By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
The world is a comedy to those who think, Horace Walpole once quipped, and a tragedy to those who feel. Warhol was definitely not in the feeling camp. In his Philosophy, he writes of being on the Bowery after someone had committed suicide by jumping out of a flophouse window. "A crowd went around the body, and then a bum staggered over and said, 'Did you see the comedy across the street?' I'm not saying you should be happy when a person dies," Warhol concluded, "but just that it's curious to see cases that prove you don't have to be sad about it, depending on what you think it means, and what you think about what you think it means.
"A person can cry or laugh. Always when you're crying you could be laughing, you have the choice."
That observation, which implies that emotions are manipulated rather than "natural" responses, sums up an entire program of bloodless postmodern wit. It's an outlook that allowed Warhol to transform even an assassination attempt into a comic routine. Sandwiched between the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the attempt on Warhol's life by Valerie Solanas almost seemed like another Warholian parody of a fashion trend. (As an art-world bumper sticker of the day declared, Warhol had found a new way to get back on the critical list.) Recovering in the hospital, the artist commented that the surgery left him looking "like an Yves Saint Laurent dress - I had a lot of stitches."
One of the things this child of the Great Depression liked most about humor was that it was economical (puns and parodies operate on a two-for-the-price-of-one principle), and Warhol repeatedly linked humor to his work ethic, especially to his camp aesthetic of leftovers. "If you can take [a leftover] and make it good or at least interesting," he wrote, "then you're not wasting as much as you would otherwise. So that's a very economical operating procedure. It's also the funniest operating procedure because . . . leftovers are inherently funny."
Warhol felt that everything should be saved; he even envisioned the need for a Smell Museum so that certain smells wouldn't get lost forever. While he never got that project off the ground, in 1970 he guest-curated a wry exhibition of "leftovers," playfully titled "Raid the Icebox," at the Rhode Island School of Design museum. Raiding the museum's vaults, he exhibited the flotsam and dross of its collection: a partially cleaned anonymous portrait; bundles of old magazines still tied in string; unopened old hatboxes. For a final touch, he had a tree, still bound in twine from the nursery, dropped off at the museum's front door, leaving the director to wonder whether Warhol had curated an exhibit of art or storage. Leftovers, it seemed, were particularly funny when you didn't treat them as leftovers, because they became a joke made at the expense of "good taste" and aesthetic hierarchies.
Warhol's appreciation of leftovers was most conspicuous in his films, where, as he often remarked, he used show-business rejects, people whose eccentric talents had been deemed unmarketable. Part of the humor of using such performers was that, in a society fueled by calculated images of success, their utter failure was paradoxically perfect. "If you can't get someone who's perfectly right for a part, it's more satisfying to get someone who's perfectly wrong," Andy declared. "Then you know you've really got something."
On one level, Warhol's cultivation of misfit "superstars" parodied the Hollywood studio system. By repackaging audition rejects as underground film legends, he drolly suggested that charisma is not some innate "star quality" possessed only by a special few, but an effect generated by publicity machines - a factory product, in other words. His leftover humor was also infused with a certain low-key pathos: It was a way of redeeming society's marginals, characters suffering from terminal cases of rejectionitis. As he once commented, you had to love these people more because they loved themselves less.
Andy was a master at self-parody as well, and perhaps his whole public persona should be seen in that light. But then the question arises: Which persona? Much like Garbo, Warhol carefully maintained a Rorschach-like facade, and the terminal point of his wit may well be his 1984 untitled Rorschach series, which seemed to poke fun not only at the responses inspired by his persona, but at the critical overinterpretation of his work. See what you like, he seemed to imply. Laugh or cry, there's no inherent meaning in these shapes and colors other than what you provide.
Therein lies the raison d'etre of Warholian wit - to make us wonder if what we see is truly all we get. In this same vein, he was cannily adept at creating doubt about his own "seriousness" as an artist. What other cultural giant, after all, ever appeared on an episode of The Love Boat? (It was an ironic cameo for a man who defined love as what happens "when some of the chemicals inside you go bad.") At times he even seemed to encourage people to dismiss his work as superficial, if not morally repugnant. (The critic Robert Hughes once memorably unleashed a torrent of indignation at Warhol's series "Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century," claiming Warhol was trafficking in "Jew prints" as others might in bird, dog or hunting prints.) When, in his book Exposures, Warhol described someone as fascinating "because you absolutely couldn't tell if he was a genius or a retard," he might well have been summing up his own aesthetic strategy.
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