Is Andy Warhol the Art World’s Housing Bubble?

When Elizabeth Taylor passed away this past March, the nostalgia for all things “Liz” seemed inevitable. The brass ring of this Lizapalooza, however, seems to be Andy Warhol’s painting Liz #5, which sold earlier this month for $26.9 million USD. As art critic Jerry Saltz points out in a recent issue of New York Magazine, it seems as if every millionaire wants to own a Warhol. Thanks to his amazingly prolific career (and with a little help from "The Factory"), Warhol created enough art seemingly to go around, at least to those with enough cash to travel in the right circles. But, just like everyone once believed that it was a good thing that everyone owned a house in those days before the housing bubble burst, are rich collectors setting themselves up for a fall in lifting Warhol to the highest rank of artists, at least in terms of sales? Is Andy Warhol the art world’s housing bubble?


“It was public theater, investment banking, and brothel rolled into one,” Saltz describes a recent auction in which Warhols sold like solid-gold hotcakes. “Andy was in the news. Again. But his renown notwithstanding, one does wonder: Why such market-mania for Warhol? Why not Rothko, Newman, Nauman, or Judd? Why not Rosenquist, Kusama, Hesse, or any other first-rate big name?” If you look at any list of 10 ten prices paid for Warhols (including this out-of-date one), you’ll be astounded not only by the $100 million USD paid for Eight Elvises, but also by the hefty prices paid for works featuring Marilyn Monroe, Mao, and other notorious characters. Consider the fact that only six other artists (Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-August Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Gustav Klimt, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning) have broken the century mark. Warhol’s traveling in select company pricewise, but is he worth it? More importantly, will he remain being worth it?

I think Saltz aims too low when wondering why Warhol’s risen above his Pop Art brethren and even some of his more critically acclaimed Abstract Expressionist forefathers. With the exception of Pollock and de Kooning, Warhol’s left every artist working primarily in the last century well behind. I think Saltz comes closer to the mark when he asks, “What does Andy mean to these people?” Saltz believes that “Warhol’s work is easy to like, especially now that it seems—at first glance, anyway—less strange than it did when it was created… There are those clashing electric colors that no one ever put together before—it’s as though he discovered a new note on the saxophone.” Saltz also interestingly muses on “Warhol the man, who still strikes many as a strange swish outlaw,” thus “giv[ing] his work an edginess and borderline-risqué feeling; Rothko, by comparison, is more about gravitas and suicide. Collecting Warhol seems naughty but not really obnoxious.” Connecting buyer and seller even more, Saltz argues that “[h]edge-funders and industry titans see themselves in him: the leader of a factory; the workaholic who empowers others to make things possible; the one who collects and hoards, who turns junk into art.”

Everything Saltz argues is possible, but I’m not sure it’s probable in terms of who collects Warhol and why. Is the homosexual angle still all that edgy and risqué in these post-Ellen times? Do junk bond traders really identify with Andy in some shared sense of “turn[ing] junk into art”? There’s not a whole lot of humanities education going on in most business schools, so I’m guessing that Wall Street types know more about Warhol’s prices than Warhol’s values.

I like Warhol’s art. I won’t argue that he’s not important in the history of art. Does he belong in the upper echelon with Picasso and friends? Probably not. Warhol owes too much to Duchamp to be considered a true original. I suspect that, like Warhol’s 1986 Self-Portrait (detail shown above), there’s some camouflage going on that’s hiding the true forces behind Warhol’s wild price ride. With the world economy still struggling to rebound, investors are looking for that elusive “sure thing.” Brand-name art has always been in that conversation, but branding today is even bigger than in Warhol’s day, when he took Campbell’s Soup and Coca-Cola trademarks and made them into his trademark art. Some residue of that corporate success clings to Warhol’s art for these collectors, and that may be the biggest selling point. If and when these prices come down to earth, let’s hope that it doesn’t bring down the whole art market as buyers lose faith in their “sure thing” and have no aesthetic beliefs to keep them collecting.

[Image: Andy Warhol. Self-Portrait, 1986.]

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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.