Commercial Mythology: Aesthetics, Pornography and Andy Warhol

The Pop Art movement that was made famous by Andy Warhol places common, everyday objects into a new perspective. Famous are Warhol’s large paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans and his repeated screen prints that include figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao, and Coca-Cola bottles. At one point, his studio was known as The Factory and was always full of people operating in Warhol’s shadow seeking their “fifteen minutes of fame.” The Factory collectively turned out paintings, avant-garde and “found art” that tested the limits of traditional art, films and music.

The artistic environment that Warhol established and the works he produced are central to various debates, including the degree of artistic integrity the works possess. Applying James Joyce’s categories, as described in two essays in Joseph Campbell’s The Mythic Dimension, the debates are whether Warhol’s work is pornographic or static and whether it possesses integritas. The debates’ resolutions have no definitive answer because Warhol’s work is both pornographic and static. More important, however, is his role within the cultural mythos as a fringe commentator forcing us to look at our immediate surroundings in a new perspective, leaving little for granted. Because of this new perspective, the role of the mythologist is not to categorize, but, rather, to see the ecstasy in all arts.

Pornographic versus Static Art

In the essay, “Creativity” in the Mythic Dimension, Joseph Campbell describes James Joyce’s two categories of art. He writes, “Improper art moves you either with desire to possess the object or with loathing and fear to resent it and avoid it. Art that excites desire for the object he calls ‘pornographic’” (153). Campbell further notes that all advertising and art that induces desire for the object itself is pornographic. Static art, in contrast, induces feelings of ecstasy, a physiological response that coincides with a moment of mythic arrest and psychic transformation. Campbell praises static art for its ability to move the viewer.

Three conditions must be met in order for a work to induce arrest: integritas (wholeness), consonantia (harmony), and claritas (radiance) (Campbell, “Mythological Themes” 194). Integritas means that the work can be viewed as a whole, not as a conglomeration of aggregates. Consonantia is the rhythm of the work, “the relation of part to part, of each part to the whole, and the whole to each of its parts” (ibid.). Claritas is when the work stands on its own, without reference to something else or as a means of communication. One could argue that Warhol’s work meets none of these criteria; however, that argument does not look below the surface of his work. Firstly, Warhol’s work displays integritas, for, although his work is often a series of common images, the work stands on its own as a whole. Each individual component holds its own meaning, but a new meaning is derived when the components are put together. For example, each rendering of Marilyn Monroe refers to the actress, but the repetition of the Marilyns divorces her from her image, allowing viewer to experience the entire tableau. Because of the several repetitions of an object within a single work, Warhol’s work demonstrates consonantia because the parts work together to become a new entity. As I have just proposed, a single instance of an image maintains a tie to the subject of the image, in this case Marilyn Monroe. Without the synchronicity of the components or repeated images Warhol’s work would be simply photography, possessing a stronger realistic relationship with the subject matter. This leads to claritas because the works stand alone, apart from all others except other incarnations of Warhol’s.

This distinction between these two categories of art is subjective. What moves one to stasis may not move another. Similarly, one may covet the object of an accepted static work that may not have the same effect on another person. It is my opinion that the process which categorizes art is in and of itself pornographic, to use Joyce’s term, and instills in the public a mode of thinking that may not in fact be universally shared. Art categorization leads to elitism, and only those who share the opinion of the elite are considered valid and acceptable.

Warhol’s work forces us to look at common objects differently. A three-foot tall painting of a Campbell’s Soup can removes the common item from the pantry and forces us to notice the composition and the colors of the label. Were his art truly pornographic, we should see his painting of the soup can and desire to consume a serving. The change in size and dimension is Warhol’s way telling us that the soup can is significant, much like how a writer will bold, italicize, or underline a text to set it apart from the rest. It is the role of the viewer to ascertain the meaning of the art.

