Thursday, June 2, 2011

on automobiles and the human race:

"How are mere men to deal with mechanical commotion that is both of their own creation and seemingly beyond their control?"

"Man now takes for granted the courage it takes to get behind the wheel of an automobile"

"For a man in his automobile trapped in a traffic jam, there are no easy answers"

"Close your eyes, and even the sea sounds like traffic"

-exerts from Conductors of the Moving World by Brad Zellar
published by Little Brown Mushroom

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

OWNing Fame

an essay I wrote comparing Andy Warhol and Oprah Winfrey:

Andy Warhol and Oprah Winfrey are both individuals who turned their work and their lives into a business. Through the process of exploiting the boundaries between art and marketing, identifying with and speaking the language of mass culture, and carefully constructing their own image to be readily consumed en masse, these two entrepreneurs were able to amass a tremendous amount of power and influence over their followers, and to some degree eventually dictate their lives. Oprah’s biography has become a consumable public text written in collaboration with her guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show in order to highlight nuances within her life and those of her audience bringing herself down to their level to increase the level of viewership. Warhol’s constructed self-image can be seen through the work he made titled, Screen Tests. Screen Tests is a formulaic, motion-picture portrait project that involves filming approximately four-hudred and seventy-two individuals by placing a video camera in front of a subject and leaving them up to their own devices to be caught on film for three minutes. We see how they react to the hot lights on their face, to what is happening around them in the Factory, and to the realization that their performance will observed in the future, all the while being reduced to his or her own image. When screening the films, Warhol slowed them down so each filmed portrait had a duration of four minutes, providing a much more intimate appreciation of the subject than a traditional portrait could attest. The Screen Tests in their totality comprise of all the individuals living in and around New York’s underground art scene, and are as much a portrait of them as it is a portrait of the artist, whose constructed public persona is a composite of all these individuals found at the Factory.

As with much of Warhol’s work, especially in Screen Tests, Warhol is steeped in the ideologies of commercial art, brazenly merging an order of business and marketing (with inherent links to capital), to his art and his life. At a time when it wasn’t necessarily “hip” to care about money; with the rise of countercultures of the 1960’s that intentionally attacked authority and hierarchies that instilled the monetary system, Warhol sought to act upon this rejection by intentionally making art that was marketable to individuals; and what better than a series of portraits. Warhol saw no boundary between art and business, where “...making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art” (Warhol, 28). This exemplifies the idea that art is a marketplace and to succeed one needs a business; this Warhol and Oprah Winfrey alike, were able to establish early on in their careers. Their lives have been a personally designed and intentional process, mimicking that of a business; depicting their lives as their work, art, and their brand, enabled “in controlling the interpretation of [their] own work” (Crow, 50) to best suit the market. If Oprah “lost control of the business, [she’d] lose [her]self - or at least the ability to be [her]self,” this exemplifies this notion of striving to transform ones life into a business-like machine or factory, where “owning [one]self is a way to be [one]self” (Illouz, 59). This is apparent when we consider the title of her new network that launched this month, titled, “OWN,” (The Oprah Winfrey Network); a title that boasts dominance and power over her business, her life, and “Oprah’s All Stars,” (the personalities of Dr. Phil, Suzie Orman, and Dr. Oz) that function as the primary foundation of this network, that are only a snippet of Oprah’s collection of individuals. Warhol’s use of the Screen Tests is interesting, in that he transforms the screening of the film into a form of self-promotion, for instance, when he was showing “13 Most Beautiful Women” an already flattering title for those women in the film, at the socially sophisticate’s home of Sally Kirkland, the fashion editor of Life Magazine, thirteen would sometimes elevate to twenty most beautiful women depending on who was in the audience, or who Warhol wanted to please to strengthen relationships sometimes in hopes to sell a new painting. The titles of the Screen Tests, “13 Most Beautiful Women,” “13 Most Beautiful Boys,” “50 Fantastics,” “50 Personailities,” were guidelines and categories to aim for while shooting, yet they were not fixed and the subjects in them were interchangeable. Warhol’s “metamorphosis into a pop persona was calculated and deliberate” (Bouron, 12) turning his life, like Oprah, into a performance, with staged emotions for the service and utilization of those around them, all the while merging their private lives with the public. The participants in Screen Tests, and the subjects on The Oprah Winfrey Show, can be seen in some ways as a portrait of the artist, as it shows off the breadth of friendships, connections, interests, egalitarianism, opportunism, and an eye for beauty in Warhol’s case. But for Oprah, some of her subjects are stricken with domestic violence, alienation in African American culture, and issues of weight, which are all subjects Oprah has dealt with personally and has shared with the general public. Through this calculated sharing of their private lives, be it a violent past, issues with appearance (both Oprah and Warhol openly shared their distastes with their visage, be it their weight, acne or a misshapen nose) their lives are exhibited for a public understanding and consumption, all the while attaining more followers.

