Beyond the Stars

Warholian Meta-Celebrity

How to Cite

Tata, M. A. (2004). Beyond the Stars: Warholian Meta-Celebrity. M/C Journal, 7(5).
Vol. 7 No. 5 (2004): 'fame'
Published 2004-11-01

Through Andy Warhol, much important thinking about the meanings of celebrity for a capitalist, schizoid world takes place — by Andy, by his significant others (Pat Hackett, Bob Colacello, Brigid Berlin), and by the consumers and contemplators of his works. Both a source of his own observations and a screen on which philosophies are projected, Warhol presents an unparalleled critique of celebrity. Other horizontalities, such as Madonna’s, do not generate half the heat as Warhol’s own tendril-like intrusion into so many aspects of the media machine (music, publishing, modeling, painting, film-making, writing). Exchanging competence for breadth, Warhol follows Michel de Certeau’s critique of Freud in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other perfectly: he, too, makes a “conquista” of disciplines and practices outside his sphere of competence. Warhol’s comments with respect to actress Janet Gaynor’s paintings after her May 1976 opening at Manhattan’s Wally Findlay Gallery refer both to Gaynor and himself: “‘The paintings are so bad…but I bet they go up. Look how big she signs her name. It’s like buying an autograph and then you get the flowers thrown in, right?’” (Colacello 289). Comprehending the power of branding, Warhol grants autograph primacy over “autographed.” Factoring the art market into his aesthetics, Warhol founds his definition about what counts as art upon what counts as economics. Through him, business art truly comes into its own. Contemplating art suddenly means comprehending art’s social and financial contexts as well — as when, for example, Warhol ponders the absence of a black audience for his work: “Some blacks recognized me a few times this weekend, and I’m trying to figure out what they recognize so I can somehow sell it to them, whatever it is” (Diaries, Sunday 3 July 1977).

Setting his own life up as a philosophical object, Warhol exemplifies astrophysics’ great question of how nothing can produce something. Fashion philosophe himself, he also answers fellow thinker Quentin Crisp’s important question about how “zero” becomes “one.” For both Warhol and Crisp, celebrity is founded upon the algebraic exchange of a positive quantity (fame) for a placeholding nonquantity (nonentity). In How to Have a Life-Style, Crisp traces his interest in the proliferative zero to the educative childhood lunchtime acquisition which first taught him the importance of spontaneous generation:

One day, when I was lying as naked as the Greater London Council would allow on a few planks in the “life” room of Walthamstowe College of Art, a student came and sat beside me. It did not befit my station in life to begin a conversation with her. My supposition was that she wished less to be with me than in front of the only electric heater in the place. I was amazed when she asked me if I would like some of the chocolate that formed the “afters” of her instant lunch.
I sat up at once. My limbs were galvanized, as though insulin had been pumped into my muscles, by the thought of getting something for nothing. The girl broke her slab of chocolate in two and handed me half. (3)

For Crisp, the production of celebrity from nonentity echoes other unbalanced nonexchanges; concerned with similar economic aberrances, Warhol takes a related pleasure in the freak appearance of fame. Like Crisp, he also finds himself “galvanized” by the prospect of converting the null set into the productive series. Setting himself up as a “stargazer” (Stephen Koch’s epithet), Warhol makes it his project to reflect the fame of others, while using those reflections to garner fame for himself. Becoming a surface, Warhol makes fame a question of optics.

Throughout the Diaries, we witness Warhol’s constant attention to his own appearance: “Got my live-in contacts but I can’t read or draw in them. Do they have bifocals you can wear with contacts? It’s so scary to wake up in the middle of the night and be able to see” (Tuesday 11 Aug. 1981). Normality is consistently painted in the fauve colors of the bizarre — in this quote, vision becomes a source of disorientation. Sight and unsight cross wires. Rather than facilitate the production of his art, ocular prostheses impede it — implying that he is a better artist when blind or half-sighted. Even odder is the fact that Warhol’s new contacts boost his performance as a model. That someone with so “off” an appearance should ever qualify as model material seems almost like a cruel insider joke (as in John Waters’ 1972 film Female Trouble, the repulsive is given new life as the gorgeous). Warhol had always been interested in modeling, though, as a 1968 photo shoot, “The Status Shirt Put On,” demonstrates. The caption reads: “Andy Warhol, right, garnishes velvet pants ($40, from Stone the Crows) with chains, belts and a lace-trimmed dinner shirt from Turnbull & Asser ($40, Bonwit Teller).” Situated at the confluence of status, fashion and chicanery, Warhol as putter-on emerges from his chrysalis as a model — someone meant to be looked at and emulated, a body meant to be run through the media machine and copied. As the Diaries draw to a close, Warhol’s modeling career provides him with his final cultural act: “In the morning I was preparing myself for my appearance in the fashion show Benjamin coordinated at the Tunnel. They’d sent the clothes over and I look like Liberace in them. Should I just go all the way and be the new Liberace? Snakeskin and rabbit fur. Julian Schnabel (laughs) would be so impressed he would start wearing them” (Tuesday 17 Feb. 1987).