Warhol as Chronicler of Culture

Joseph Campbell lived and worked in New York City, on the edges of Greenwich Village, New York’s famous home to artists. He was surrounded by artists including his wife. This community lead Campbell to observe: “One of the big problems for young artists today … is that they are all terribly frustrated in the bringing forth of their art, primarily because they have studied sociology. They always think there is a moral to be pointed out, something to be communicated” (“Creativity” 153). The 2006 film, Factory Girl contrasts Andy Warhol with a social folk singer modeled after Bob Dylan, named The Musician, through the eyes of Factory Superstar Edie Sedgwick. The contrast relies on the public personae of the respective artists. According to the film, Warhol makes his art because he wants to, not because he is reacting to a higher purpose or reason. It is the most natural behavior inherent in his being. The Musician, or the other hand, believes he should use his abilities as a poet and performer to instigate social change. He represents the type of artist described by Campbell; he is frustrated by the bringing forth of his art because he is focused on the message and also by others who do not share the same belief. The film gives the impression that Warhol was more concerned with the act of making art for art’s sake, not by any higher purpose, except, perhaps, to make money.

Much is known of Warhol because he kept his life very well documented. Upon his death, his apartment proved to be a treasure trove of Warhol artifacts, including hours upon hours of personal audio recordings, recorded phone calls, almost every pair of men’s and women’s shoes he owned during his adult life, and a highly valued cookie jar collection. He was an isolated person who continued to live with his mother and to uphold his Catholic practices. Despite all the people who followed him around, he kept apart from them. He observed behavior and created art from what he saw. He also lived a lifestyle that resembled poverty, unless others paid the bill. His painted objects were limited by his lack of outward extravagance.

The documentary Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture suggests that Warhol created his art relying on different sizes, colors and repetition to place distance between him and the world. He was a fringe observer of the immediate world, preferring painting and filming to intimate contact. He knew not to take his persona too seriously, but knew how to use it to benefit from all of the social scenes in New York City. Because of these behaviors, coupled with his interest in pop culture and refusal to throw anything away, Warhol chronicled culture. He kept objects, or artifacts, that had been replaced by newer models, he painted the faces of public news figures, and he filmed all manner of person, place or thing. Some of his prints include images taken from the front pages of the newspaper. He is especially famous for his screen tests and for launching Interview magazine, both modes of collecting artifacts of public figures and celebrities, who could be forgotten upon achieving their “fifteen minutes.”

The Mythologist and Art Classification

Classifying art, as Campbell does, crosses the barriers between cultural mythos and the mythologist’s personal interests. In the paradigm of mythological studies established by Joseph Campbell, there is little room for judgment. All myths must be recognized as equal entities regardless of format, because all myth comes from the same fundamental psychological centers. It is easy to allow one’s aesthetic taste to influence one’s judgment. Andy Warhol offers a different perspective. Granted, his work does not produce the degree of religious ecstasy that works of the Renaissance are known to do. Nor does Warhol’s work induce one to consume or covet the item depicted. This does not mean that his work should be written off as simply commercial. The key to understanding art is accepting its subjectivity, which renders classification impossible. Based on Campbell’s definitions, Warhol’s work resembles both pornographic and static art. One thing is certain: he had the integrity of a true artist.

The mythologist is a chronicler of mythos. He or she unlocks the mythic artifacts of a society and places them within the context of the transcendent. Campbell wrote in an era in which all forms of myth were in upheaval, a time when the boundaries between “high” and “low” art were more clearly demarcated. The modern art movement and the collective unconscious both reacted strongly to post-war world events by drifting into new creative territories. During the 1960s, popular culture ceased to be the sole territory of teenagers and bohemians. The transition beyond the mainstream endured until all boundaries are blurred. Post-war American launched into a consumerism that knew no gender, race, creed or class. America’s consumerism, like the boundaries between “high” and “low” art, seem to be falling apart at present. This paradigm shift is gradual as each new generation comes of age, and Warhol was reacting to it. Perhaps Campbell felt the seeds of change, as is implied in The Power of Myth, but, being a member of the generation he was and being so late in life when the tides shifted, he was removed from its immediate effects. Had he been more present, he, I hope, would not have encouraged future mythologists to involve themselves in classification schema.