This mirroring structure between Oprah and Warhol’s biography and that of their guests, or participants in their work, is based on more than just similarities; it extends into a highly symbiotic relationship where Oprah and Warhol rely on their subjects for material just as much as their subjects rely on them to assemble their image and story within mass culture; done through a process of commodification. Oprah has “packaged and commodified her own life in a way that resonated with the construction and packaging of her guest’s lives,” (17) in that, she has been able to turn her guest’s biographies into encased entities, commodities for public consumption. These commodified biographies “are the flesh and blood that have helped constitute Oprah Winfrey’s phenomenal wealth” (Illouz, 218) and demonstrate her reliance on her audience as much as they respond to her. A similar exchange is apparent when looking at Warhol’s Screen Tests, where the sheer amount of “glamour conferred by being in a Warhol film enticed even more people to sit for him” (Huxley, 9) allowing Warhol to amass his collection of personalities. However, Warhol’s use of his Screen Tests that featured individuals found traipsing around the Factory; ranging from hustlers, homosexuals, and drag queens to drug users, writers and musicians, critically subverted traditional notions of mass culture, by being “unified in [their] resistance to the normalizing, disciplinary regime of respectable, heterosexual, middle- and upper-class society” (Siegel, 10) through alternative ways of thinking, working and being that was for-fronted in the ideologies of the personalities Warhol chose to film. Warhol recognized that “contemporary American culture was rooted in appearance, novelty , and conspicuous consumption,” (Morris, 14) and he exercised all of these notions within his Screen Tests by highlighting his sitter’s image through the dialogue of portraiture, one that guarantees repeat customers and is based on a system of consumerism. Oprah too, is aware of the desires of mass culture, and has “used several devices to make the audience a structural component of the genre” of her show. By giving people a voice that would otherwise not be heard, and by focusing on the problems of her guests in the hopes that they may resonate with her viewers; “she has made the audience the main trope of her show” (Illouz, 56), and her main customer. This consumer exchange between artist and public exists as both artists commodified their own lives and work and took on the role of the producer and distributor within the commodification exchange system. Warhol under the Factory, a title that blatantly references the location where goods are manufactured and distributed, and Oprah under her first network titled “Harpo” (Oprah backwards) and more recently “Own;” Oprah “emerged as arbiter of American Culture, [and] Harpo a money machine.” (Brands, 301). By employing the power of their image as celebrity within mass media, and by escalating their aura of celebrity onto those around them, gave rise to a dependable amount of followers that would seek the two out for their own transformation.

