John Frame: The Intuitive

"Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together"


- John Ruskin


On the opening day of "Three Fragments of a Lost Tale: Sculpture and Story by John Frame," on view through June 20th at the Huntington Museum and Gardens, I emerged from the darkly lit Boone Gallery into the bookstore to find a nicely dressed older woman looking at me expectantly. "Are YOU the artist?" she asked.

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Artist John Frame Installing Characters from his "Lost Tale" at the Huntington Library
Photo: Carey Haskell


I told her I wasn't, and then pointed her towards Frame, who was outside, chatting with a few friends. If I hadn't already been introduced to Frame I probably would have also been scanning the crowd wondering "where is the artist?" The most striking thing about John Frame is that he doesn't have any of the tics, eccentricities or affectations that often mark artistic personalities. He fit right into the crowd.

An amiable man with handsome, patrician features, Frame could have passed for a San Marino attorney previewing the show, or perhaps an Occidental professor there for the white wine. Relaxed in conversation, and more interested in others than he is in himself, Frame comes across as man who is utterly comfortable in his skin. That is where it gets interesting.

Frame's ability to negotiate the real world -- the outside world -- is the flip side of his mastery of his own inner universe. Inside the Huntington's Boone Gallery are 35 completed characters, multiple sets and a working theatrical stage that have been hewn from Frame's imagination over the past five years. Committed to the idea that intuition is to always be respected, the artist's images are things that he guides into being without asking just what they are. The results are challengingly mysterious, and the approach leaves Frame utterly at peace with himself.

"I have to follow the lead of the work," he says.

"I think of Frame as a sort of mystic," says his friend, painter Jon Swihart. Frame's exhibition, says Swihart, is "...so ethereal, haunting and captivating, that while viewing it, I had the sense that nothing of the outside world mattered."

John Frame has been making sculpture in Southern California since the early 1980s, and has been taking his time in letting his ideas and methods evolve. "I'm 60," he comments, "and considering the alternative, not bothered by it."

Frame left Los Angeles in 2001 and re-settled in Wrightwood where he found a certain distance and quiet he had been craving. "I have a very removed life by today's standards," he says. In Wrightwood Frame busied himself with a number of commissions that needed finishing. He was also very involved in preparing for a retrospective being planned by the Long Beach Museum of Art; "Enigma Variations: The Sculpture of John Frame, 1980 to 2005."

The Long Beach show was a big moment for Frame, and also a kind of hinge. When it was over some Frame found himself artistically stuck until he sat up in bed one night at 2 AM, jolted awake by the idea of having his figures move. "It came as a single download," Frame told the LA Times. "It was all the characters, it was dialogue, it was sets, it was plot, it was story line -- everything, it was all there."

Dr. Jessica Todd Smith, the Huntington's Chief Curator of American Art, had seen the Long Beach show in 2005 and felt a connection to the work. Frame, in turn has long been fascinated by the Huntington's rare holdings of works by the English poet and visionary William Blake (1757-1827). When Frame made an exhibition proposal to Smith and her colleague John Murdoch in 2008 -- which included not only sculpted figures, but stop-motion film in which they came to life -- everything clicked.

"It made perfect sense," says Smith. To celebrate Frame's affection for William Blake, Smith also arranged for a show that runs concurrently: "Born to Endless Night: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame." Presented in the Works on Paper Room of the Huntington Art Gallery, "Endless Night" -- for which Frame wrote the exhibition labels -- provides fresh insights about Blake, and also about just what Frame admires in his works.

"Through imagination," writes Frame about Blake, " he believed you accessed the Divine; in the act of creation you realized your purpose as a human being." Commenting on one Blake painting, "Hecate or the Night of Enitharmon's Joy", Frame notes: "...the symbolism remains completely mysterious to me, and is richer because of that mystery."

That quote says something about Blake, but it may say even more about Frame. He hangs on to mystery, and the richness it evokes, as best he can. "He has a deep reluctance to be too literal," says Jessica Smith.

