Friday, May 7, 2010

Absolut Warhol

There could not have been a more appropriate owner for Warhol’s towering portrait of Mao Tse-tung than Charles Saatchi, a figure just as ambiguous as Warhol. For if Warhol’s work is about anything, it is, just like Saatchi’s advertising business, about the manipulation of powerful images. Saatchi is the genius of modern advertising who does not speak on the record, and who will not be photographed. Does he own the Mao picture because he likes it, or because he thinks it has something to say about the power of highly charged images, a subject that he is close to himself? Or is he simply hoping to sell it on?

Whatever the reason, it would have been fine with Warhol. He never flinched from addressing the intimate links between culture and commerce. Beyond the irony, he was perfectly open about it. His magazine, Interview, recoiled from all forms of editorial intervention. Its journalism took the form of pointing a tape recorder at a subject and transcribing the result. He was unabashed about using the magazine to sell the idea of commissioning a Warhol portrait. He spent his entire career exploring the contradictions between the fetishizing of original images and their mechanical reproduction. Whatever his intentions, he ended up as one of the twentieth century’s most potent brand names, with an audience willing to pay for the privilege of owning a Warhol Polaroid, or even a Warhol Xerox.

Warhol began by exploring the icons of popular culture, and ended up by turning himself into one. He was perfectly happy to take a liquor company’s money to produce a work that appeared in millions of magazines over the bold headline ‘Absolut Warhol’. Indeed, he also endorsed a range of other products, including Pontiac Cars, Pioneer HI-FI and the investment bankers Drexel Burnham Lambert. The Campbell Soup Company, of course, had his services for nothing.

In his overtly commercial phase, Warhol was simply hiring himself out, selling his services to those companies who wanted to use him in an attempt to change the way that the world saw them or their products. Within months of his death his executor had sold the rights to the Warhol name on a scale that even the artist had not managed in his lifetime. But he had begun with the vastly more radical undertaking of changing the way in which art was perceived by exploring the power of banal commercial images. Warhol managed to take the subject matter of design and turn it into something else—something with a very different status.

If one takes a purist view, money should have nothing to do with art. The price that a work of art or of design, or even a house, achieves in an auction ought to be a measure of nothing more than the skill of the auctioneer and the dealer in making a market. But, for better or worse, price does go a long way toward creating or reflecting a kind of cultural hierarchy. This phenomenon is itself the subject matter of one of Damien Hirst’s more notorious works, For the Love of God. Hirst’s diamond-studded skull might be seen as a brash inversion of Duchamp’s urinal.

Damien Hirst - For the Love of God (2007)

No comments:

Post a Comment