, for example, you begin to notice little things, such as the pattern of office lights going on and off over time, that make the “unboring boring,” in a phrase Richmond borrows from another scholar. In Warhol’s films, boredom’s not a flaw; it’s a feature. Once you’ve passed the boredom threshold, you enter into an almost Zen-like state of profound boredom that enhances the experience itself.

The people in that MoMA theater never broke that boredom barrier, but for those who’ve bought into the idea of Warhol’s films as art, they’re the cinematic equivalent of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (example shown above) — an endless repetition of an everyday image that forces you either to turn away or to lean into the experience even deeper. Warhol allegedly ate a can of soup every day for lunch, which is either the most boring meal plan ever or a kind of ritual that made him appreciate each can and each day better.

 

Image: Movie poster for Inception (2010). Image source: Wikipedia. "Inception ver3" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Inception_ver3.jpg#/media/File:Inception_ver3.jpg

In contrast to the “profound boredom” of Empire, Richmond argues for the “vulgar boredom” of a film such as 2010’s Inception. “Inception asks its viewers to keep track of no fewer than four narrative levels, and then delivers an ambiguous Gestalt with its final moment, a narrative duck–rabbit,” Richmond argues. Inception entices you with content to interpret, “But actually, there is no there there,” Richmond concludes. Inception teases, whereas Empire pleases with minimalist content rather than razzle-dazzle amounting to an ambiguous zero in the end. (Who knows if that top keeps spinning at the end? Who cares?) Whereas “profound boredom” can lead us to someplace new and potentially interesting, “vulgar boredom” leads us nowhere — spinning endlessly and pointlessly like that top.

Image: Candy Crush Saga game setup example. Image source: Wikipedia. "Candy Crush Saga game setup example" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Candy_Crush_Saga_game_setup_example.jpg#/media/File:Candy_Crush_Saga_game_setup_example.jpg

Finally, Richmond arrives at the idea of “mediatic boredom,” which combines the best of profound and vulgar boredom in some ways. He defines “mediatic boredom” as “a prop for achieving a non-productive mode of presentness to myself and to the world that is slackened, diffuse, lateral.” Casual games such as Candy Crush Saga (shown above) can generate this “mediatic boredom.” Like Empire, Candy Crush is minimalist in the sense that there’s no strategy. You keep crushing candy over and over, like Andy meditatively, profoundly, boringly drinking his daily soup. Like Inception, however, there’s all the colorful razzle-dazzle to delight the eye and the technology to engage the mind (even if it’s empty intellectual calories in the end). Unlike Inception, however, Candy Crush doesn’t entice you into immersion into the razzle-dazzle. By skimming that attractive surface as a way to escape the boredom around us, Candy Crush lets us be aware of ourselves (and our technology), at least for a moment.

“Social or not, games like Candy Crush solicit casual, attenuated, and extensive attunements with technical media,” Richmond concludes. “However attenuated these attunements may be, they are still attunements; they still set me in a relation to my technical media, now always on my person and increasingly on my body.” We’re literally surrounded by our own devices, with wearable technology such as Google Glass, iGlass, etc., shaving the body-technology barrier even thinner. Tuning them out is practically impossible. Using them to tune into ourselves (Richmond’s “attenuated attunements”), even for a moment, might be our only hope of stopping short of becoming soulless cyborgs. Richmond’s argument itself never bores and raises interesting questions not only about the art of Andy Warhol, but also about the art of being bored the best way.

[Top Image: (Left) Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait (1986). Image source: Wikiart. (Right) Candy Crush app icon. Image source: Wikipedia.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.