The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

by Paul Mathers

Laurie and I just moved to a different part of town. There’s nothing particularly lovely about it. The houses are mid-20th century functional working class. The churches and schools are mid-20th century stucco functional working class. The businesses are all chains, but mid- to luxury working class chains. We were just out getting ice cream at a large chain ice cream shop a few blocks from our new house and I remarked on how I found this strangely comforting. Because we moved from an interesting area of town, with buildings of eclectic historical interest and so forth. Over seven years we watched it run into the ground with economic downturn, empty storefronts, unfettered indigents, and the deeply grooved scars of a culture of intoxicants as coping mechanisms. At least chain stores are going to keep up a certain standard of hygiene, even if there’s nothing particularly moving about any of them.

In the mid-1970s, Andy Warhol “wrote” a book called The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Actually what seems to have happened is that he signed a lucrative book contract and either sat down and wrote a list of topics or was simply handed a list of topics by someone else. He then walked around with a tape recorder and blurted out his thoughts on those subjects. He gave the tapes to Bob Colacello, the editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine, who typed them up. Bookended are a few longer pieces that might be long stories that Andy told, but are more likely reconstructions by Colacello. Warhol, especially in this later period, had shifted more into a brand than an artist, farming his work out to other creators and signing his name to them. He “made” movies that were filmed, written by, and acted by other people. He “made” paintings that other people constructed from silk screens. And he cashed the checks.

I should hasten to add that none of what I’m saying is meant as an indictment. If anything, I probably hold Warhol in higher regard than anyone I know does.  Also, Warhol pretty much admits to all of this in the text of this book. When you think about it, there’s nothing immoral about it if people permit it. He talks about making Business Art in this book. In essence, how is this creative structure different from you having a boss who assigns you what to do and then is rewarded for “running” your company?

The first of the longer bookend pieces of this book is a longer piece about Edie Sedgwick, which is a name that would appear on the short list of things one would like to hear Warhol speak about (and I think he covers most of that list to some extent: getting shot, the Brillo pads and soup cans, the advertising days, the sickly paperdoll-moviestars-in-bed childhood, the superstars, The Factory, the Velvet Underground, dropping names like Capote, Liz Taylor, Halston, Tennessee Williams.) There might be some disappointment to certain modern minds over some instances of less than complete honesty or full disclosure For instance, in this section, he distances himself from Edie’s drug use. In the section about sexuality, he actually tries to give reasons why he never got married.

The section about Edie is a fascinating character study of one of the most fascinating figures of that period, told by one of her closest friends at one point of her brief life, albeit unreliably. The key point I’m trying to get to is that I don’t disbelieve anything Warhol says in this section. Rather, I think there is a much fuller story to be found elsewhere.

Warhol does have this innocence that he attempts to project, but as with the rest of the material I feel as if he is expecting his audience to be in on the joke. Or at least expects the ones who are to chuckle up their sleeves with him over the ones who aren’t. He talks about his sweet tooth and how he was once laughed at by customs agents who went to search his luggage for drugs and found it full of cookies and candy. This may be true, but it does put forward the magic pixie dream Warhol, rather than a three dimensional human being. Again, this is not necessarily an indictment or even a criticism, but rather a statement about the nature of the book.

Some of the “philosophy” I found to be quite brilliant. I took away one of his personal policies for when he has to suffer through something he dislikes or doesn’t want to do. He 1) never complains while it is going on and then 2) finds a way afterward to blame someone else for forcing him to have to go through the experience. That person might make a running joke about it, but they sure as hell aren’t going to let it happen to him again on their watch. This seems like a functional piece of organizational leadership advice.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not condoning this policy. But it sure did stick with me!

In a few separate places, he mentions things that he loves about America. I was delighted at how divergent they were from the contemporary crass patriotism I hear from the Idiot Community. Warhol likes the melting pot, how you might go out and get Japanese tonight, Jamaican tomorrow, breakfast with soul food, and lunch at the Jewish deli. He thinks that people in America should mix as much as possible. He also likes how rich people and the bum on the corner (in my old neighborhood likely) all drink the same Coca-Cola purchased for the same price. Wealth can’t get you a better Coca-Cola and everyone drinks it and everyone knows that it is good. He also talks quite a bit about cleaning ladies and how he thinks the president ought to go on television scrubbing toilets. In American, class distinctions ought to blur and erase, although he is clearly not a Socialist (in spite of how the IRS targeted him for audits for the last two decades of his life).

Of course, there is a lot of lying and a lot of persona in this book. That is part of Warhol’s legacy too. He winks at the reader. He presents himself as the New York imp who grew from peddling advertising and sipping frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity 3 into the most famous living artist.

In the latter two bookends of the book, he related a very long phone conversation with a “B” (he has a recurring character of “B”. This person changes, but it never named. Essentially, it is the person Andy is talking to or hanging out with who is not Andy. Andy is “A.”) B is talking about methods of housecleaning and her ablution rituals. She is telling in what I assume was meant to be grueling detail (but I’ve just been reading Finnegans Wake, so my line is not where a normal person’s line would be on such matters). She talks about the specific cleaning products and how she applies them. There is a sort of comforting lull.

But he really tips his hand in the last section. He takes B, an affluent man this time, to go shopping at Macy’s for underwear. B is bored, but Andy berates him for his boredom. “This is life!” Life is quotidian tasks, trips to unglamorous places to buy unglamorous things. There is a sort of glamor to it if you allow yourself to look at it through these glasses. Here Andy Warhol, who could walk into any club in the world, and an anonymous “Who” are shopping for underwear. Just like you and I do. Is this true? Did Andy do this? Or did he have people he sent out to do this? Is he celebrating the mundane or making fun of it?

The actual “philosophy” might be more in line with the Epicurean or that of Aristippos through the filter of modern American captialism, but certainly with a democratic bent. I don’t think the question is so much whether or not we would, individually, adopt the “philosophy” of Andy Warhol. Rather, he is holding up a mirror to our philosophy.

And chuckling over our willingness to buy the image.