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Getting the Warhol We Deserve: Cultural Studies and Queer Culture

Issue 01: The Worlding of Cultural Studies (Winter 1998)

Douglas Crimp

Two years after the unexpected death of Andy Warhol in February 1987, the Museum of Modern Art moved to consolidate his reputation as one of the greatest artists of the second half of the twentieth century. The huge retrospective exhibition of Warhol’s paintings seemed dedicated, as if once and for all, to the idea of “Warhol as Art History,” as the title of one of the catalogue essays forthrightly put it.1 This constricting of Warhol’s cultural complexity was already evident a year earlier, when the Dia Art Foundation devoted one of its series of discussions in contemporary culture to “The Work of Andy Warhol.” The five papers and discussion that followed sought, in varying ways, to situate Warhol art historically; the purely disciplinary picture of Warhol presented by the symposium is captured in Gary Garrels’s synopsis introducing the published proceedings:

Charles Stuckey has drawn on traditional approaches of art history to examine Warhol’s work–the importance of original settings and environments to understand intent and meaning which are lost subsequent to the removal and dispersal of the works; the role of patronage and sponsorship to the final form that the works take; formal precedents and works by peers that influenced the artist’s work, and relative to this, issues of dating and biography. Nan Rosenthal also has used the tools of art history to examine the issues of education and training on the artist’s work, particularly during what could be called his “apprenticeship” period as a commercial designer, and like Stuckey, the relationship to immediate formal antecedents and the influence of peers. . . . Trevor Fairbrother has established in his analysis of a single series, the “Skulls” produced in 1976, the extraordinary complexity and accomplishment of Warhol’s later work. Fairbrother examines this series for its formal sophistication and the significance of subject, grounding this single series in a broader range of Warhol’s later work, particularly the self-portraits. Both Rainer Crone and Benjamin Buchloh analyze Warhol’s work from cultural and ideological perspectives with attention to issues of technique and production, noting the importance of drawing for understanding Warhol’s work. Crone sets up a detailed developmental typology for Warhol’s work . . ., arguing for consistency and continuity of his development and for a consideration of Warhol’s work in long tradition of twentieth-century theory and practice. Benjamin Buchloh analyzes Warhol’s work in relation to modernism and mass culture, while not disengaging this abstract, analytical inquiry from the objects themselves.2

When we turn to the discussion following the papers, a single question, posed by Buchloh, determines almost all of what follows: What, Buchloh wants to know, does Fairbrother’s “traditional iconographic reading” of the skulls tell us about the “supposedly meaningless icons that are constituted as random, arbitrary, willful, as destructions of traditional referential iconography.”3 Apparently undecidable, the discussion develops into an argument about the degree of Warhol’s criticality, about whether, for example, Warhol intended to criticize Imelda Marcos when he put her on the cover of Interview or whether he just thought she was “glamourous, wonderful.” Fairbrother makes the most enticingly cryptic point at this moment in the debate, when he remarks, simply, “Shoes and Marcos.” But even this discussion of the glamour politics of Interview magazine in the 1980s consistently returns to the question, How do we interpret the meaning of Warhol’s paintings?

In the published version of The Work of Andy Warhol there is an additional paper, “The Warhol Effect” by Simon Watney, which stands alone in the collection not only for being an after-the-fact addition, but also for its assertion, against the tide of the symposium, that “Warhol simply cannot be reconciled to the type of the heroic originating Fine Artist required as the price of admission to the Fine Art tradition.”4 Watney quotes Michel Foucault from “The Genealogy of Ethics” on the relation of art to life, of creative activity to “the kind of relation one has to oneself,” as “a much more helpful and productive way of approaching Warhol than restrictive attempts to measure him against the criteria of predetermined models of artistic value which his own work quietly invalidates.”5 Watney compares media coverage of the Liberace and Warhol estate auctions as an ingenious conceit for foregrounding Warhol’s confounding persona–itself an effect of systems of cultural representation–and the ways in which that persona demands rethinking the meanings of consumption, collecting, publicity, visibility, celebrity, stardom, sexuality, identity, and selfhood.

