I believe that Andy Warhol was the last true American genius. He takes his place among the others who saw America in a new and different way that was ultimately visionary and prophetic. These people are few in number but stretch back far in terms of tradition: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louis Armstrong, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name some of who I consider the key members of this elite group.
Andy Warhol takes his place alongside these other people because, like them, he had a complete and unique vision of America -- and it's one that proves truer with every passing year. It is, in a word, Pop. Long before the advent of reality television or up-to-the-second Twitter updates, Warhol envisioned a country that was paradoxically fueled by its emptiness, taking the lowest byproducts of modern mass consumer culture -- advertising imagery and endless reproductions of glamorous pop culture stars -- and elevated it to the level of high art. It was a land in which image is everything, fame is fleeting, and surface is depth. In other words, America as we know it today.
One only needs to walk into a supermarket or turn on the television to see the affects of this. Often when I go by checkout lines or newsstands, I'll think about what a shame it is that Warhol did not live to see what I can see. All over are bright magazines -- celebrity rags like Us, Life & Style, OK!, and Star -- promising up-to-the-minute "news" about the current "It" children of Hollywood, each of which are so overlapping in style and stories that they all just seem to blend into one big magazine with repeating pictures and printed on cheap paper.
Like the New York Dolls reached for a punk audience they knew must be there, Warhol seemed to sense this phenomenon, launching his own celebrity magazine, Interview, to celebrate celebrity with its trademark star-on-star interviews. Last time I checked, Interview was still going along, but it's usually kept with the "lifestyle" magazines as opposed to the celebrity weeklies. It is, for lack of a better word, quaint -- an oversized glossy magazine featuring famous stars interviewed by slightly less famous stars, one man's vision of how the national obsession with celebrity would play out in a future in which everyone becomes famous for 15 minutes.
But there is another thing that separates Interview from the celebrity weeklies: Interview usually focuses on established, glamorous stars who most can agree have some amount of talent, while the weeklies focus on the current pick-of-the-month wild child or self-destructive media whore who often does not seem to have any real talent. In fact, many of them come from reality television -- the other great media in which Warhol's vision plays out every day -- as quasi-famous people appear on disposable reality television shows (some people can remember the members of the first Real World cast, American Idol winner, and Bachelor contestant, but how many can name the second, third, or seventh?) By applying the lowest-common denominator of fame to the reality television participant (that is, that they appeared on television), the celebrity magazine and television show depend upon each other, creating an endless cycle of hype and validation that is most clearly seen on online blogs, where the magazine and television essentially become one instantly and constantly-updated beast.
The most important television shows in America today are its reality shows. I've come to believe that all of America can be measured on a scale with MTV's Jersey Shore at one end and A&E's Hoarders on the other -- young and old, beautiful and ugly, public and private, outdoor and indoor, mindless and probing, comic and tragic, naked and mad, beautiful and damned, muscular and weak, sexy and sterile, alive and dead. They are the benchmarks because they each take the hallmark of American's global identity -- mindless consumerism -- to its two logical extremes: the young and superficial scene-maker whose world proudly revolves around gym, tanning and laundry and divides their time between the beach house, the beaches, and the dance club, and the older and reclusive depressive who has spent decades literally buying everything they can, beyond the point of logic, safety, or sanitation, often in a house that is falling apart all around them. Both add up to the same effect: They are both trainwrecks -- try as you may, you cannot look away.
But perhaps even more importantly, they both are examples of one of Warhol's central maxims that surface could be depth. Describing the desired effect of his groundbreaking multimedia Up-Tight show from 1966, where the Velvet Underground played savage, avant-garde rock and roll at a deafening volume, over which Warhol would project his mind-numbingly boring films of people sleeping or sunlight slowly changing over a building, Warhol explained that "The more you look at the exact same thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel." Emptiness, he seemed to be saying, was not a sin, it was a virtue. And so the mundane became profound, and the trash became beauty.
Driving Warhol's vision was a unification of opposites similar to his emptiness-as-virtue philosophy: The notion that the very lowest culture can be the flipside of the very highest of culture. He first did this with his early Pop paintings of cartoon characters and retail catalogue imagery, which he saw through his signature silkscreen prints of celebrities, wanna-bes, and cultural icons, and even on such late-period activity like when he appeared on an episode of The Love Boat. This paradox has infiltrated virtually every part of our popular culture, from films like Pulp Fiction to television shows like Jersey Shore, musicals like Rent, and virtually the entire sweep of post-modern rock and roll music, which Warhol himself helped to ignite with the Velvet Underground (it would peak a decade later with the Sex Pistols).
But for me, nothing sums up the picture better than the whole "vintage T-shirt" craze of the late '90s and early '00s -- once the first wave of hipsters bought up the best ones in all the thrift stores, places like Urban Outfitters started making new shirts that looked vintage, and the younger hipsters didn't really care about the clothes' levels of authenticity; for them, looks were enough. Every time I walk by a sales rack in a fine clothing store with T-shirts that are made to look aged or jeans that are manufactured with holes, I think of Warhol and wonder what he would say about this.
My guess is he would have nothing to say and so he would say nothing.