In order to develop a checklist for "Three Fragments," Frame had to be prodded into naming some of his characters. "We curators are bean counters," Smith says self-deprecatingly. Still, out of respect for Frame's artistic process the figures on display at the Huntington have no individual labels. That seems fitting, since the exhibition represents a way station on an artistic journey of indeterminate length and destination.

The cast of his films is enchantingly odd. Many of the figures have features resembling those of wooden marionettes or dilapidated toys. Some are recognizably human, some are animal/human hybrids. When I asked Frame about his aesthetic influences, I was interested to find that many of them were literary:

"The most important things that have affected me long-term, aside from the writings of Shakespeare, are the works of other great authors like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Emily Dickinson. The filmmakers Bergman, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, and Fellini radically transformed my world when I was younger. It has probably been classical music, however, that most consistently fed me over the last 20 years or so."


I also asked Frame if there was anything in his upbringing that might have played a role in cultivating such an expansive imaginative range:


Grew up in a fairly backward Southern California household. My Texas-born father had only a third grade education and worked for the Santa Fe Railroad as a sheet metal guy. Not too much sticks out that would be very interesting. Went to work on the local dairy farm at 15 and have been working ever since. Moved 38 times between leaving my childhood home and the house we now live in.


One of Frame's motivations seems to be reclaiming the authenticity of the individual imagination. Among other things, it is a personal spiritual quest -- this is something he has in common with William Blake -- and he has an attraction to spiritual images that are untainted by religious orthodoxies.

For that reason, there is more than a hint of the occult in some of the rites, rituals and passages that have begun to appear in his films. One woman who visited the Huntington show later told Frame that she detected "...themes of seeking and seeing, burden, loss, damage, madness, wholeness, enlightenment, inhumanity, cycles, rebirth, controlled and controller - just to name a few."

Working in his 500 square foot Wrightwood studio, Frame carves, assembles, animates and even writes the scores for his developing films. John's wife Laura has contributed a great deal of sewing, and moral support for her husband's project. "My family is the best thing about my life," says Frame.

His youngest daughter Lily is a classical harpist who helps out with sewing and embroidery. Her husband, Johnny Coffeen edits Frame's films and created a short documentary about Frame's project which can be viewed at the Huntington. Ashley, his middle daughter, is a teacher and photographer who shot some of the images in the Huntington catalog and is credited "Ashley Fennell". Katherine, Frame's oldest daughter, is a speech pathologist and freelance editor. She reviewed and made changes to all of the text relating to the project including the catalog and the text panels currently on view with the Blake exhibition.




Devoting himself to film has created a few new, unique problems. One of the practical ones is that Frame, who has in the past supported himself by selling sculpture, has created a body of work that can't be sold. Fortunately, some of the photos he has taken of his cast are themselves works of art -- a selection of them are on view at the Huntington -- and the proceeds from the sale of photo editions will hopefully keep the lights on in Frame's studio.

When I asked Frame about any possible Hollywood connections, he was very reticent: Frame won't be the next Tim Burton anytime soon. Frame's primary responsibility is to his intuition, and to the world of images that it continues to conjure up. Whatever happens next, commercially, professionally and artistically, Frame will have to follow the lead of intuition, his muse.

"Like all truly great artists," comments Jon Swihart, " John has become so creatively empowered by inspiration that his work transcends what mere human intellect is capable of."

"My sense is that we are somewhere in mid-stream," Frame says of his ongoing project. "From the very beginning, it has been a gift."

Why I Won't be Joining the Huffington Post Blogger's Strike



John Seed: HuffingtonPost Arts Blogger, at MOCA, March 11, 2011

Here is the short version: I am a Huffington Post blogger who has no intention of joining any strike against the Huffington Post.

Now, if you have a lot of extra time on your hands, here is the long version.

