The thing about a con man is that there is an aura surrounding him, which is this: he knows all the angles. He has everything figured out. He is privy to facts that you are not privy to. Because the essence of the con is confidence. He has it and you don’t. And he has it, it is implied, because he has information, juice, celebrity, access, power that you don’t have.
The truth, of course, is that he doesn’t have any of those things. What he does have, is some very specific understanding of some very specific angles of what is plausible, and what he also has is a highly developed skill at certain tricks and tactics that can box you into those angles, until you can only reach the conclusions he has already reached for you. So he wins.
No artist understood this better than Andy Warhol.
He understood it about the commercial illustration world of the 1950s, the high art world of the 1960s, the middle class industrial immigrant world of Depression-era Pittsburgh, and the celebrity world of the 1970s, which is the Warhol we have here in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. He understood it in the way that only a true outsider can, because he had observed it being worked on others and then being worked upon himself and had enough of that double sight to see its strengths and weaknesses and beauty and tragedy and machinery.
And he understood that, at least for his lifetime, the con was the central theme of American culture. Which meant if he was going to be an artist, he had to address it in his work. Now, he could address it as say, Ben Shahn addressed it, by focusing on the politics of it and transforming the actors of the cons into grotesques. Or he could address it as a Rothko or Pollock did, by subsuming it in brilliant abstractions.
But instead, Warhol addressed it by letting his work swim freely in it. Creating an art that always left people wondering if they were being tricked, even as they bought it, even as they posed for it, even as they courted him and his coterie at The Factory, at Studio 54, around the world.
And let us be clear about two things. First, we are not condemning Warhol. We are great admirers of his. We think he is one of the greatest American artists. We think his insights and understanding of America are stunning and original and profound – and we find them in his paintings, his movies, his writings, and his interviews. But an artist can only work with the tools he is given, and the most important tool is the culture he lives in. It is as much a tool for him as oils or marble or the players who strut and fret their hour upon the stage – or even the words on a digital page. Because the culture is both the context and the subject of the art. And the art is at once the expression of the culture and that which holds a mirror up for others to see it for what it is.
And second, a con is not a lie. Lies are fables, fantasies, bullshit. A con is truth used in the service of some sort of ulterior gain. (Do you see why this is the culture of post-war America? Do you see why a site about advertising would be fascinated by Warhol?) A con uses truth, it is not opposed to truth. And Warhol knew that, which is why even a book as marginal as this one (and it is marginal, certainly when compared to the later work Popism) is filled with brilliant truths. Because it has to be. Because cons are. Because America is. Truths like:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think you can drink Coke too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
And this, about art:
’No’, I said ‘It’s not new art. You don’t know it’s new. You don’t know what it is. It doesn’t become new until about ten years later, because then it looks new.’
During the 60s, I think people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don’t think they’ve ever remembered.
And even this:
Drag queens are reminders that some stars still aren’t just like you and me.
Truths, because without them the con falls apart.
And a con The Philosophy of Any Warhol is, from the title (if you came here looking for a clearly articulated doctrine, you will be disappointed), all the way down to the book’s very composition. Warhol didn’t write this. The book was compiled by Pat Hackett and Bob Colacello and Bridget Berlin from tape recordings Andy made, and from the occasional phone conversation he had with them. It was spoken by him, then curated, edited, organized and compiled by them – and published under his name during his lifetime.
Which begs the question: if The Philosophy of Any Warhol is a con, and if Warhol was an artist who worked in the culture of the con, then is the book art?
And the answer is: who knows? Because the con is an art which can never be admitted to. For as Paul Newman told us in “The Sting” (which came out about the same time as this book): “The mark can’t ever know he’s been took”.
And we, ladies and gentlemen, are always the mark.
The Philosophy of Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol was published by Harvest Books on 04/06/1977 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).