Politics and Art in the Digital Age, Part 2: Reproducing Andy Warhol

Continuing our discussion on aesthetics and politics from yesterday . . .

Get ready for a Warhol wave in 2015, and not just at auction. About 40 exhibitions of that artist’s work — much of it previously unseen by the public — will be flooding university art museums and institutions.

This was the lede for a New York Times story about how the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has handed out 14,000 of the artist’s works, obliging curators to do something with them. Warhol is undergoing a Warholian transformation into a high art icon because his artwork are so easily reproducible. If he’s in 40 museums this year, he must be a major artist and we should never forget him.

Warhol is a key figure linking modernism and post-modernism in terms of reproducibility. He is modernist in that his work satisfies Theodor Adorno's demand that modern art must “prove itself equal to high industrialism.” In Warhol’s work both art and culture are commodified and processed as surfaces without any depth in order to demonstrate that, in a mass-mediated culture, shared memories are never entirely free of mass-produced images. 
Warhol’s Marilyn series demonstrates the reproducibility of any body, image or event as a commodity. Marilyn Monroe is a commodity in the sense that her image is a figure of desire well established in the American cultural imaginary. We know this because Warhol is one of the people who established her there. Monroe isn't an icon because of her movie performances, which were remarkable but not immortal. Monroe is who she is for us now because Warhol and others so freely and frequently made use of images of her. Monroe is an iconic figure because she has been reproduced so many times. 
Walter Benjamin was among the first and still among the most important observers of reproduction in the cultural realm. Among the claims he made about reproducibility was that it frees the artwork from its existence in particular place and time, allowing it to become a means of political and cultural critique. This has always been a controversial claim. In actual practice, defiant images are easily re-appropriated for commercial purposes. The alternative is to stop resisting and swim happily in the image stream. Then you end up with something like Lady Gaga’s theater of being, itself not that far removed from what Warhol did in his Marilyn series. 
How are we supposed to approach somebody like Lady Gaga? She’s no Baudelaire—no snark intended. There’s no inner self resisting the marketplace. She has no spleen to vent at her own commodification. Are there any political gestures in her work—beyond the usual post-feminist blandishments about a female performer assuming control over her own image? You can’t rule it out, I suppose. Generally, though, critics limit themselves to wondering if she’s playing with images more cleverly than Madonna did. 
There’s a huge divide between Charlie Hebdo and Lady Gaga. The former clings fiercely to the political realm at the cost of artistic value. The latter represents culture as an autonomous sphere outside the political. Are these the only possibilities for politically engaged art? Is it all or nothing?
More on that in my next post. 

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