November 6, 2012 1:54 PM
Train entering the center, I lost myself and never came back
Took a trip around the world and never came back
You might think I’m frivolous, uncaring and cold
You might think I’m frivolous, depends on your point of view
I left my old life behind me and never went back
My old life’s disappearing from view
Only heart to see me through
I was forever changed
Songs for Drella
Media historian Marshall McLuhan noted old technology becomes art. The genius of Andy Warhol was he took contemporary technology, and maybe more significantly the processes of contemporary technology, specifically mass production, and made it art. At its inception and simultaneously its height, Warhol’s art was maliciously dubbed “Pop” — light, ephemeral, of little weight — thus it would certainly no doubt be humorous to Warhol to find his art has mutated to become the foundation of American politics. Pop politics is reaching its most ephemeral and empty in the election of 2012.
The methods Warhol developed in the early 1960s were to use photographs — images — a century old technology, having at that time become a process of mass production. He would paint colors on a canvas, then transfer via silkscreen the image on top of the painted canvas. This process allowed a repetition of production, a mass production of art mimicking the ubiquitous mass production society.
Warhol’s art and technique, he perceived correctly, had a democratic element. Warhol observed the products of mass production had a democratic content. He stated, “Everyone drinks the exact same coke, no matter how much money you have.” Obviously, there is a certain egalitarian reality to this, yet industrial mass production could never be separated from the very unequal processes of labor, management, and wealth, which have become even more glaringly unequal over the last half-century. And importantly, the creator, in this case Andy Warhol, has the real power.
Warhol saw a society immersed in mass produced images and asked what did that mean for society? One of the most degenerate answers was in an era of mass produced images, fame itself was mechanistic, the simple obscenely abundant reproduction of an image, maybe with slightly different colors for flavor. This gets to the problem that while mass production has a certain egalitarianism in the final product, the mass produced image has tremendously anti-democratic connotations and components, especially when it becomes the exclusive medium for conducting politics. This construct of art, with the image at its core, would prove particularly problematic when adopted wholesale by American politics.
Again what Warhol missed in his democratic assessment of mass culture, is it is created by someone, in his case the artist. The professional political image maker, absolutely no artist, each election silkscreens the same image, dabbling it with a few drab colors. The image is than repeated, in this election tens of thousands of times, in an attempt to leave a good or bad impression. The citizen becomes manipulated consumer. In a democracy, it is the citizen who must participate in the creation of politics, today the American citizen has no ability to do so, only an ability to react, once every two or four years to the ephemeral empty images before them. With the mass produced political image comes a hollowing out of politics itself, no content only impression.
The image is the antithesis of any sort of politics of meaning, which requires a knowledge of the past, present, and future. Today, we have Pop Politics, the images themselves lasting little beyond election night. The citizenry with little knowledge of past or future are incapable of meaningful participation or of abstract views necessary to initiate reform. Warhol created his art at the height of American industrialism. Our Pop Politics rule at the dusk of American industrialism.
Nascent media offer possibilities for a revival of the art self-government, starting with the citizen.
Propaganda ends where dialog begins. — Marshall McLuhan