In the years following publication of Watney’s short essay, what Watney calls the “ongoing critical intelligence and sensibility of the Warhol effect” has continued to exert its pressure on us to move away from the narrower prerogatives of art history and toward the broader inquiry of cultural studies. And in so doing, perhaps a lasting Warhol effect has been to make possible expansive approaches to contemporary art more generally, or at least to those contemporary art practices that insist upon their articulation with broader social practices. Part of my purpose here will be to suggest what a truly cultural studies project about Warhol might look like and why we might want to pursue it. But first it will be necessary to take up the resistance to cultural studies as an approach to contemporary art.

“Cultural Studies doesn’t have much philosophically to offer,” Hal Foster remarked in a July 1996 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. “It sneaks in a loose, anthropological notion of culture, and a loose, psychoanalytic notion of the image.” It is, furthermore, “Faux populism,”6 an accusation seconded by Martin Jay, who complains of a “pseudopopulist leveling of all cultural values.” Thomas Crow speaks of a “misguidedly populist impulse” and echoes Foster’s sense that cultural studies plays loose with its models of analysis. “To surrender a history of art to a history of images,” Crow writes, referring to Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey’s introduction to their volume on visual culture, “will . . . mean a de-skilling of interpretation, an inevitable misrecognition and misrepresentation of one realm of profound human endeavor.” Jay’s and Crow’s statements come from responses to a questionnaire on visual culture that was the centerpiece of October‘s special issue devoted to the subject.7

Rosalind Krauss, like Foster an editor of October, is blunter about the loss of disciplinary skills entailed in visual studies. In an Art News article whose title asks, “What Are They Doing to Art History?” Krauss is quoted as saying, “Students in art history graduate programs don’t know how to read a work of art. They’re getting visual studies instead–a lot of paranoid scenarios about what happens under patriarchy or under imperialism.”8 Although Krauss’s statement is difficult to distinguish from attacks by right-wing critics of the academy for a multitude of sins committed in the name of identity politics, political correctness, and multiculturalism, I will not be interested in those critics here. As far as I’m concerned, the likes of Hilton Kramer, William Bennett, Dinesh D’Souza, and Lynn Cheney are absolutely correct in their diagnosis of cultural studies as politically motivated. Even if these critics misconstrue, distort, and caricature cultural studies’ positions, they pay them the compliment of taking seriously a fully intentional threat to the business-as-usual of privilege, exclusion, and injustice. What interests me here, instead, is the attack on cultural studies by critics who claim affiliation with the Left.

Before going further, I want to try to make some sense out of a muddle of terms. Cultural studies, visual culture, and visual studies are often used interchangeably in the current debates, although sometimes distinctions are made, as when Krauss writes, in “Welcome to the Cultural Revolution,” her essay for the October issue: “Visual Studies has very little to do to map itself onto the model of its (Cultural Studies) model”9 (the primary model in this case being psychoanalysis). Thus, visual studies is seen as secondary in relation to cultural studies. In his October essay, “The Archive Without Museums,” Foster also notes this secondary relation, but vis-à-vis a different model: “The immediate source of the ethnographic model in visual culture remains cultural studies.”10 Foster prefers visual culture to visual studies, since he wants to analyze the transformation of art history into visual culture–to trace, as he puts it, “the shift from art to visual and history to culture.”11

For purposes of clarification, we might say that visual culture is the object of study in visual studies, which is a narrower area of cultural studies. For reasons that will become clear, I do not wish to define these terms any further. I will only say here that I see nothing to be gained in narrowing cultural studies by specifying its objects as visual; although there is currently a growing interest in visual studies within the field of art history, this limiting of the purview of cultural studies to a single category of objects, in advance, runs the risk of closing down the inquiry. But this narrowing is useful, indeed necessary, for the arguments that some critics of visual studies want to make–for example, the argument that visual studies returns us to a modernist fetishization of vision. Thus, Thomas Crow writes in answer to the October questionnaire:

As a postmodern blueprint for the emancipation of art history, the new rubric of visual culture contains a large and unexamined paradox: it accepts without question the view that art is to be defined by its working exclusively through the optical faculties. This was of course the most cherished assumption of high modernism in the 1950s and 1960s, which constructed its canon around the notion of optimality.12

The necessity of the word visual attached to this area of study for Foster and Krauss is not, however, its conservative association with the prerogatives of high modernism but its radical association with the most advanced stage of consumer capitalism. In the October special issue, this association is first posed as one of the four questions submitted to respondents:

