Andy Warhol, Digital Art Pioneer?

It all started with a video on YouTube. Sometime in 2011, artist Cory Arcangel watched a video of Andy Warhol painting a digital portrait of singer Debbie Harry in 1985 on a Commodore Amiga 1000 as part of a promotional event for the computer’s release. What happened to that image and the others Warhol made on that computer nearly 30 years ago?, Arcangel wondered. When Arcangel traveled to Pittsburgh later that year for his upcoming exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, he stopped off at the nearby Andy Warhol Museum and asked that very question of the curators. That YouTube video and Arcangel’s curiosity set off a chain of events that led to the recovery of those long-forgotten images from the depths of the digital archives and the tomb of obsolete technology. Compared to what artists such as Arcangel and others can do with modern computer technology today, Warhol’s images (such as his self-portrait, shown above) seem like quaint cave drawings. But there’s still something to be learned from looking at the first foray into a new medium for an already established artist such as Andy Warhol, who may now be seen perhaps as a digital art pioneer.


The video begins with Warhol and Harry descending a staircase onto a stage upon which the Amiga 1000 has been set up. Warhol and a tuxedoed Commodore representative sit at the computer while Harry poses at a distance. The computer expert guides Warhol through the steps of taking a “digital picture” of Harry and then using the graphic interface to manipulate the image with fills and other effects. As Warhol plays around with the computer, the expert tries to interview him, only to get the typical affectless Andy responses of “Uh, yes” or “Uh, no.” Asked how often he’s worked on a computer, Warhol answers that this is his first time, which is not surprising given Warhol’s age at the time (56; he would die just 2 years later) and the fact that personal computing was still in its infancy in 1985. Looking at Warhol’s awkwardness with the mouse and the now-painfully processing speed of the computer’s graphics will amuse the younger set, but watching Warhol come to grips with this new technology for the first time is an invaluable document comparable to being there in the fields with the Impressionists using the newfangled technology of the paint tube that freed them from the confines of the studio to go out in nature with a new degree of freedom that revolutionized painting itself.

Alas, Andy lived only another 2 years to enjoy this new medium. The Amiga 1000 might look like a dinosaur by today’s standards, but some consider it the first multimedia computer, far ahead of its time even though Commodore itself as a company couldn’t stay far ahead of its competition, lasting just a decade after introducing the Amiga 1000. The images Andy made that day might have disappeared, too, except for the efforts of the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club and the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. The student-run Computer Club used their extensive collection of obsolete computer hardware and their prize-winning retro-computing software to recover Warhol’s Amiga 1000 images from the disc languishing in the Warhol Museum’s archives. In addition to the Harry portrait, which had never been lost, the images Warhol created for the commission by Commodore range from simple doodles to riffs on some of his favorite subjects—Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Soup, self-portraits, snippets from art history such as Botticelli’s Venus, and the banana he used for the Velvet Underground & Nico’s iconic album cover.

What would Warhol have done with today’s advanced computers? Synonymous with Pop Art in his own day, Warhol today would bask in the way computers permeate our popular culture today and create art that reflected that reality—an iPad triptych, perhaps, to update his Marilyn Triptych the same way that the Marilyn Triptych updated the religious triptychs of centuries before. Warhol would probably see the computer as today’s (false?) idol worshipped above all others, thus continuing the line of social commentary that his earlier work began. It’s the same old story, just with different characters and gods. (If Henry Adams were alive today to write his Education of, he’d be musing not over the Virgin and the Dynamo but the Virgin and the iPhone.) I doubt Warhol would use computers solely for their potential as a medium the way that another canonical artist, David Hockney, does with his iPhone and iPad drawings. For Warhol, the medium was always the better part of the message, with the concept of craft taking a back seat. When Warhol watches the fill effect slowly turn Blondie’s portrait canary yellow in the video, the cool factor clearly outweighs aesthetic considerations.

Digital art today has grown exponentially in its potential along with the potential of computing itself. But if Moore’s Law holds true and computing power doubles approximately every two years, can human creativity itself keep up that pace? Warhol’s not a “pioneer” of digital art in the sense that he created great works of digital art. However, Warhol is a pioneer in the sense that his approach to popular culture and the media it uses to communicate provides a template for us to perhaps keep pace with the computing world that threatens to, as Neil Postman warned back in 1985, the year Warhol doodled on that Amiga 1000, amuse us to death.

[Image: Andy Warhol. Andy2, 1985. ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.]

[Many thanks to The Andy Warhol Museum for providing me with the image above and other press materials.]

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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.