On February 7th I opened my email box to find an email from Arianna Huffington, the first I have ever received from her. The email announced that the Huffington Post had been purchased by AOL (America Online) which Ms. Huffington felt was "very exciting news." She went on to say this about the important role played by bloggers for the Huffington Post:

"Central to all of this will be the kind of fresh, insightful, and influential takes on the issues of the day that you and the rest of our bloggers regularly deliver. Our bloggers have always been a very big part of HuffPost’s identity – and will continue to be a very big part of who we are."

As news of the merger spread, the issue of the HuffPost's reliance on unpaid bloggers heated up quickly: the $315 million dollar purchase price brought the subject of money to the forefront. I woke up on February 9th to read an opinion piece by Tim Rutten of the LA Times which opened with this caustic statement:

"To grasp the Huffington Post's business model, picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates."

Rutten's commentary was blistering -- he characterized the merger as bad for journalism and for readers -- but he did say something I agreed with about the role of bloggers:

"The bulk of the site's content is provided by commentators, who work for nothing other than the opportunity to champion causes or ideas to which they're devoted."

For almost a year now I have been an unpaid blogger for the HuffingtonPost Arts section which opened in April of 2010. After reading Rutten's piece I spend the rest of the day wondering "Am I really a galley slave?" I took the insult pretty seriously.

I am very proud of my blogging and have never expected monetary compensation. What Rutten's view seemed to imply was that I and other bloggers had been "had." We were idealistic dupes who had played a subservient role in helping make a rich, crafty lady and her investors richer than before. My personal view, which Rutten challenged, was that after 10 years of writing about art I now had an audience and a platform.

At few weeks later, I became aware of the concerns and actions of Bill Lasarow, the publisher of visualartsource and ArtScene who declared a strike against the HuffingtonPost on February 26th.

When an LA Times Opinion blog, sympathetic to the strike, appeared on March 3rd, the galley slave comparison was recycled:

"One such galley slave has had it. Bill Lasarow, publisher of ArtScene and Visual Art Source, has formed a group and set out some demands."

Its is important to note the Mr. Lasarow is a publisher, and that he pays arts writers for content. He and his writers had initially agreed to provide free content to the Huffington Post Arts section, but the merger had led to a re-evaluation. Lasarow was now asking for a pay schedule and also that promotional material not be posted alongside editorial content.

After reading the piece, I reacted and left a comment:

"...blogging for free means that you write what you want the way you want without editors or advertisers exerting pressure, and without deadlines. One of the reasons that the Huffington Post is so dynamic is that it is a paradise for writers who are motivated by their passions and not by a paycheck."

Not long afterward I got my first email from Bill Lasarow. It was a "strike update" and it was followed a few days later by another email urging me to join the strike. It also contained a link to statement of support for the strike offered by the Newspaper Guild.

"The Newspaper Guild is calling on unpaid writers of the Huffington Post to withhold their work in support of a strike launched by Visual Art Source in response to the company's unfair labor practices. In addition, we are asking that our members and all supporters of fair and equitable compensation for journalists join us in shining a light on the unprofessional and unethical practices of this company."

After sending Bill Lasarow an email to let him know that I was going to think over the issues he raised I posted a link to the Newspaper Guild's statement on my Facebook profile and asked my friends point blank: should I join the strike?

More than a dozen people, all of them readers of my blog, responded. Not a single one gave me a simple unqualified "no." At least one called the situation a "tough call." I got a number of "yes" responses, even one "resounding YES." A painter whose work had recently appeared in my blog told me "Respect the line."

The characterization of what was happening as a "strike" was very compelling for many, even thought the picket line was virtual. One friend put it this way:

"Personally, I would never cross a picket line to work, nor would I patronize a business that has a picket line of striking workers. It's a matter of principle and upbringing."

"You must decide," urged one friend. "Follow your heart," said another. As the discussion gained momentum, there was a slight change in tone.