Bob Colacello is less than kind in his analysis of Warhol as model:

Zoli did get him a couple of runway jobs and Daniela Morela put him in a L’Uomo Vogue spread jumping up and down with some other cute guys, but it was obvious that he was being used for his joke value. That October, Halston asked him to model in a Martha Graham charity fashion show as Bloomingdale’s. He didn’t appear until the end of the show, accompanied by Victor Hugo. His face was caked with makeup and he wore a voluminous royal blue taffeta smock with a big red bow around his neck. He looked like a cross between a clown and a Christmas present. Victor wore the same outfit in emerald green. As Andy minced down the runway, I could hear the ladies around me buzz. The words they used were weirdo, creep, and sissy. (442-3)

Bursting Warhol’s balloon, and probably paying him back for countless episodes of personal humiliation, Colacello points out the strangeness of Warhol’s new career choice. Like so many other classes of people (old bags, debs), models pique Andy’s curiosity by virtue of their ontological freshness. In his Diaries, Warhol expresses a keen interest in model anthropology: how this new breed of human beings and these new workers comport themselves commands attention. Their language bemuses him: “Jerry Hall came by with a Halston model named Carol, and models just all talk that baby talk, the girls and the boys — you always know you’re talking to a model” (Wednesday 8 July 1981). Like all other industry-bound jargons, model talk emerges from a concrete set of practices and concerns. All creatures from the modeling industry seem to partake of its linguistic possibilities: “Went into the kitchen for coffee in the main house. Pat Cleveland was reading her Latin books and her mind-control books…She was after Jon, showing him how to walk like you have a dime up your ass and they did that well. She talks model talk. And she plays the flute. And she does yoga. All those things” (Saturday 11 July 1981). Generically distinct from other public creatures, models have their own enunciative staples and rules for structuring an utterance. Like Martians, they have their own unique mode of communicating. Ever interested in specificity, Warhol cannot help but be intrigued by the novelty of their speech; in its simplicity and in its constant juvenilization, their language mirrors his own. Saturated with Hollywoodisms, like “up-there” or “the kids,” Warhol’s vocabulary and syntax point to the existence of other linguistic subsystems and idioms. What matters most is the existence of what de Certeau refers to as a “way of operating,” a mode of getting around.

Warhol’s fascination with celebrity species informs his own attention to his development over time. Reflecting important fashion debates of the decades he inhabits, Warhol makes his body a living record of all that transpires around it. As in Richard Avedon’s famous photograph of Warhol’s torso (Andy Warhol, Artist, New York City, 8/20/69), his body tells a story — in this instance, about Valerie Solanas’ rage and its traces. Warhol gets to know Warhol, recording his own oscillations in image: “Everyone tells me they like my hair this new way. I cut it every day. It’s almost a crewcut. Fred said I dress like the kids I hang around with now, he likes it. I guess the preppie look really is big because of the Preppie Handbook. I’m wearing all of Jed’s leftover clothes, the ones he left behind. I’m so skinny they fit me now” (Wednesday 8 July 1981). Warhol monitors his appearance with precision, never failing to provide his readers with the details of his transformation from one type to another. With almost an evolutionary sensibility, Warhol traces the development of new styles while also showing the effect they have on his own aesthetic of dressing. Inextricably immersed in time, Warhol gives in to its flows, which wash over him, carrying his body along with their currents. Similarly, he keeps meticulous track of styles of locomotion, as when, after a Twyla Tharp show, he comments: “The dancing, it’s a funny new kind of dancing, falling and tripping, and it looks like disco dancing. It looks like if you had a creative person on the disco floor, that they would do this (intermission drinks $10)” (Thursday, February 15, 1979). Using his early films, like Vinyl, to document dance styles, such as the frug, Warhol records different ways of posturing. He also documents the emergence of new social diseases: “The Donahue Show was on the flasher problem. This is a big important new problem, right? Men who flash. A wife and her husband who flashed were on, they were in the dark, and businessmen and lawyers who flashed” (Monday 28 July 1980). Within the hypermediated universe of capitalism, everything has its fifteen moments of fame, including problems. Ever the voyeur, Warhol makes note of new trends in exhibitionism, well aware that the job of the talk show is to fabricate and disseminate new fears (What do I do if my neighbor flashes me?, etc.). Fears, too, are commodities, as discussed by Barry Glossner in his The Culture of Fear. Alongside locomotionary styles and fashion creature Feynmann sums, anxieties wax and wane in popularity, produced, dissolved and eventually recycled by the media as products-of-the-week. Recognizing the new status of the media in everyday life, Warhol dedicates himself to recording its fluctuations for the purposes of fashion documentary, biography and contemplation. Positing glamour as a breakdown in the fashion system, Warhol offers a worldview in which the faux pas, the leftover and the mismatched forge an aesthetics of desperation. Warhol is the vehicle for fame. Through him, this abstract entity comes to know itself as such, realizing its possibilities through sensual and material objectification.

Author Biography

Michael Angelo Tata