4 Oct

©The Estate of Andy Warhol: All rights reserved.

In his book of philosophy Andy Warhol tells us that what makes America great is that it “started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.” The tradition? As he says: “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.” The bum drinks the same coke as the property developer, the IT mogul and the media baron. There’s no luxury coke. It’s completely democratic. The president’s coke is the same as yours.

The economist and philosopher Ludwig Von Mises believed that what distinguishes capitalism from other economic forms was “not simply mass production, but mass production to satisfy the needs of the masses”. This of course was not true not too long ago. Time was you dressed according to your station:


This, folks, is Sir Robert Dudley, you may remember him as the shifty, wishy-washy, sometime lover of Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth as played by Joseph Fiennes. Obviously a toff. A wealthy man. Even today to wear all that material you’d need a mountain of moolah. So how do the wealthy dress today?


There’s a truth in the surface of things. It’s commonplace in the modern world to enjoy a living standard even Sir Robert Dudley couldn’t dream of. Clothes no longer bestow status as they did. If you’re really rich you never go thru customs. We’re all wealthier hooray but there’s a downside. What exactly is it? Is it, as the cranky media baron in The Long Goodbye whinges, that mass-production necessitates inbuilt obsolescence? I don’t think so.

Mass-marketing deals with the masses, d’uh. You know who they are don’t you? It’s you, and me and everyone who reads this blog joined to a couple million other dots. Another dot in the crowd. A constellation of dots. To market to the masses you must sell to every dot in the crowd (or a lot of ’em). People are different so you must find what everyone has in common: one size fits all. Or sub-divided to type: a column, a peach or a pair? S, M, L, XL? We have choices: Coke or Diet Coke. Put it in a black can and call it Coke Zero; you sell it to men. The bigger the market, the blander the product. This is democratic: everyone feels comfortable in a Hungry Jacks or Coles supermarket.

Search the net for Warhol’s quotes and you’ll find quite a few quips to this effect using the old Oscar paradox: I am a deeply superficial person; if you want to understand me just look at the surface. The surface was advertising, news content and publicity stills cropped, transferred to stencil and screenprinted too quickly on purpose. Screenprint too quickly and the print smears and/or fails to register. The random permutations of something badly done makes it a unique image and lends it a rough quality that renders the everyday, well-manufactured product somehow strange.

Everyone who draws knows that chaos plays a part in it. That things happen by accident, that you get things wrong and that these errors are often the very thing that make the picture. Warhol reduced these specifications to their most elementary and produced images according to an eminently rational system of production. Henry Ford would have been proud.

Warhol was subversive in the early 60s. By his timely death in 1986 he was the Establishment. His autistic stare was ubiquitous and the mechanical hand he used was everywhere victorious. His inversion-stratagem and notions of what defines the artist and art in the age of mass consumption had been stolen by serious artists like David Bowie yes. But lest we forget the Charlatanical Hordes and their the Crown Prince Damien Hirst. Among young artists of the early 21st century Warhol is, as Robert Hughes wrote thirty years ago, “a popular role model precisely because he pointed to the line of least resistance.”

Resistance to what?

Since c.1800 or so, a resistance to something has taken place. This has been labeled often: Romanticism, bohemia, beatnik, alternative, tribal. What characterizes these art movements and styles of life is an opposition to conventional morality associated with the bourgeoisie, the capitalists, the squares. Such poses aren’t necessarily urbane or associated with the art world:


It’s not even a youth thing. Mises wrote: “What characterizes capitalism is not the bad taste of the crowds, but the fact that these crowds, made prosperous by capitalism, became ‘consumers’ of literature”. The kaleidoscope of cultural ‘resistance’ in modern world cities is not really rebellion against ‘capitalism’. It’s a resistance, perhaps, to the patronizing standardization kitsch of the advertising industry designed, like McDonald’s hamburgers, to offend no-one.

But these sub-cultures with their rituals and codes, their music and their art are only possible in the modern world of mass production. CDs, clothes, shoes, cars; all these things are made possible by mass production. In fact one can only ordain one’s self with objects that are mass-produced (mostly). Does this cause some primitive resentment? Is that perhaps why tattoos are suddenly so popular? Because they are, it’s said, entirely unique?

Have not humans always augmented their appearance to display their totem and their tribe? Does a world with so much choice really have nothing to offer? What are we resisting? Look at Andy Warhol’s rows of soup and coke bottles and money; there’s a sense of it. The standardization, the grim realization that machines do things much better than we can? But no that’s not really it any more than mass production is…

Ah forget it. Don’t name it. Just leave mass-production out of it. Leave ‘unique’ out of it. After all this is a production line object for a mass market:


“The 9th View of Mount Fuji”, 1826-33
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

This is a unique artwork.

“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, 1992
Damien Hirst 1965- )

What are you resisting again?


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