"But should everyone who has ever contributed to a crowd-sourced site be paid? The regular contributors of Wikipedia? People who live-tweet events? You knew from the get-go that this was a volunteer gig, and in exchange you found a wider audience with whom to share your passions."

I began to realize that the whole notion of a "strike" was problematic. If a person stopped providing free content for a website, was that a strike?

Free content is all over the internet: in some sense when you post your opinion or a photo on Facebook, that is free content that helps support a corporation. The web is changing things. A paradigm shift is taking place. Then a friend made this observation:

"It's a job action, a work stoppage, but you're not striking."

At that moment, something changed for me. What Bill Lasarow had proposed, and what the Newspaper Guild was supporting was not a strike. Think about it: can there be a strike when there are no contracts, no wages, and no fixed job duties at stake? He was asking that a contract and compensation be established, and that isn't quite the same thing.

It also began to strike me that calling the Huffington Post a "newspaper" was a bit off the mark. Yes, the Huffington Post calls itself "The Internet Newspaper" at at the heart of the HuffPost there is indeed a newspaper structure, with paid editors and reporters. But what makes the site so varied, dazzling, frustrating, wonderful and progressive is sea of blogs floating around the news content. The Huffington Post is a hybrid, and I don't know if there is a word yet that can describe just what it is.

In some ways, the Huffington Post is like Hyde Park in London. It is a piece of prime real estate with a "Speaker's Corner" where bloggers get to jump on a podium and speak their mind. The Huffington Post offers us a crowd, and the advertisers are virtual snack vendors gathering around the edges of it all. And yes, the property owner -- AOL/Huffington Post -- will be making some money as well.

By blogging for free, am I really taking away work that should be given to paid journalists? In general, I think I am not. My blogs often deal with topics that no art magazine editor or news editor would pay for. For example, can anyone point me to a newspaper that would have paid me for my blog "Selling Iowa's Pollock Mural: A Zen Buddhist Perspective." I doubt that the Huffington Post made much money on my last blog, on artist William Leavitt. It was shared on Facebook one time, tweeted four times, and received no comments.

Yes, some of my blogs are more conventional, but considering their quantity, and their willful quirkiness, I am lucky to have them published at all. I wonder what revenue the Huffington Post has earned on the ad revenue earned by all my blog posts over the past 10 months? Nate Silver of the New York Times ran some numbers in his article "The Economics of Blogging and The Huffington Post" and concluded that the median HuffPost blog post generates between 3 and 4 dollars in revenue.

That means that over the past 11 months my 41 blogs posts have theoretically earned between $123 and $164 for the site. If I were to claim half of that, my annual salary as a blogger would be about $75. Then again, I wonder how many of my blogs made the "median" and were read several hundred times?

Let's say that somehow, the "work stoppage" or whatever it is has an effect. If the Huffington Post does begin to pay bloggers will it keep all 9,000 of us? A successful "strike" might mean some tough business decisions would be needed on the part of the HuffPost.

I can envision a scenario in which a few hundred popular bloggers would become be retained, earn 10 bucks a blog and feel the pressure to produce lots of web traffic. The one arts blogger who I think they definitely keep would be Mat Gleason who got over 800 comments on his blog "The Ten Most Overrated Artists in Art History."

Paid bloggers would mean a whole new Huffington Post. Editors would need to urge bloggers to take on popular and/or controversial topics, and "non-performing" blogs -- like so many of mine -- would no longer make the grade. Or, another way they could go would be to post more and more bikini slideshows to subsidize the weaker blogs.

The more I thought through the issues, the more I realized that there was no need for me to join any "strike." Bill Lasarow is a publisher and a businessman, and I wish him success in finding the revenue he needs for his business model. His enemy isn't Arianna Huffington: it is the internet, which has changed everything about news, content and publishing. She and her investors figured out which way things are going, and made some brilliant moves ahead of the pack.

