March 4, 2016

A Thriller about Warhol?! Reading Jörg Heiser’s Art and Pop Music

Jörg Heiser, chief editor of the legendary Frieze magazine, published his Magnum Opus about pop music and art. Well, at least, the book has the size of a Magnum Opus. I despaired by the sight of it and decided to limit myself to the chapter that was recommended on the cover by Oliver Koerner von Gustdorf, editor of Deutsch Bank art magazine. What a luck: that chapter turned out to be about my favorite Andy Warhol, and according to the cover text it would read as a thriller. Warhol and a thriller, could it be better?! I was very curious and this is what I found out: 

- Jörg Heiser thinks he has found out Warhol’s weak spot and, at the same time, his central characteristic: he was a “social climber” (he seems even satisfied to say that Warhol really hated it when people called him like this). There’s nothing wrong with wanting to come forward in life, but Heiser manages to tell the story in such a moralistic tone (stigmatizing) and combining it, for instance, with the way Warhol paid his employees badly (the old story of Warhol exploiting people to get to the top, whereas one could also say that he helped people to make it and do their own thing). 

- Heiser claims that Warhol’s dream was to become a mainstream star by selling anti-mainstream to the mainstream. Doing so, he implies that his ambition was what primarily drove him. When Warhol said that in the future everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, doesn’t that mean in the end nobody is a star anymore? That’s humor, but this brings me to the next point:

- Who walks with Heiser, is sure to do so on humorless paths. At the end of the chapter, he says that Warhol succeeded his dream of becoming a mainstream star, at least symbolically, by featuring in The Love Boat two years before his death. His satisfaction showed, so Heiser, in his dairy: “ ...Went to Soteby’s and they had my painting of Ten Lizzes up. Ran into a lot of old ladies who said they saw me on The Love Boat.”  This diary entry is humorous and sympathetic - Warhol at its best. But Jörg Heiser gives it such a cynical turn, it’s perverse.

- As such, Heiser interprets everything 1/1. When Paul Morrisey says that they brought Velvet Underground to the Factory for pure commercial reasons, then Jörg Heiser takes this 1/1 as an argument for Warhol’s social climbing ambitions. Haha, Velvet Underground for commercial reasons! 

- Heiser likes to make assumptions and then claims them to be truths. Take the following statement: “Schon im Bezug auf Hollywood hatte Warhol ein großes, wenn nicht zu großes Vertrauen in die Bereitschaft des Mainstreams gesetzt, glamouröse Negationen von Mainstream-Formen zu umarmen und als solche zu popularisieren.” (Already in relation to Hollywood Warhol had a big, if not a too big trust in the willingness of mainstream, to embrace glamorous negations of mainstream forms and as such, popularize them.”)  Why doesn’t Heiser say that Warhol never made compromises, not even with Hollywood? Instead he prefers to say that Warhol failed his dream to become a mainstream star.

- Heiser gives out poisoned compliments: “Warhol kam mit seinem Mainstream-Hoffnungen ökonomisch mindestens zehn, eher dreißig Jahre zu früh. Er wollte anti-mainstream an den Mainstream verkaufen.”  (Warhol was 10 to 30 years too early with his mainstream hopes. He wanted to sell anti-mainstream to the mainstream.”) Yet, Warhol was well aware of how to sell anti-mainstream to the mainstream, he saw others do it. Let me quote Warhol: “The way to be counterculture and have commercial success was to say and do radical things in a conservative format. Like have a well-choreographed, well-scored, anti-establishment “hippie-be-in” in a well ventilated well located theatre.”

PS: Leafing through the rest of the book, it’s clear that Heiser tries his best to be aware of gender issues. It might be, of course, that somebody else read through it just to gender police the whole thing. But Heiser himself has an all male band called La Stampa, with art people Jan Verwoert, Thomas Hug and Jons Vukoren, which might have made him conscious there is an issue in music. And as an art critic he might also be aware since it's still a profession where your voice is taken more seriously if it’s a male, white and heterosexual one. But no matter how hard Heiser tries his best to be gender conscious, in praxis he tends to fail at moments. In the John Lennon and Yoko Ono chapter he explains thoroughly how Lennon took on a “traditional female role” when he decided to stay home for his kid. But strangely enough, by stating it like this and giving it such emphasis, he reproduces the stereotype. The same in the Andy Warhol chapter, where he states that Warhol didn’t take drugs or alcohol, but the “amphetaminhältige Schlankheitspille Obetrol als typisches Hausfraukick.” (“amphetamine slimming pill as typical housewife kick”). Here he stereotypes Obetrol as a “female” (“housewife”!) drugs, whereas the other drugs like heroin must then be the male ones? Implicitly, without noticing, Heiser reproduces sexist and homophobe patterns, saying Warhol is of course taking the “female” drugs.

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