Warhol & LF


From a reader:

Dear Mr. Goldberg,

Jed Perl has a piece out now, (“Mao Crazy”), in which he shows how the coming orgy orgy of cultural activities and artistic extravaganzas surrounding the Beijing Olympics will be a giant exercise in CCP propaganda. In it are the below paragraphs, in which I think Perl stumbles on an iteration of LF’s themes on which you didn’t quite touch on (though, in light of your recent post on the LF blog, maybe some of this is sitting on the cutting-room floor.)

So what is going on here? To answer this question, we need to go back to Warhol, who first made Mao a hot topic in contemporary Western art. What precisely Warhol had in mind when he painted the chairman is difficult to say, since Warhol was never anything but tongue-in-cheek. In the catalogue (there is a Mao portrait on the cover) of an enormous show of Warhol’s late work, mounted by Larry Gagosian in 2006 and called “Cast a Cold Eye,” Vincent Fremont, one of the inner circle at the Factory in the 1970s, recalls the beginnings of Andy’s Maos. “The original idea,” he explains, “was to paint a portrait of someone who was a global icon and major influence on people’s lives. Andy chose Mao because in China alone a billion people gazed upon his face. Andy used the most common image of the Chairman, the frontispiece from the Little Red Book. The resulting Mao series was the most important group of paintings since Elvis, Marilyn, and Liz.”

The way Fremont tells the story, Mao is Marilyn, only more so. The terms “icon” and “global icon” are nowadays tossed around with slapdash glee, so it is important to make a basic distinction. It was the moviegoing public that made Marilyn Monroe an icon, because they responded to her beauty, her charm, her wit. The people who hang posters of Marilyn on their walls do so because they like her. It’s that simple. But the omnipresence of Mao’s image has an altogether different origin. While Leftists in the United States in the late 1960s may have gladly chosen to hang Mao’s portrait on their walls, among the billion Chinese who were sure to have his portrait in their homes and in their workplaces, it was understood that they would have endangered their own safety if they did not put his portrait where Mao wanted it to be. There is a world of difference between an icon freely chosen and an icon imposed from above, and the difference has more than a little to do with the difference between a liberal society and an authoritarian society. Warhol’s way of blurring this distinction leads straight to the political pornography that characterizes so much of the new Chinese art.

The distinction was not lost on Warhol. According to one of the umpteen books on him that has appeared in recent years, Warhol “often stated that his goal was to obtain the patronage of a dictator, who would then mandate that Warhol’s portrait be placed in every governmental office, school, and so on, ensuring the artist unlimited financial opportunities.” Was Warhol kidding when he fantasized about being a dictator’s court painter? To some degree, of course, he must have been. But then again the fascination of Warhol’s work was based on a confusion or conflation of a number of different kinds of power, beginning with the power of celebrity and the power of advertising and the power of art. In the early 1970s he added to that incendiary but still somewhat benign mix another element: the power of communist propaganda. That was the point at which his work turned foul. Warhol’s Maos–as well as the Hammer and Sickle still lifes from later in the 1970s and the Lenin portraits of the 1980s–bring his own mercenary spin to a Western love affair with the certitudes of absolutist politics that dates back to the 1920s and 1930s. That was when some members of the European and American intelligentsia decided that the bombastic images of healthy working men and women coming first out of Russia and then out of Nazi Germany offered a relief from the intricacies of modern art. After all, there is nothing less intricate than a painting by Andy Warhol.

The impact that totalitarian imagery can have on free people is an enduring problem. Susan Sontag’s essay on the subject, “Fascinating Fascism,” was published two years after Warhol began to paint Mao. She could just as well have been thinking of Warhol’s Maos, and more generally of the leftist infatuation with the iconography of the Cultural Revolution, when she remarked that the sophisticated public was beginning “to look at Nazi art with knowing and sniggering detachment, as a form of Pop Art.” Sontag, who never liked to get too far ahead of her audience, was aware that her readership had still not quite outlived its infatuation with the Maoist look. But she made an important point when she observed that there is a difference between appreciating the peculiar power of a certain kind of totalitarian imagery and going right ahead and succumbing to that power.
There is a conundrum here. And it is the subject of a brilliant little book by Saul Friedlander, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, which appeared in 1982. “Attention,” Friedlander wrote, “has gradually shifted from the reevocation of Nazism as such, from the horror and the pain–even if muted by time and transformed into subdued grief and endless meditation–to voluptuous anguish and ravishing images, images one would like to see going on forever…. In the midst of meditation rises a suspicion of complacency. Some kind of limit has been overstepped and uneasiness appears.” There is a point, Friedlander is telling us, at which contemplation drifts into romanticization and even obfuscation. I think this rather neatly describes the allure of Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings of families in the grip of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang has transformed the horror of their lives into greeting-card kitsch. He has reduced historic catastrophe to those big, black, cartoonish, deer-caught-in- the-headlights eyes.
By aestheticizing historic catastrophe, the art world’s unholy synthesis of Maoism and kitsch enables people to blur their own memories. Perhaps this is why the work has such a mighty appeal among Asian collectors, some of whom are surely as intimately acquainted with the worst calamities of the Maoist years as many Jews are with the horrors of the Final Solution. At a time when fewer and fewer people want to confront the dark side of China’s authoritarian version of Western-style capitalism, it probably comes as a relief to find artists who are drawing a curtain across the uglier aspects of a regime whose lineage goes straight back to Mao. If there is something new about the new Chinese art, it is the extent to which the old modernist fascination with irony and ambiguity has become a way of spreading disinformation about Mao and his legacy.

Wouldn’t it be true to say that an important cultural marker of the 1960s fascist moment was the explosive popularity of Warholian aesthetics (his fascination with power, bombast, and mass-art.) Perl (not to mention Susan Sontag writing contemporaeously) is convincing about the idea of Warhol as the artistic godfather of the lefty, pop-art fetishizing of recent fascists like Mao and Che (which is how we got to the point where Che’s likeness is ubiquitously “cool”.) The new Chinese artists Perl critiques here are following in the Warholian tradition, only it seems like they’re pretty serious about apologizing for / defending the Chinese state’s atrocities. The coming Olympics media circus could be “chock-a-block” with F-watch-worthy items.


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