Andy Warhol Andy Warhol. Photo: Jack Mitchell / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked below article

The BBC’s Andy Warhol’s America paints a picture of an artist who latched on to an age of tumultuous events in America more by accident than design, writes Simon Duckett

The striking thing about the documentary series Andy Warhol’s America (BBC iPlayer, 2022) is how little Andy Warhol is actually in it, particularly the first two (of three) episodes. It opens with a startling sequence showing Warhol eating a burger from Burger King over the corporate slogan ‘Eat Like Andy’. Jerry Hall in voiceover explains that what made him so American as an artist was that everything was instant….and disposable – “He gave Americans what was already theirs”. (In actual fact, as the programme will show, he sold it to Americans and made a great deal of money in the process).

Next up we have Jason Bell, a ‘former NFL player, commentator and host’, eulogising about the Super Bowl, insisting that it “transcends sport” and, get this, “that the advertisements are as important as the game itself”. Following this up is the Head of Global Brand Marketing, BK (Burger King), 2019, explaining that $5,000,000 will buy you 30 seconds of advertising airtime.

What’s startling about this is that the juxtaposition of this appalling environment and Warhol eating a (very boring-looking) burger is held up as some sort of shattering cultural iconoclasm by the latter two, apparently in all seriousness.

Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola on August 6, 1928, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to working-class Slovakian immigrants to the USA and went on to forge a career in art that was to see him become an American icon of the second half of the 20th century. His mainly screen-printed pictures of objects and personalities of US culture (the Campbell’s Soup Can, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley being arguably his most famous) were to become his instantly recognisable trademark – trade being the operative word, as it would turn out.

This BBC2 documentary bills itself as a portrait of “a pioneering artist and cultural icon – and his work [as] a history of 20th-century America. A country reinventing itself”. But to what extent is this true and does it succeed?

Well, avoiding, as we must, a ‘What Is Art’ diversion in a short review and looking at the documentary itself we get the distinct impression that this was an artist increasingly in thrall to business and dollar-making. He started out as a commercial illustrator and, it could be argued, progressed little beyond that.

The most interesting episodes in the programme and indeed in Warhol’s life, take place without him. Instead, he grabs moments from these events and makes simple snapshots – screengrabs if you will – and turns them into saleable artifacts. There is no commentary, no context and no sense of anything other than vacuous reflection. Asked why he used a picture of an electric chair in one piece, he replies “Because it’s beautiful”. A brainless attendee at the subsequent exhibition says, almost to camera, “I’m dying for my husband to buy me an electric chair. A yellow one.”

Precious little time is given in the programme to dissenters from the “Warhol as genius” mythmaking peddled largely by various gallery owners and his biographer. One such, Denise Barefield-Pendleton, says of his picture snatched from a race riot in Birmingham, Alabama, that “My impression is that his intentions were strictly to generate money for [himself]. And so he decided to employ the struggles of black Americans in his artwork. Very nice.”

He would appear on TV shows then barely utter a word, sitting in front of the cameras as if inviting everybody to gaze admiringly upon the artist and wonder. On one, he brings a ‘muse’, Edie Sedgewick, on with him only to have her explain to the presenter that Warhol wasn’t going to talk to the presenter directly but whisper his answers into her ear.

At the height of his fame he drew around himself a crew of ostensibly ‘experimental’ musicians, artists and film-makers (but in reality largely a crowd of fawning intravenous amphetamine users who descended into a vicious competition to attract his attention) at The Factory before being shot by one of them, Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto, over a disputed script for a film he was thinking of making. The shooting, which he barely survived, quite understandably frightened him immensely and from that moment on he effectively abandoned any lingering attempts to be ‘avant-garde’ and concentrated on ‘bringing home the bacon’ – “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Empty (and rather reactionary) quotations abound: “Everybody has their own America. You live in your own dream America” (“You can’t get a better take than that!” gushes one commentator). Then there is this one: 

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”

Essentially, this is the McDonald’s business philosophy.

All in all, then, a portrait of an artist that is fascinating in its hideous way, painting as it does a picture of a man who, as an artist, never really rose beyond his adman origins (unlike, say, Edward Hopper), who latched on to an age of tumultuous events in America more by accident than design and managed to convince a culture that he was setting the pace rather than colliding with it accidentally and making a few bucks along the way. Great soundtrack though.

Andy Warhol’s America is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

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