What Would Warhol Do?

“They always say time changes things,” Andy Warhol once said, “but you actually have to change them yourself.” Warhol simultaneously embodied and changed his time—a combination that continues to work posthumously through artists working today. In a new exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art titled Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, the inheritors of Warhol’s legacy gather around to assess what hath Andy wraught for the past half century or so. In addition to being a great primer on Warhol’s art, Regarding Warhol acts as a whirlwind tour not just of what artists have done since the early 1960s, but also just how prevalent Warhol’s influence has been beyond the official art world. Regarding Warhol proves once and for all that it’s still Warhol’s world, and that we’re all just living and creating in it.


Independent curator Mark Rosenthal explains in his masterful catalog essay that he conceived this exhibition as “a series of visual ‘dialogues’ between [Warhol’s] work and that of other notable artists who embraced, elaborated, mined, or wrestled with his approach.” Rosenthal hopes that the viewer would come to see the “protean” work of the once-outsider Warhol as “a veritable mainstream from which many offshoots and points of view would be spawned and significant careers forged.” Although many scholars have remarked on Warhol’s influence, Regarding Warhol is the first full-scale exhibition to make direct connections between Warhol and succeeding artists by displaying those works side by side.

Regarding Warhol organizes the sometimes unruly threads of influence into five useful categories: “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster”; “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power”; “Queer Studies: Camouflage and Shifting Identities”; “Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality”; and “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle.” Although many works threaten to seep over into other categories, Rosenthal’s design keeps everything as tidy as a study on influence could possibly hope to be.

Throughout his catalog essay, Rosenthal offers insightful, targeted readings of Warhol’s art while constantly keeping an eye on the bigger picture. Writing about Warhol’s portraiture and its position in contemporary practice, Rosenthal concludes that “[a]s usual,… Warhol proved to be both a synthesizer of earlier art and a beacon in terms of his example to others.” Rosenthal later remarks on how Warhol’s portraits of Elvis, Marilyn, Brando, and other icons often harked to earlier, more successful times in their careers and how this “conflation of eras creates a degree of pathos, like reading an obituary that is accompanied by a photograph from an earlier point in the subject’s life.” I especially enjoyed how Rosenthal concludes a discussion of Warhol’s Oxidation Painting (in which Andy asked men to urinate on canvases covered with metallic copper paint) and how that series mocked the seriousness of Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism by saying that “[o]ne type of ‘drip’ painting was, thereby, replaced by another.” The Warholian ethos of playfulness and no boundaries exists not only in Rosenthal’s subject matter, but in his writing style, too.

When the catalog shifts to interviews conducted with some of the 60 Warhol-influenced artists represented by 100 works (which outnumber the Warhols in the show two to one), the debate over “Good Andy” versus “Bad Andy” takes over. Cady Noland compares Warhol’s approach to the dehumanizing effects of mechanization with that to Charlie Chaplin. While Chaplin warned of its dangers, Noland says, “Warhol fell madly in love with the idea. For Warhol, it was man who paled in comparison to the machine, not the other way around.” Warhol’s contemporary Alex Katz complains that Warhol stole freely from Katz’s work (“He didn’t borrow anything, it was stolen!) before admitting that “[g]ood artists steal, and he’s a good artist.” This immoral or amoral Andy appears also in the discussion of Warhol’s stance on death itself: “A person can cry or laugh… you have the choice.” “Bad Andy” remains the bane of all those who want to inject emotion, politics, or any other human concern into art rather than simply mirror the culture around them. “Bad Andy” also remains the template for contemporary artists who pursue filthy lucre over—almost to the exclusion of—loftier pursuits.

“Good Andy,” or perhaps more accurately, “Serious Artist Andy,” however, emerges from under the fright wig of self-promotion. If “Warhol and the sensibility he helped engender are somehow amoral or evil, it is certainly true that for a long time he was considered so,” Rosenthal counters. “But another way to understand Warhol is as a revolutionary who, applying these attitudes along with his camp sensibility, enforced a radical rejection of any orthodoxies concerning modern art—its qualities and aspirations.” Warhol “gave permission for artists to embrace fame,” photographer Jeff Wall says more simply. Or, as renegade Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan explains, “Warhol’s work is not about a specific decade or style; it’s about being contemporary, being now.” Look around you today at any kind of media, Cattelan asserts, and “you can always find something that’s both pure Warhol and perfectly timed for your present moment.”

The good, bad, and the ugly among the Warholian descendants sort themselves out neatly if you slot them into “Good” or “Bad” Andy. “Good Andy” lives on in artists who took Warhol’s approach to the cultural environment and tapped into the political and emotional he avoided. Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Catherine Opie, Glen Ligon, and Ryan Trecartin belong to this category as artists who took Warhol and made him their own. Rosenthal shows how Warhol’s influence reached even China in the art of Wang Guangyi and other “Political Pop” artists in the 1990s who saw Warhol’s Mao paintings and made a closer connection than Warhol ever could, or would. These artists earn credit for exploring the shadowy side of Andy that can he hinted at in works such as his 1967 Self-Portrait (detail shown above), but always self-censored with a symbolic finger across the lips.

Alas, “Bad Andy” rules too much of today. Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami—the three-headed embodiment of all that seems wrong with contemporary art—threaten to suck all the oxygen out of the exhibition. Aside from that terrible troika, Warhol-gone-wrong’s legacy claims today’s overgrown tabloid culture (Interview Magazine begat People Magazine) and reality television (the screen tests of Warhol’s “Superstars” begat The Real Housewives, etc.). For every argument that Warhol helps us understand our world today, someone can make a counterargument that Warhol’s partly responsible for the mess, too.

One of the final entries in Rebecca Lowery’s catalog timeline of “The Warhol Effect” mentions Rocky Horror Picture Show director Jim Sharman’s “cinematic séance” held in February 2012 twenty-five years to the minute of Warhol’s passing. Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years may not qualify as a séance, but it surely raises the specter of the man and his work and how it haunts us still in so many ways. Early reviews of the exhibition have criticized it for going too far or not far enough—almost as if viewing totally different exhibitions. Both the exhibition and the catalog will challenge and/or enrage you, depending on your prejudices, but at the very least they’ll get you in the spirit of Warhol, whose “15 minutes“ stretch on and on, whether we want them to or not.

[Image: Andy Warhol. Self-Portrait (detail), 1967. Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas.]

[Many thanks to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to the exhibition Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, which runs through December 31, 2012. Many thanks also to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of the catalog to the exhibition.]

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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