Dubious Icons: Godheads, Messiahs, and the Artist as Celebrity

Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. Munich, 1980. Courtesy of Schellmann Art

Perhaps it’s an unfair caricature of MFA students, that each appears to inhabit their own personalized reality TV show. Perhaps. But having been one of those students, it’s hard not to recognize the proposition’s grain of truth.

Still, cultural conservatives itching to label contemporary art a cradle for entitled narcissists won’t find sympathy here: the complexity of art’s relation to the social body exceeds this facile critique. As well as a venue for the production of curious objects, visual art is also, at its best, a realm of make-believe: a place where non-conformity can seem more powerful than the status-quo of late capitalism. Herein lies art’s resistance to ideologically-trained modes of thinking and feeling. Swallowed uncritically though, this ethos enshrines the “freedom” of neoliberal self-actualization – that perfect engine of apolitical consumer culture.

With spectacle visibly overtaking competence and rationality in the political realm, we have ever more reason to be skeptical of contemporary art’s cult of the exceptional individual. As a generally solipsistic society, we hover between two oft-quoted celebrity maxims: Joseph Beuys’s “everyone is an artist,” and Andy Warhol’s “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Now everyone’s a collagist of identity, enabled by corporate social media platforms. Our fifteen minutes has stretched into an ever-refreshing eternity. Recently, a new film and book – on Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, respectively – have invited us to re-consider a politically-slippery strain of celebrity artist: one that feels strangely emblematic of our vexed moment.

A feature-length documentary, Andres Veiel’s BEUYS (2017) makes bold gestures towards complicating the eponymous German artist’s mythology, before succumbing to a familiar, redemptive plot line. With archival material and interviews, the film tracks Beuys’s messianic journey across art, politics, and pedagogy. Beuys’s origin story is a well-known weave of history and fabulation: a one-time Nazi pilot, he claimed to have been saved by Tatar tribespeople, after crashing in Crimea. The fat and felt they allegedly used to care for him came to influence his performances and sculptures, which read as cryptic metaphors for social and environmental processes of healing.

Veiel’s film skirts rigorous engagement with Beuys’s myth and the socio-political forces that produced it. Absent are recent revelations suggesting that he was actually rescued by Russian workers. And the subject of his Nazism is neglected, along with the crucial question: what does it mean for a onetime member of the Reich to be saved by a people undergoing expulsion from Russia, as Jews and other minorities were murdered across Europe?

Despite failing to address these essential problems, Veiel’s film manages to exceed the familiar narrative of Beuys as an artistic healer of the post-war European psyche. We see him oscillating between his process – obsessively documented in photographs – pursuing sponsorships to fund that work, and taking on political gambits: he was fired from the Dusseldorf Academy for admitting every applicant, and ostracized from the German Green Party. Amidst the film’s dated fades and vignettes, these failures pierce the hagiographic effect.

Joseph Beuys planting trees for “7000 Oaks,” 1972.

But then comes the film’s closing sequence – a crescendo of cliché that suggests that Beuys’s democratic ethos will carry into eternity by way of his 7000 Oaks (1972). That work consisted in the planting of 7000 trees, each accompanied by a basalt stone marker. Images of citizens carrying out this mission drift past, as the requisite violins tug heartstrings. The problem here is not Beuys’s moving and ambitious piece, but the cozy conservatism governing this presentation, all of which reinstates the artist as a flattened-out messiah. This mode of Hollywood catharsis scrapes away the all-too-real possibility of failure – from simple personal setbacks, to the cataclysms that follow our environmental and political negligence. Because film has the power to model our personal fantasies, a familiar capitalist delusion is reinforced by BEUYS‘s closing moments: each viewer can believe that their own life is destined for comforting redemption. Good art and cinema needn’t always be an exercise in bracing realism, of course, but they should at least offer alternatives to the fantasy narratives of popular culture.

By contrast, the strength of Hilton Als’s Andy Warhol: The Series (2017) inheres in its departure from Warhol’s manifold mythology: in gestures towards family, community, doubt, delusion, and fallibility. Even Als’s text embodies defeat. As a two-episode script for a prospective TV series, it suggests an abandoned project – which would be a shame. Like Als’s theater and cultural criticism, the scripts dwell in the personal and historical peripheries of fame and sociability. Perhaps the observations and allusions were deemed a shade subtle for the high-test arena of mainstream TV.

