ANDY WARHOL MEETS SMALL TOWN AMERICAN VALUES
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- One has to wonder.
America, in the middle of a presidential election cycle, is wrapping itself in the flag, proclaiming its kindness and compassion and trumpeting its small-town morals and values. So why is Andy Warhol, who represents the antithesis of these values, getting such big play in a small New England town?
"Andy" fever is sweeping the good burghers of Brattleboro - the kind of unstylish people whom Warhol and his crowd held in total contempt. The reason is an art show, "Intimate & Unseen: Andy Warhol," which opens on Sept. 18 at the Museum and Art Center.
Why Brattleboro? Why now?
For complicated reasons involving a late-in-life Warhol love affair, the object-of-desire's twin brother, plus some middlemen - including one from Brattleboro - the town's tiny but elegant museum is hosting a large show of never-seen-before Warhol paintings and photographs, along with many snapshots from the artist's life.
The show should provide an extended visual rush. Warhol's work, often scorned as a triumph of self-promotion when he and his cohorts were making it, now looms quite a bit larger than life.
What were then vibrant, jewel-colored copies and pop culture rip-offs - the stealing of other people's hard-crafted iconic images - have long since become the icons themselves. Marilyn, Mao, Campbell's soup cans and the fashion and cultural leaders of the 1970s and 1980s now live vividly on the walls of museums and costly private homes. Their celebrity reinforces the value of the art, just as the art reinforces the value of their celebrity, as a clever Warhol long ago figured out. As long as these pictures sell for millions of dollars, these people, like the ones in paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt, will travel into eternity.
So it is reasonable that the town should celebrate. Before opening day, the museum is hosting an expensive preview event for its patrons. It features three parties - the last one a "Club 54 Disco" - all for a contribution of $54. For the public, here will be a film series and a lecture series. I've heard they're selling white "Andy" wigs at $6 apiece.
All of this raises one amusing problem, which is Warhol himself.
In today's world, where "values" are crucial, the values Warhol represented were these: decadence; cynicism; greed; the abuse of power; cruelty; exclusion; the worship of money and beauty; a profound love of drugs, especially methamphetamine and, later, cocaine; and wildly transgressive sexuality. These are not exactly the things you would put on the stage at a Republican convention, or expect to see celebrated in a small New England town.
I never met Warhol but as fate would have it, a long time ago I knew many of the people in his entourage. The early "superstars" I knew were the ones who were immortalized in Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," and who starred in "The Chelsea Girls." They were glamourously tacky transvestites like Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, razor-tongued speed freaks like Pope Ondine, and truly fearless women like Mary Woronow.
These people, exhibitionists all, were also actors. At the time, the early 1970s, I happened to be designing stage costumes for what is now called Off-Off-Broadway (but back then it was Off-Off-Way-Off Broadway.) So while I wasn't part of the scene, I had a front row seat.
I would be fitting dresses on the transvestites and, at their direction, padding with socks the crotches of their boyfriends' jeans, and when we were done, they would rush off to their other, wilder lives. "Let's go have sex with the bums on the Bowery," was one such cry, although whether they actually did that or just said it to see the shocked look on my face, I don't know. Probably both.
They seemed to spend a lot of their time circling Warhol like orbiting moons, longing for his approval and reflected light while giving him all of theirs. They rehearsed saying the word "fabulous" until it they could extend the syllables in just the right way- it was a kind of code word for them. I watched them display their passion, cruelty, creativity and intelligence. I benefited from their kindness. I admired both their glamour and the heartbreaking courage it took for them to go out on the street every day. I sensed their longing for some of the cultural acceptance I took for granted.
I especially admired their defiance of convention, which we badly need again today. But I also witnessed betrayals and drug overdoses. Well before AIDS, serious diseases like cancer and leukemia overtook some of them - or maybe these were early manifestations of AIDS. There were too many broken hearts, too many broken jaws and too much sadness and desperation.
I left New York in 1974. Soon after that, Warhol started wining, dining and snorting with a much more elite entertainment and fashion crowd - people who didn't need his 15 minutes of fame the way the downtown self-described "freaks" did. The drug of choice switched from speed to cocaine, and the scene went from Max's Kansas City to Studio 54, which would never have let me in.
Probably few of the Brattleboro people now celebrating Warhol would have been allowed in, either. So they're having their own party but without the cocaine spoons. And they're talking about putting Warhol wigs on schoolchildren as a way of promoting this very unlikely role model.
These days, Republicans and Democrats alike have taken stands against decadence, self-degradation, cocaine, methamphetamines and wildly transgressive sexuality.
They do, however, still support cruelty, exclusion, and the worship of money and beauty. Maybe Warhol was on to something after all.
Has Warhol's success rehabilitated his reputation? Has his dark side been eradicated, until all we're left with is a happy-face cartoon? Have his values slipped into the mainstream? Is it all about time and distance, when the only thing left is the art and not the destructiveness of the artist's life?
Brattleboro is indulging in a bit of celebrity worship, and why shouldn't it have its 15 minutes of fame, even if it is two or three decades too late?
But as I said, one has to wonder.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.