There is a reason why one can find Warhol knock-offs at dollar stores and on greeting-cards, and why everyone knows what books America will be reading next, because both Oprah and Warhol knew the operations of mass culture and succumbed to its power, using their privileged position as celebrity to transform social types and their image into marketable global products. Warhol seemed to have the ability to take the “image of a mere mortal and thus morph said human into the ranks of the legendary gods and goddesses of the silver-screen” (Sokolowski) through the use of his Screen Tests and his somewhat mythic persona that he created and distributed amongst the media. His “urge to collect images of the rich and famous” while incorporating more people into his art than any other contemporary artist, “can be seen as an effort to grasp hold of fame for himself” (Morris, 11) while transforming wanna-bees into superstars. Much like Warhol’s subjects, Oprah’s guests are motivated to talk and be seen “by the desire to have the requisite fifteen minutes of fame” that being on the screen provides, yet they are also attempting “to achieve the (false) promises of self-change” (Illouz, 120) that being on a talk show is supposed to fulfill. However, most talk shows, Oprah’s included, give prominence to human suffering as a way to endear audiences’ sympathies, humanist connections and a distorted interest in the disadvantaged, while exploiting and manipulating human distress for their own profit. This demonstrates Oprah’s acceptance into mass culture by giving her audience what they want while securing her enterprise financially. Part of the artistic production of Warhol’s Factory was a “commitment of Warhol and his superstars to a project of aesthetically and erotically publicizing their way of life” (Siegel, 13), by filming mundane tasks caught on film, from attempting to not blink for three minutes, brushing ones teeth rather sexually, to drinking soda, elevating these rather banal tasks into ones that are much more sublime in nature. These simple actions are congruent with Warhol’s banal paintings of consumer culture that aim “to be recognized as stylish icons of American life,” (Huxley, 8) elevating the mundane through an accentuated quality on film, an affiliation with Warhol, or through the power of celebrity into the realm of the sublime. Oprah too, has the power to create icons of American culture. She converts novels and self-help books that are of interest to her into bestsellers. By raising them to the status of Oprah’s Book Club not only dictates what the nation will be reading, but guarantees that upwards of 50,000 more books of each title will be sold and talked about amidst mainstream culture. The glorification of the everyday that Warhol gives his subjects, celebrities, superstars in his Screen Tests, plays into the American psyche; the “desire, pervasive in society at large, to glimpse at both the outer appearance and the private lives of celebrities” (Wolf, 62) to find correlations between the lives of celebrities and that of their own. It was Warhol who said “the President of the United States and Liz Taylor drank Coke, and so could you,” (Warhol, 13) bringing the level of celebrity down from high-culture into pop-culture, while alleging that anyone could be the next celebrity using Warhol as a conduit for their stardom. It was through submitting themselves to mass culture and including their audience and subjects in their own image of celebrity that enabled both Warhol and Oprah to become such prominent and consumed figures of American Culture.

Warhol played into, yet brilliantly critiqued America’s obsession with fame and success through the types of individuals he was elevating into stardom; homosexuals, drag-queens, underground musicians, poets, free-thinkers, and criminals (“13 Most Wanted Men”), individuals who would not regularly be sought after in society especially this soon after the age of McCarthyism with its instilled conservatism still be felt throughout the country. It was through a process of not censoring or creating hierarchies, of tolerating every performance and gesture put forward that Warhol was able to bridge the gaps between surface and depth, art and life and more importantly, between high society and the underworld. It was Warhol’s series “13 Most Beautiful Women” that were more widely received than his “13 Most Beautiful Boys,” showing that the celebration of female beauty was a much more accepted route within mass culture. Warhol thus established himself as the promoter and judge of beauty and fantastic personalities, just like Oprah who took it on herself to become a judge of good books, food, vacations, and other consumer goods; making her the ultimate distribution model. A recent trip made by The Oprah Winfrey Show, where Oprah and 302 of her “ultimate fans” were broadcasted in Australia, caused tourism to rise in that country to rise by 5%. The Australian Tourism Industry says it is part of “The Oprah Effect,” or “The Million Dollar Touch” as CNBC calls it, where Oprah’s power of persuasion has been proven to govern the thoughts, motives and actions of millions of people.

Works Cited

Crow, Thomas. Modern Art in the Common Culture. Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol. New Haven, CT. Yale University Press, 1996.

Huxley, Geralyn. From Stills to Motion & Back Again. Fantastics & Personalities. Vancouver, BC. Presentation House Gallery, 2003.

Illouz, Eva. Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery. New York, Columbia University Press, 2003.

Morris, L. Laura. Andy Warhol. Celebrities, More than Fifteen Minutes. The Paradox of Andy Warhol. Las Vegas NV. PaperBall, 2003.

Brands, W. H. Masters of Enterprise. The Celebrity as Entrepreneur. New York, NY. The Free Press, 1999.

Siegel, Marc. “Doing It For Andy.” Art Journal. Vol. 62, No. 1, (Spring, 2003). College Art Association.

Wolf, Reva. “Collaboration as Social Exchange: Screen Tests/A Diary by Gerrard Malanga and Andy Warhol” Art Journal. Vol. 52, No. 4, Interactions Between Artists and Writers. (Winter, 1993) College Art Association.