I blog out of passion, vanity, and a need to process and the need to keep my mind active. If I wasn't on Huffington Post I would still be posting articles on my personal blog, where my 12 "followers" would get notices of my new posts and 2 or 3 of them would click and read a few paragraphs.

I'm not a galley slave. I am a writer who cares about a topic, and who is standing on a soapbox in a crowd, hoping you have been listening, and that you share my passion.

If I truly needed to earn money writing, I would be working for a "content farm" creating the kinds of texts that companies put on their websites to bring in customers who are searching for certain topics. If you are a good typist, and you don't mind using phrases like "tile flooring" five times in every 500 word piece you write, you can earn minimum wage, or more.

By the way, AOL does own and operate a "content farm" where they solicit and pay for writing on pre-designated topics. Ironically, it is called "Seed.com," no connection to me though.

William Leavitt: The Peculiar, the Particular, the Familiar

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My interest in theatrically is like watching people in an airport -- something you don't even really look at. - William Leavitt



Seated on a sleek metal chair at the MOCA Cafe, artist William Leavitt looked relieved. Chatting with a few friends after the Media Preview for "William Leavitt: Theater Objects," on view at MOCA Grand Avenue through July 3rd, Leavitt was again where he likes to be: on the sidelines, watching.

During an earlier press conference, Leavitt was seated at the far left of a table facing a crowd of more than 50, where he listened to tributes from MOCA curators Paul Schimmel and Bennett Simpson, and also from former MOCA curator Ann Goldstein, now the director of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum. Praised by Simpson as a "keen observer of the mass production and mannerism of tastes" Leavitt, who looks a bit like comedian Buck Henry, hovered close to the table and nervously took it all in.

Leavitt, who will turn 70 in November, has spent more than 45 years scanning the edges and interior spaces of Los Angeles, a city that he filters through a postmodern sensibility. When it came time for Leavitt to speak, he was quietly gracious, commenting that he was very pleased to be a part of the history and traditions of MOCA. He also recalled first arriving in Los Angeles and finding it "peculiar" but added, as a kind of public confession, that over the years he has become a bit more peculiar himself.

Peculiarity -- and particularity -- are in fact Leavitt's strengths, and the effect of his MOCA retrospective is to present a view of the culture of Los Angeles that is cerebral, slightly odd and sometimes funny. His photographs, paintings, and mixed media installations demonstrate that Leavitt, a self-conscious man, has turned his anxieties inside-out and calmed them with intelligence and a pack of cigarettes. Writer Carol Ann Klonarides says that Leavitt deals with "conventional things in a dramatic way," an astute observation.

Visitors to Leavitt's show need to keep in mind that Leavitt is, along with being a visual artist, a musician and dramatist. For example, in 2002 he presented a work called "The Radio" which featured three actors delivering non-linear dialogue in parallel with a score he composed to represent a fourth character.

Set against the clean, antiseptic spaces of MOCA's Grand Avenue galleries, Leavitt's seminal works seem alien at first glance. Then, with a bit more consideration, the realization comes that Leavitt has nailed the strangeness of a time and place not for from Isozaki's pristine galleries . One of his masterpieces, "California Patio," a 1972 mixed media installation, nails the era in Southern California where every ranch style house 50 miles of the coastline had a sliding glass door that opened out to tropical plants and Malibu lights.

When "Patio" was first shown it featured plastic plants, as did some of Leavitt's other installations. Asked if this was meant to be a comment on our "plastic society" Leavitt responded: "It's just that the plastic plants are much easier to use." Now in the collection of the Stedelijk, the first purchase made by Director Ann Goldstein, "California Patio" is a real piece of cultural anthropology that must be pleasantly puzzling to the citizens of Amsterdam.

