Andy Warhol,
The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
(1975; Penguin, 2007)

Andy Warhol was one of the most famous personalities working in the visual arts in the 20th century. In recent years, more and more, Warhol is seen as increasingly influential. Warhol's posthumous elevation is similar to that of Marcel Duchamp. While Duchamp laid the foundations for postmodernism 50 years ahead of its time, his position is now seen as that of the most influential artist of the 20th century -- outjumping Mssrs. Picasso, Matisse, et al.

Warhol's influence has steadily grown in the two decades since his death in 1989 following a "routine" gallbladder operation.

It should be noted, however, that Warhol achieved incredible levels of fame and notoriety (as well as staggering wealth) during his lifetime. A hugely iconoclastic figure -- his earlier work sought to smash accepted notions -- by the time of his death he was as big an icon as those he railed against.

But Warhol has always been about paradox and dichotomy. Reticent and effete in public, the artist was considered a ruthless businessman by those who knew him well.

Warhol grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of Czech immigrant parents. He studied art and moved to New York, where he worked as a commercial artist (in a number of department stores, amongst other posts).

Influenced by the early work of pop artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Warhol made the decision to take the leap into "real" art. His early comic strip works were clearly inspired by the work of Roy Lichtenstein, but Warhol quickly found his own style. His iconic portraits of Campbell's Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, as well as his recreations of violent imagery from car crashes to race riots, quickly earned the young artist a reputation. Soon he moved in to experimental filmmaking, publishing and multimedia ventures, all the while adding fuel to the Warhol myth.

In 1975 Warhol wrote and published The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. The book is a candid insight into his thoughts on a wide-ranging number of topics -- from sex to food, New York to fame. The book is written in an aphoristic style, but a gossipy aphoristic style.

Much of the public's fascination with Warhol stems from the high level of secrecy he managed to surround himself with. His life is a great example of somebody who courted publicity and fame, achieved it, yet never really gave much away about the real "him."

Penguin Classics have published a new paperback version of the book, and the timing could not be better. In a world of (sur)Reality TV, obsessive celebrity and cross-genre multi-media madness, Warhol's philosophy (or what we have come to think of it as) has never been so closely felt. When Warhol said in the future everybody would be famous for 15 minutes, it must have sounded like a throwaway soundbite, but it is becoming increasingly true as we are bombarded with an endless assault of disposable celebrity victims.

In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, the artist talks about fame thus: "A good reason for being famous is so you can read all the big magazines and know everybody in all the stories," and "Nowadays if you're a crook you're still considered up-there. You can write books, go on TV, give interviews -- you're a celebrity and nobody even looks down on you because you're a crook."

The concept of celebrity was one that seems to have stayed with him over the years, from his early artworks dealing with it through becoming one of the biggest celebrities in the world himself.

Throughout the book Warhol refers to the occasion when he was shot by Valerie Solanas, the founder of the Society for Cutting Up Men, or SCUM. The incident occurred in June 1968 when Solanas walked up to the artist and shot him in the chest, luckily missing vital organs. Warhol survived but was scarred mentally as well as physically.

He discusses the physical scars in the book, too. He describes a late-night telephone conversation he has with an acquaintance. They discuss various things but get on to the topic of scars. "What about your scars?" the woman says. "I'll tell you about your scars. I think you produced Frankenstein just so you could put your scars in the ad. You put your scars to work for you."

Throughout the book he brings it up in described conversations and other entries. Clearly, his brush with death left him very aware of his own mortality. The section in the book titled "Death" has a single entry: "I don't believe in it, because you're not around to know that it's happened. I can't say anything about it because I'm not prepared for it." Whether this is Warhol being willfully aphoristic or not is difficult to discern, but death crops up in numerous other entries, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.

Overall, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol is a fascinating book from a fascinating figure. Warhol's influence on society is yet, in my opinion, to reach its zenith. His ideas were "far out" in his time but are coming more and more to resemble life as we know it. His greatest gift was probably his observational ability. From his ubercool stance, as the darkly vampiric, pale-faced silent watcher, he took it all in and saw it for how it truly was. Every school should have this book in its library.

by Sean Walsh
12 May 2007

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