Andy Warhol (1928–1987) was a contemporary American artist, skilled at replicating images and pop icons in a way that grabbed attention — and that’s what he was: a master of reproducing visual enticements. Three of his most famous painting showcase this repetition: 8 Elvises, 32 soup cans, 50 Marilyn Monroe portraits.
He was less concerned with originality, and more concerned with reproducing what got noticed, and so he focused on visible life, driven to document life like an addiction, impulsively carrying around still cameras and video cameras and audio recorders decades before the iPhone made this type of thing socially normal and technologically convenient.
Warhol seemed especially enchanted by the Polaroid camera, which could spit out images immediately, and he took thousands and thousands of images which he horded and studied and sometimes worked into future paintings. He took the camera everywhere.
In a 1981 BBC interview Warhol was asked: “You never make it [those Polaroid images] look like life do you?” To which he responded: “Gee, I don’t know how.” Somehow he documented life in a way that was staged and canned (pun), but also rarely edited or glamorous. It’s part of his mystique I suppose.
When he decided to turn the Polaroid on himself and experiment with self-portraits, Warhol in effect invented the selfie. But it was really just part of a larger pattern of life.
So what led Warhol to surround himself with cameras and recorders when he entered the world?
Partly as an artist, but partly as a buffer, writes Olivia Laing, in her new study of art, artists, and loneliness: The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016). She writes that Warhol in fact was “terrified of physical contact, he rarely left the house without an armory of cameras and tape recorders, using them to broker and buffer interactions” (6).
Your Attention Please
Those old Polaroids show that Warhol was fascinated with all sorts of things: the mundane, the staged, the grotesque, and of course the sexual. But there was something deeper going on, suggests Laing.
If there is a current animating Warhol’s work, it is not sexual desire, not eros as we generally understand it, but rather desire for attention: the driving force of the modern age. What Warhol was looking at, what he was reproducing in paintings and sculptures and films and photographs, was simply whatever everyone else was looking at, be it celebrities or cans of soup or photographs of disasters, of people crushed beneath cars and flung into trees. In gazing at these things, in rollering them out over curtains of color, in reproducing them endlessly, what he was attempting to distil was the essence of attention itself, that elusive element that everyone hungers for. His study began with stars, with all those heavy-lidded, bee-stung divas, Jackie, Elvis, Marilyn, their faces vacant, stunned by camera lenses. But it didn’t end there. (243–244)
Warhol mastered the art of finding what grabbed human attention, capturing the thing, and then reproducing that eye-candy in new ways. This is his genius — master of attention.
Despite his shyness and awkwardness, Warhol’s desire for image re-production and attention led him to the medium of television. In 1977, Warhol collected a bunch of random thoughts in a book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, and there talked about the artist’s quest for space, and the magic of media allowing us to fill up space far beyond our embodied existence. For him it was the popular television star who gets the most repeated self-image, hence the most space, of anyone.
Imagine if you were a television star, he wrote. Now imagine that while your show was playing, you walked through a neighborhood to watch the strobe-flashed images of yourself filling up every living room: “Can you imagine how you would feel?” It would be exhilarating. On television, “No matter how small he is [the actor], he has all the space anyone could ever want, right there in the television box” (146–147).
No surprise, the illustration he used divulged his own desires. Despite being a shy guy from Pittsburgh, he had an unquenchable desire to command more and more space, and more and more attention, and that led him to television, “the medium he most desired entering into, the pinnacle of his ambitions” (Laing), “the utmost extreme of reproduction and repetition that he could imagine” (Eva Meyer-Hermann).
Self-Replication and Intimacy
In his lifetime, he filmed 42 television episodes, mostly talk shows rising rarely beyond the most anti-intellectual and banal conversations you could imagine. But by the time his bizarre TV career started to take off, and his dream of landing a deal on national television came true with an MTV show named “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes,” and just after filming the first four episodes, he died from a heart attack following gall bladder surgery on February 22, 1987.
Ultimately Laing dissects all this and drives it all home with a crushing critique: “Warhol could see that technology was going to make it possible for more and more people to achieve fame; intimacy’s surrogate, its addictive supplanter” (244).
Take that line in again, slowly.
Laing takes one further step to apply this to our own impulses and ambitions in the smartphone age:
That’s the dream of replication: infinite attention, infinite regard. The machinery of the internet has made it a democratic possibility, as television never could, since the audience in their living rooms necessarily far outnumbered the people who could be squeezed into the box. Not so with the internet, where anyone with access to a computer can participate, can become a minor deity of Tumblr or YouTube, commanding thousands with their make-up advice or ability to decorate a dining table, to bake the perfect cupcake. (245)
Shy but always wanting to be seen, buffered from others, but always in need of affection. This is the Warhol effect.
If we Snapchat enough selfies to our friends, and if we project our lives through reproducible images, we will grab attention and feel intimacy and love — we will shine from 4-inch screens and fill up a space that is outside and beyond ourselves, and by doing so, we will fill the world with ourselves and feel the warm buzz of appreciation.
Not only is this true of SnapChat selfies, it holds true in the replicating avatar of ourselves we re-publish with every Tweet and Facebook and Instagram post.
Infinite attention = infinite regard.
Of course it was a false promise with a false premise. It still is. Drawing attention is not the path to authentic intimacy.
Finding True Intimacy
Creating digital media and art is a wonderful gift that has been digitally democratized so that we can all experience the thrill of creating beautiful images for others to enjoy, or in sharing advice to serve others.
But here’s the big lesson: iPhones buffer us from others, and selfies are nothing but a Polaroid of intimacy. True intimacy is not found as we claim as much space as possible through image replication online; in fact, it has nothing to do with the endless repetition of our image. Instead, our truest intimacy is found in seeing ourselves as a creature before the Creator.
Our intimacy and acceptance and love demands our acquaintance with one who searches our motives and knows all the workings of our complex heart, who knows every pattern of our behavior, knows our every thought, protects us on all sides, who cannot be escaped, who is our light in the darkness of life’s pain, who made me, who put me together exactly how he wanted me, the one who knew me before anyone else did, who saw me before anyone else saw me, who counts my days off because he knows my end as well as he knows my beginning, and he protects and guards my eternal soul and guides me all of my days and finally leads me into the pleasures of his presence for all eternity.
In reality, intimacy is not found in claimed space on social media of a wannabe celebrity, nor is it found in grabbing as much attention as we can garner online. Our true intimacy is found by surrendering ourselves to the sovereign hands of the God of Psalm 139, who claims all time and space for himself in order to overwhelm us with his awareness and his presence. This is the infinite regard that satisfies souls.