Leavitt has an interest in interiors and their narrative potential. His 1984 pastel "Interior with Cactus Painting and Spiral" is weirdly spare. The image of looming Joshua trees that decorates on wall is drawn in an off-hand, notational style, and the various textures -- wallboard, paneling and wood-grain -- are utterly banal. If there is something off here, as Leavitt seems to suggest, he isn't going to be the one to tell you what it is.

Leavitt is inclined towards thinking schematically. He also likes visual loose ends, thematic disconnections and and other puzzles. In some of his drawings and photo groupings he raises questions Baldessari style by pairing seemingly unrelated images. Leavitt calls this process "random selection."

One pastel, "Enterprise Tomatoes," includes tomato plants growing in metal cages alongside an image of the Starship Enterprise. The end result is offhandedly surrealistic, especially since the images are drawn as if they were meant for a coffee house chalkboard.

Artificiality is a key element in Leavitt's paintings, and also in his installations. He likes electric lighting and uses it to hint that everything about his work is staged. When nature is present in Leavitt's images, it is perfunctory, contained and even a bit stunted. All of LA, Leavitt seems to imply, is a giant studio backlot, and nature is a set of props.

After I spent several minutes looking into the colored windows of the nearly identical stucco hillside homes in Leavitt's "Hillside Lights (incandescent)" I realized that each window seemed to frame its particular source of artificial light, right down to the detail of a big screen TV giving off a ghostly pale blue-gray. One of Leavitt's projects seems to be to distill human presence down to traces and empty settings.

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William Leavitt, Detail of "Hillside Lights (Incandescent)," 2004, oil on canvas 24 x 60 inches
Courtesy: Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles


The lonely vibe of Leavitt's work may be the reason that curator Paul Schimmel compared him to painter Edward Hopper during the MOCA media event. There is a strong sense of people passing through Leavitt's world, and in some sense the places depicted in his works stand in for the absent characters they seem to imply.

Spending time in "Theater Objects" is mildly unsettling. At one moment you find yourself taking in something utterly familiar, and a moment later another element of the show may strike you as compellingly strange. Looking at a phony torch in one installation -- it featured fluttering colored acetate flames -- I found myself remembering the plug in campfire that I sat around during Woodcraft Ranger meetings in the 1960s.

Yes, I grew up in Los Angeles, and I was having a "William Leavitt" moment.

If you too grew up in the suburbs of LA, you are going to have some "William Leavitt" moments yourself. I walked out of the exhibition realizing that Southern California is a little more peculiar than I thought it was.

"Just what is this city?" the show seems to ask. A city with an airport restaurant that belongs in a comic book? An existential nowheresville tinged by noir? A sheetrock dystopia decorated with paintings of jungle cats and manta rays?

If anything, it is Leavitt's sense of the familiar that raises the most questions. Ann Goldstein, in conversation with the artist in a panel discussion, put it this way: "It's the recapturing of the ordinary in a world where we expect everything to be extraordinary."

William Leavitt has spent more than 40 years asking the questions and setting the stage, creating "Theater Objects" for a very ambiguous play. While seeing the show, you will be part of the play. After you leave, you will find that you still are. "You're looking for what happens next," is how Leavitt puts it.

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Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan: The Artist and the Sociologist

A friend recently asked me what I think of Andy Warhol. Without hesitating, I replied that I don't care for Andy Warhol's art. Noting my friend's surprise I added that I do think Warhol was a genius, but not as an artist. I think of him as a genius in the field of sociology.

Later, as I searched the internet to find out if there were others who shared my view, I found no evidence of anyone else referring to Warhol as a sociologist. I did, however, find many references to the fact that he is a divisive figure:


"Depending on your point of view, Andy Warhol is the greatest American artist of the second half of the 20th century or a corrupter of art who destroyed painting and took us down the slippery slope of postmodernism."

- David Dalton


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Andy Warhol "Self-Portrait," at the Warhol Museum: Photo © Anthony Cain



If I had to choose between those two views "corrupter of art" works best for me. I find many of Warhol's works chilling, and feel that his legacy has been largely negative. If, as David Dalton implies, there are many others out there who share that view, we haven't done much to dampen the art market's enthusiasm for Warhol's works.