The arts of Andy Warhol, from screen prints to films to journalistic art, provide a new perspective toward art not considered by Joseph Campbell. Warhol took his role as artist seriously, remaining a voyeur to his surrounding micro- and macrocosms, capturing a visual chronicle of popular culture that relies on well-known or shocking images repeated in various sizes and colors. His films forced us to rethink traditional filmmaking, eliminating story lines, editing and scenery change. His magazine, Interview, asked celebrities the deeply probing personal questions that reduced them to a level of vulnerability and to the profane. His work as an artist provided distancing between the viewer and the content, while maintaining a degree of pornography. It is difficult to fully separate commercial pop art from the distinctions Campbell borrows from Joyce. No matter the times, someone will always see Warhol’s art as simply a repetitive advertisement for the content. But there are those, whether they are enthusiasts, bohemians, beats or hippies (the last three stereotyped as Warhol fans), who are moved to stasis, to aesthetic arrest, by Warhol’s work. As long as there are those who react to Warhol’s work, it will never be simply pornography. It took an artist like Warhol to engage the dialogue of pop culture and consumerism relevant to our times.

Works Cited

  • Andy Warhol: Life and Death. PBS, 2006.
  • Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture. Dir. Chris Rudley. Perf. Andy Warhol, Crispin Glover, Dennis Hopper. World of Wonder, 2002.
  • Campbell, Joseph. “Creativity.” The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987. Ed. Anthony Van Couvering. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. 151-155.
  • —. “Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art.” The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987. Ed. Anthony Van Couvering. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. 180-203.
  • Factory Girl. Dir. George Hicken Cooper. Perf. Sienna Miller, Guy Pierce, Hayden Christensen. Weinstein Company, 2006.
  • Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol. Dir. Chuck Workman. Perf. Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Sally Kirkland. Marilyn Lewis Entertainment, Ltd., 1990.

The Relevance of Disneyland

Yesterday, I found myself ready to write again. I’ve been grading grading and grading for a month. It was the first major assignment, which usually takes the longest to grade. So I thought I’d work on the nagging question: how is a study of Disneyland relevant to the Mythological Studies conversation?

I initially can come up with two such reasons. First, the work of Walt Disney and Disney Corp helped cement popular culture (and its various modalities) as the primary transmitter of American myth. I’m not sure I really have to argue that point too much, but there are plenty of sources that back this up (for example: Douglas Brode’s From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture). Second, Disneyland is a place onto which significance has been inscribed. As an immigrant culture, we have programmed our cultural psyche to lean towards a new relationship to place because we left all of our sacred places in the Old World. There have been various influxes of place significance, but our relationship to place was severely altered by the expansion West – in which place was a wide open blank slate – and the expansion upward with the growth of the Metropolis. The two came together in the 1950s with the rise of the mobile culture and the need for tourist locales, constantly at battle with each other to try to “one-up” the competition. Disneyland is one such place.

My exploration leaves me with a major missing link: Is Disneyland as relevant today as it was in 1955? 1965? Even 1970? Living in Texas and far removed from my Disney Dolly (who constantly recharges my love of Disneyland), I notice that more people in my vicinity venture to Disney World. Indeed, much of my research starts with “Disneyland was cool and it was innovative” and ends with “but it was really more of a practice for Disney World and EPCOT.” I’m intentionally not writing about Disney World because I’ve never been there, and it seems irresponsible to write about a place one has never visited.

So what is it about 2010 Disneyland that makes it so attractive? What is it about the place of Disneyland that yields a mythological experience? I’ve had said experience, but I can’t find the words to describe it. Of course, some would say that’s the point of a mythological experience: it is beyond words.