Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Donald Trump and Andy Warhol: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Digital Image in the Style of Warhol's Famous Marilyn Monroe Diptych
CC Jean Stimmell

When the Museum of Modern Art hosted the first Andy Warhol retrospective back in 1989, his work was considered to be derivative and superficial by a variety of critics.

John Updike’s opinion was typical: “Warhol’s art has the powerful effect of making nothing seem important.”1

He quoted Warhol’s own words: “Some critic called me the Nothingness Himself and that didn’t help my sense of existence any. Then I realized that existence itself is nothing and I felt better.”

Updike goes on, “His great unfulfilled ambition (he couldn’t have had too many) was a regular TV show.”

How times have changed.

The Whitney Museum of American Art is currently hosting a new retrospective exhibit of Andy Warhol’s work and, this time around, he is widely considered to be the most consequential artist of the 20th century.

Apparently, he has earned this honor, not because of his art’s intrinsic greatness but because he is a ultimate representative of what society has become:

As the director of the Whitney writes in the show’s catalog, “Because we live in a culture of display and consumption, where the personal and the public are virtually inseparable, Warhol was the perfect artist for his time and our time.”

I agree he personifies what our culture has become and, in the process, transformed what we consider art to be? 

But, if that transformation elevates nothingness to a supreme value, won’t the end result be that nothing is sacred, for us as individuals or as a society.

In Warhol’s world, alternative facts become as acceptable as actual facts. Transactional one-upmanship becomes as acceptable as our age-old moral and ethical values.

As Steven Metcalf writes in the current Atlantic Magazine, Warhol2 negates what we have always held dear: “An inner life, a distrust of fame and a special loathing for speculative fortunes, and a personal relationship with God (or nature)” that the artist’s image may reflect but never replace.

He accuses Warhol of a blanket nihilism that “creeps out” beyond his personal work to speak for all art and even modern society itself.

By now, I am sure you know where I am going with this: everything I’ve written about Andy Warhol, applies to Donald Trump.

To my way of thinking, they are twins!

Both are narcissists lacking redeeming social values, obsessed solely with fame and making money. Not surprisingly, they knew each other.

Trump once commissioned the artist to create silk-screened portraits of Trump Tower, but Trump didn’t like them; Warhol, annoyed at this rejection, responded by calling Trump “sort of cheap.”

Trump continues to promote Warhol, quoting the artist in two of his books: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art”.3

Without a doubt, the commonalities between Donald and Andy are all around us. As Trump would say, “many people are talking about it.”

Asked about how Trump dominates the news cycle today, Donna De Salvo, the curator of the Whitney show, says: “I think many of us didn’t expect we would be where we are now. There may be some who see Warhol as the cause of it all.”4

May the gods have mercy on us.

2 Warhol’s Bleak Prophecy by Steven Metcalf. Atlantic Magazine, Jan-Feb 2019
3 https://www.theartnewspaper.com/preview/when-warhol-confused-trump
4 https://whitney.org/Exhibitions/AndyWarhol#exhibition-catalogue