As far as the art market is concerned, Warhol's reputation is solid gold. In fact, the dollar values of Andy Warhol's signature works have done exactly what gold has done: they have risen in reaction world fiscal instability.

When things are uncertain, the market seems to say, Warhol will outperform other investments. In a blog on the anniversary of the artist's death -- "The Top Ten Andy Warhol Prices" -- blogger Marion Maneker notes that seven of the top ten Warhol prices were achieved after the financial crash of 2008. The Warhol record of $100 million, achieved in a private sale for a photo-silkscreen image of Elvis Presley, repeated 8 times, occurred in October 2008, the same month that the world's financial crisis took off.

I don't see artistic merit supporting the gilded price range for Warhol's works. Personally, when Warhol stopped painting and began using photo-silkscreens as the basis of his imagery he lost me. There is something in the connection between the brain, the hand, the brush, and the canvas that I find essential to painting. So, Warhol in my mind made paintings without painting. Call me a reactionary, but Warhol cheated.

In my view Warhol's prices are tied to the fact that works of art have become financial instruments whose value is pegged to an artist's fame. Buying a Warhol celebrity portrait is analogous to buying a very, very expensive baseball card. A 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth rookie card is just a piece of cardboard with a printed image, but a good one might bring half a million dollars. A 1914 Chicago Federals Joe Tinker card, also a piece of cardboard, can be yours for about $200.00. Has anyone ever heard of Joe Tinker?

Fame gives items what I call a "relic value" and buying them makes collectors feel close to the fame of those they are associated with. The idea of relic value derives from the fact that Medieval collectors would pay quite a tidy sum for relics, i.e. an alleged finger-bone from Saint John the Baptist, a famous and much revered saint.

No other artist of the 20th century understood fame quite the way Warhol did: like a dead saint, he seems to have a firm grip on it even from the grave. Warhol depicted famous people, cultivated friendships with famous people, became famous, and in the context of our current society, achieved immortality. Quite a trick, don't you think?

Warhol's genius lay in his understanding of religion and sociology. In particular, the ideas that he intuited -- or borrowed -- about the changing role of art in a media society were devastatingly right. His grasp of the sociological changes going on around him informed his decisions to choose image over content and to speed up his production of works through mechanical methods.

He assumed -- correctly -- that more and more people were coming to share his abbreviated idea of what made a good painting, commenting: "My idea of a good picture is one that's in focus and of a famous person."

Warhol deserves credit for his insights, but so does the sociologist and media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) who Warhol once referred to as an "Honorary Muse." Studying the two men's ideas side by side is a fascinating exercise.

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Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan: Photomontage by Photofunia.com


Warhol and McLuhan barely knew each other, but they certainly did know of each other.

McLuhan's groundbreaking book "The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man" was published in 1951, a year before Warhol had his first New York exhibition. It is hard to believe that Warhol, who had been working in advertising, hadn't at least heard of the book, which described in depth how film posters, comic books, advertisements and magazine covers exerted their persuasive powers.

McLuhan was known for his aphorisms, and many of them are dead-ringers in terms of mirroring Warhol's social and aesthetic observations. Warhol's famous quip that everyone would have "15 minutes of fame" in the future is believed to have been paraphrased from McLuhan. Another famous quote "Art is what you can get away with," has been attributed to both men, and there seems to be no agreement about who said it or who said it first.

It is interesting to note that in the mid-60s after Warhol and McLuhan did briefly meet, McLuhan later commented that Warhol was a "rube." Do I sense some competitiveness there?

Art historian Gregory Battcock, gives Warhol the edge:

"Warhol was, during the sixties, a visual Marshall McLuhan. Though more profound than McLuhan and more a person of his time, Warhol correctly foresaw the end of painting and became its executioner."


