I'll Be Your Mirror

Andy Warhol found an artistic vision that not only inspired and excited him but was also accessible to the public. Although he stated, in a famous quote that has varying versions, "If you want to understand me or my art, look at the surface -- it's all there," it's not quite as simple as all that. It is impossible for a creative person to work in a void -- no work is all on the surface, period. The materials speak. The place the art is displayed tells us things. The sponsors of the exhibit communicate their goals to us, and the artwork is seen in their light. The title can be a veritable Rosetta stone. Even the price conveys relevant cultural content. If art is a mirror, it is one that reflects our whole society.

Warhol knew exactly what historic and visual context he was working in. He painted like the product of a consumer society, consciously embracing his own background. The artwork functions on many levels -- the visual, the conceptual, the historical, as social commentary -- and no matter how familiar you are with the art world, there is something in it that provokes a reaction. You might feel moral aversion to the superficiality and artifice he portrayed so truthfully. You might embrace its portrayal of the mass-production aesthetic, in an Ayn Rand-style celebration of manufacturing and the glory of human achievement. Maybe you respect his egalitarian willingness to offer the public exactly what it wanted, his refusal to hew to exclusionary ideals. Maybe you suspect on some level you're being made fun of, which pisses you off. Maybe you're just glad there's arty stuff to look at that you can understand right away and not feel foolish about. Maybe you like the bright, pretty colors (or maybe you don't). Whatever your reaction, the work gives you an opportunity to look and think and learn. That's one of the real beauties of art.

Lessons From the Factory: How an Art Scene is Made

So what lessons can artists take from Warhol's phenomenal success? One of my fondest wishes is to see all of Austin's creative community grow and achieve a higher level of recognition and success, and to that end I offer these lessons from the Factory.

We can become better promoters. Warhol was an accomplished promoter of himself. A successful businessman, born of hardworking immigrants in a factory town, he understood the power of the media to reach people and consciously used the techniques of publicity to achieve clearly thought-out goals.

We can work harder and embrace the activity around us as inspiration. Warhol kept himself immersed in a creative, high-energy environment and used the energy that gave him to be more productive as an artist.

We can develop a creative network. Warhol offered opportunities to many of the creative people around him, sharing the resources he had in knowledge that his success would only be enhanced by doing so. By using his talents to foment a social circle that everyone wanted to be part of, he helped himself and other artists at the same time.

We can sometimes achieve greater things by working with others. Warhol placed emphasis on concept over craft, refusing to accept mental barriers to what would make him more productive. He collaborated with the best printers for the particular job he had in mind. This is particularly applicable to artists who are interested in doing public art projects. To achieve really big things, sometimes you have to let go of mixing the cement yourself and cooperate with skilled craftspeople. Renaissance artists did it. Andy did it. We can, too.

We can forgive ourselves for being born imperfect and dedicate ourselves to achieving success despite that imperfection. We all screw up and embarrass ourselves sometimes. Not everybody is cute or is born with good fashion sense. It's part of the human condition. Warhol was born a poor child of immigrants, was a shy misfit, was rejected by peers. He overcame great obstacles and became a success. It can be done. We have proof.

Go ahead: Make a scene.

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More by Jacqueline May
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'Learning from Local Artists'

April 14, 2006

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'Lens: George Krause + Sean Perry'
The exhibition of photographs George Krause and Sean Perry at D Berman Gallery explores a spiritual territory within the pragmatic

Sept. 2, 2005

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