Andy Warhol’s Masturbation Metaphor

In a 1977 interview with Glenn O’Brien for the marijuana lifestyle magazine High Times, O’Brien asked Andy Warhol if his teachers recognized his early “natural talent.” “Something like that,” Warhol responded with his characteristic unconventionality, “unnatural talent.” Warhol’s “unnatural talent” quip alluded not only to his mass-produced, machine-like paintings of soup cans and silk screen portraits, but also to his sexual orientation — the “unnatural” life of a homosexual. Just as Warhol turned that verbal double play, art scholar Michael Maizels tries to touch those two bases of Warhol’s art in “Doing It Yourself: Machines, Masturbation, and Andy Warhol” in the Fall 2014 issue of Art Journal. For Maizels, the way that Warhol made art reflected the way Warhol lived his life as a homosexual male in late 20th century America. When we look at Warhol’s art, Maizels suggests, we should see not just a critique of commercialized society and its art, but also a critique of that same society’s sexual tolerance.

Andy Warhol’s Masturbation Metaphor

In a 1977 interview with Glenn O’Brien for the marijuana lifestyle magazine High Times, O’Brien asked Andy Warhol if his teachers recognized his early “natural talent.” “Something like that,” Warhol responded with his characteristic unconventionality, “unnatural talent.” Warhol’s “unnatural talent” quip alluded not only to his mass-produced, machine-like paintings of soup cans and silk screen portraits, but also to his sexual orientation— the “unnatural” life of a homosexual. Just as Warhol turned that verbal double play, art scholar Michael Maizels tries to touch those two bases of Warhol’s art in “Doing It Yourself: Machines, Masturbation, and Andy Warhol” in the Fall 2014 issue of Art Journal. For Maizels, the way that Warhol made art reflected the way Warhol lived his life as a homosexual male in late 20th century America. When we look at Warhol’s art, Maizels suggests, we should see not just a critique of commercialized society and its art, but also a critique of that same society’s sexual tolerance.


Maizels, a teacher, curator, and scholar who focuses on the legacy of the art of the 1960s, begins by laying out the history of Warhol studies. “Until the middle of the 1990s, readings of Warhol’s work typically focused on its engagements with the societal shifts of the mid-1960s — for example the rise of commodity consumption and celebrity culture — and the extent to which Warhol was either critical of or complicit in these changes,” Maizels explains. “However, beginning with the 1996 publication of Pop Out: Queer Warhol, art historians have increasingly argued for considering questions of sexual practice and identity as central to Warhol’s art.” Building on that scholarship, Maizels “conten[ds] that ‘the commodity Warhol’ and ‘the queer Warhol’ were bound up in one another to an extent that has not been sufficiently appreciated — linked by imagery as well as through their means of production.”

Essentially, Maizels sees Warhol as commenting on the perception of his homosexuality as “unnatural” and “non-productive” through the similar, almost invited perception of his art as “unnatural” and “non-productive” because it increasingly diminished the presence of the human hand. Exhibit A for Maizels’ case are the five paintings Warhol made between 1962 and 1963 that he collectively titled his Do It Yourself series. These five paintings — two still lifes, two seascapes, and one landscape — mimic the “paint by number” kits first popular in the 1950s. In terms of content, Warhol’s mimicry “is ... typically read as commentary on the increasingly commodified nature of artistic production,” Maizels argues, but “their collective title can also be read as a thinly veiled reference to masturbation.”

As Maizels points out, the language historically used to denounce industrialization (and more recently in the 1950s used to criticize the aesthetics of painting by number) as an unnatural threat to natural human skill and productivity sounds a lot like the language traditionally used to denounce homosexuality as an unnatural threat to heterosexuality and human reproduction. “As same-sex desire has historically been denounced by analogy with the machine — as unnatural, involuted, and sterile,” Maizels writes, “Warhol’s embrace of mass production became a way to stake out an aesthetic that celebrated the qualities of repetition, sterility, and immanence in much the way that traditional, heteronormative criticism trumpeted singularity, fecundity, and universality.” In response to a world that rejected him personally, Warhol created a kind of art that rejected that world’s premises in turn not only about what is “normal,” but also about what is “art.”

As Maizels rightly points out, the reigning picture of a “natural” American artist in the 1960s was Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, a man who once boldly announced, “I am nature.” The brash, boozy, man’s man “Jack the Dripper” thus serves as the face of the “historical construction of the hypervirile masculine artist” critiqued by Warhol in his “mocking the notion of artistic creation as akin to heterosexual coitus.” The Do It Yourself double entendre thus uses the masturbation metaphor to reject the idea of a “normal” artist or a “normal” person as a Pollock-esque hyper-hetero. Every Warhol paint by number, soup can, or silk screen can therefore be seen as a defiant self-portrait on multiple levels.

In the end, Maizels cautions that “[t]his is not to suggest that Warhol was expressing an essential connection between masturbation, homosexuality, and mechanical fabrication, but rather that he mobilized and obliquely sought to reclaim these terms that had been derided together through similar language.” Warhol’s soup cans and silk screens aren’t about masturbation specifically, but rather strive to break the link forged in the popular imagination between masturbation, the acceptance of sexual difference, and industrialization. Thus, when Warhol famously remarked, “I want to be a machine,” he could just as easily have announced, “I want to be accepted for who I am.” Maizels’ article brings fresh eyes to Warhol’s most familiar, too familiar artworks and raises interesting questions still vital in this age of same-sex marriage regarding what direction America will take in the civil rights issue of our time.

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

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

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
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The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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