So, Battcock views Warhol as predicting the end of painting. What, one has to wonder was "killing" it? Mass media -- movies television and magazines -- all played a role, but art's real usurper, at least in Marshall McLuhan's view, was advertising.

"Advertising" declared McLuhan, "is the greatest art form of the 20th century." Warhol, of course, began his career as a commercial illustrator, and some of his earliest Pop works are deadpan copies of advertisements. Advertising in the 20th century did what religious art had done in the 13th century: it used its imagery and authority to create images that helped focus mass desires and beliefs. Of course, if you believe as I do that capitalism is a religion, the parallels are clear.

McLuhan who converted to Roman Catholicism, and Warhol, who was raised Catholic, were both very aware that the mass culture of the late 20th century was supplanting religion. In McLuhan's view, electronic mass media worked against the private and the metaphysical:

"Christianity definitely supports the idea of a private, independent metaphysical substance of the self. Where technologies supply no cultural basis for this individual, then Christianity is in for trouble."


He had that right.

Warhol's portraits, which critic Robert Hughes says stripped the idea of portraiture down to its "bare chassis" lacked any shred of the metaphysical. Complexity, in the form on allegory, iconography, or philosophical speculation, wasn't necessary in a media society. Just the bare specter of celebrity, processed mechancially, was all that many of Warhol's key images relied on. A passive aggressive artist if ever there was one, Warhol understood the chilling unquestioned authority of fame as well as any dictator.

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Andy Warhol and Vladamir Putin: Photomontage by Photofunia.com


Marshall McLuhan says that "One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload." What Warhol, in turn, understood about fame is that it cuts down the number of people we have to be interested in to a manageable number. Celebrities are the town characters in our "Global Village" -- to use McLuhan's phrase -- and they replace the saints of earlier centuries.

Andy Warhol once said that Pop art was about "liking things." I have always found that quote ingenuous: in my view Warhol's choices of subject matter tended towards parody. Yes, he was fascinated by Marilyn Monroe's power as a celebrity/goddess, but the silkscreen images he created after her death make Monroe appear clownlike. This wouldn't surprise Marshall McLuhan who believed that "Antipathy, dissimilarity of views, hate, contempt, can accompany true love."

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Warhol Marilyn by caksy, on Flickr


One of Warhol's most enduring revelations was that in a media society, connoisseurship is doomed. In a society with an all powerful, highly persuasive media, careful informed distinctions weren't necessary when choosing what to buy. All that people needed, however much money they had, were the right brands.

"What's great about this country," Warhol once said, " is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest." In today's global society plutocrats seem to be replacing aristocrats, and Warhol seems dead on that the world's taste has flattened. What does it take to become an art collector? Lots and lots of money, and if you need taste there are still advisers who will rent you theirs for a fee.

Of course, in the Warholian view, even the art advisers will be gone in a few decades: "Some day everybody will just think what they want to think, and everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems to be what is happening."

The more I read Warhol's thoughts and predictions, the more strongly I feel that his legacy has been damaging. Using his strategies -- let others make your art, become a social figure, and do everything you can to manipulate your audience -- a host of other artists have transformed whatever fame they have managed into dollars.

Although you don't often see all these names on the same list, I think of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Mark Kostabi and Thomas Kinkade as second-generation Warholians. In the third generation you get Mr. Brainwash.

On the other hand, the more I read about Marshall McLuhan, the more impressed I am by his wisdom. He comes across as a complex and highly original thinker, as compared to Warhol who was a highly effective borrower of ideas. In fact, one of my favorite McLuhan quotes seems to be a warning for the future, where, as predicted by Warhol, where everyone will "think alike:"

"A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding."


Insight? Understanding? Those are essential qualities for a portrait painter, and perhaps McLuhan would have made a fine one. He and Andy Warhol should have switched jobs.

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Marshall McLuhan: Photomontage by Photofunia.com