As the godhead of American pop art, Warhol’s story is as familiar as Beuys’s. He was a fashion illustrator before becoming an artist, and his social prestige seemed incongruous with an extreme paranoia about his own appearance. “He was one of the stupidest people I ever met,” wrote the critic Robert Hughes, refusing to accept that Warhol’s reproduction of products and celebrities amounted to a critical mirroring of culture. Hughes’s criticism of the artist’s work – if not his mean-spirited ad hominem attack – had merit, but was focused on post-1968 Warhol. After he was shot by Valerie Solanis in the summer of that year, Warhol’s will to engage Americana’s pained pulse – car crashes in his Death and Disaster series, the overdosed Marilyn Monroe in his Marilyn series – gave way to flat reproductions of pop-culture vacancy.

Attuned to the lived history that led to all of this, Als has written a series of interlinking vignettes, focusing on the artist’s earliest relationships with women: his mother Julia Warhola (formerly Julia Justina Zavacka) and the young Shirley Temple, whom Warhol venerated as a child. This approach echoes Als’s own autobiographical mode; his 1996 collection The Women opens with a reflection on his own mother’s “way of being,” and emigration from Barbados to Manhattan.

Als’s intimate and imaginative approach beautifully evades our cardboard cut-out Warhol – that elusive luminary who famously met Beuys at Dusseldorf’s Galerie Denise René/Hans Mayer in 1979, before portraying him in the silk-screen painting Joseph Beuys (1980): flickering between late-night glitz and ominous smokiness, that image perfectly captures Beuys’s celebrity mystique.

Before meeting, the two played out a discordant duet between ascendant America and eviscerated post-war Europe. Als introduces us to Julia Justina Zavacka before WWI. At eighteen, she lives in a Carpathian mountain village where “patches of fog float” nearby, as goats and carts trundle past. The setting is only a shade less mythic than Beuys’s Crimean landing site. And Zavacka’s home infuses our imaginations with the culture that produced Warhol’s affection for glitzy icons. Kneeling in the “semidarkness” of her wooden house, Zavacka lights candles that illuminate “a wall covered in gold Christian icons” – a well-placed description that moves us smartly through time, to Warhol’s 1962 work Gold Marilyn.

Warhol’s Catholicism is old news. But Als’s manages a frisson of revelation with subtle clues. References to the artist’s nascent visual language – Cambell’s soup cans for lunch, the child virtuosically filling coloring books – continue this theme, skillfully edging cleverness. These foreshadowing games seem consequential because they unfold against moments that draw a reader into their familiar subjects’ disappointment and alienation. In one scene, an elderly Julia Warhola checks for prying eyes before tending to her colostomy bag. Later, a preteen Shirley Temple strategizes with managers as her body shape-shifts through adolescence; after being shot, Warhol lays in a lonely hospital room, his Factory acolytes having departed along with the television cameras.

Compared to pop stars generally, artistic celebrities are nearly invisible. Still, they loom large in the artworld imaginary. Unlike famous actors and musicians – who hone well-established forms, and garner success by pantomiming or subtly re-jigging studio-produced styles – the artist-celebrity stakes their name on radical stylistic autonomy: their ability to a ply a proprietary artistic language. Beuys’s eccentric quasi-shamanism accomplished this. So did Warhol’s transmutation of radiant, catholicized pop culture into art. But this accomplishment triggers a difficult question: how does this model of artist – a strange blend of self-obsessed entrepreneur and social critic, closely related to the self-obsessed neoliberal subject – square with the benevolent democratic potentials tacitly ascribed to contemporary art? It’s a query that could be the defining paradox of this once-avant-garde, and now increasingly status-quo form. In broaching the failures that haunt Beuys’s and Warhol’s mythologies, this film and book remind us that both of their subjects’ legacies are bound to the genesis of this problem.

Today’s MFA candidates aren’t probably thinking of Beuys and Warhol whilst constructing their personal spectacles. But the artists remain archetypes of self-construction. As they fade further into history, the stakes of their game grow higher; for would-be artists operating in the high-risk context of North American higher education, failure to cash in on one’s auteurship may mean an expedited ticket to unending debt. For everyone else, this situation likely resembles a distant conflict, playing out in a hermetic world that was never meant for them in the first place. As we contemplate our arrival here, we can read the clues provided by Veiel’s film and Als’s script: spurious stories masking deeper insecurities about who we actually are, and how we came to be this way.

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