It has been suggested that the precondition for visual studies as an interdisciplinary rubric is a newly wrought conception of the visual as disembodied image, re-created in the virtual spaces of sign-exchange and phantasmatic projection. Further, if this new paradigm of the image originally developed in the intersection between psychoanalytic and media discourses, it has now assumed a role independent of specific media. As a corollary the suggestion is that visual studies is helping, in its own modest, academic way, to produce subjects for the next stage of globalized capital.13

When we read Krauss’s and Foster’s essays in the journal, we learn that this question–statement, really–is an abstract of the argument they put forward. Their argument runs something like this: The next stage of global capitalism is characterized by ever greater alienation of experience wrought by the revolution in cybernetics, in which everything must be de-materialized and digitized in order to be readily consumed. Visual studies is helping, “in its own modest, academic way,” to prepare subjects for this revolution by accustoming them to these disembodied images, that is, to images leveled to equivalence as pure information, disconnected from their histories, social contexts, and modes of production–”so many image-texts, so many info-pixels,” in Foster’s phrase.14 To perform this task, visual studies turns to psychoanalytic theory, which, in this account, amounts to little more than the means by which a subject is directly constructed through its identification with cultural images and thus prepared to consume them, as is necessitated by the latest stage of global capitalism. Krauss states this clearly, “This enlarged idea of consumption is logically consistent with the structure of identification in which the embrace of a subject by a powerfully compelling image–illusory, phantasmatic, oneiric, hallucinatory–founds the subject as a reproduction of the visual constellation he or she has no choice but to receive and internalize.”15 And Foster concurs: “Especially in visual culture that develops out of film and media studies, the image is often treated as a projection–in the psychological register of the imaginary, the technological register of the simulacral, or both–that is, as a doubly immaterial phantasm.”16 And this “rarefying of optical effects and . . . fetishizing of visual signifiers is not foreign to capitalist spectacle.”17

On its face, this argument is, as Tom Conley wrote in response to the October questionnaire, “ludicrous.” (It reminds me of objections to sex education on the grounds that it would induce teenagers to have sex.) There are so many problems with the argument that it is difficult to know where to begin a refutation. One problem is that in Krauss’s and Foster’s essays, as in many responses to the questionnaire, very little actual work in visual and cultural studies is cited. What we have instead is precisely a projection, an “illusory, phantasmatic, oneiric, hallucinatory” image of cultural studies. And in this strawman image, a social and historical de-contextualization of visual culture takes place that is just the contrary of what much work in cultural studies strives to achieve.

One obvious place to begin is with the claims about the function of psychoanalytic theory in visual and cultural studies. In whose analyses does an account of identification suggest that it works, in Krauss’s words, to found the subject “as a reproduction of the visual constellation he or she has no choice but to receive or internalize”? Although Krauss maintains that work in visual studies depends upon Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage for such an account, Lacan’s theory explains that this imaginary identification splits the subject through its alienation from and failure to live up to the imago that comes at it from the outside. The most recent work in cultural studies on the subject of identification–Diana Fuss’s Identification Papers, for example–suggests the reverse of Krauss’s claim; in the book’s introduction, Fuss writes, “Identifications are never brought to full closure; identifications are inevitably failed identifications.”18

For her evidence, Krauss turns instead to Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, hardly a compelling example of visual studies, since it is an ethnographic study of Midwestern women’s reading groups devoted to reading romance novels. Hardly compelling, as well, since Radway employs Nancy Chodorow’s object-relations, not Lacanian, account of identification as “reproduction”–Chodorow’s book is titled The Reproduction of Mothering. More importantly, Krauss’s use of Radway as her representative figure of cultural studies ignores the debates within cultural studies over Radway’s work, even the fact that Radway’s work itself responds to Tania Modleski’s earlier, non-ethnographic work on the romance, Loving with a Vengeance. A cursory review of cultural studies bibliographies would show that both Radway and Modleski have been criticized by Constance Penley in her contribution to the Routledge Cultural Studies volume, “Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture,” and that Modleski has responded to Radway and to ethnographic methods more generally in her essay “Some Functions of Feminist Criticism” (an essay initially published in October).

My point here is not that work in visual and cultural studies would never resort to anything so anti-psychoanalytic as a sociological account of identification as simple internalization. It is, rather, that questions of identification and subjectivity have not been decided in this field of inquiry. On the contrary they are the subject of ongoing and productive debates. Krauss recognizes as much about the undecidability of cultural studies when she approvingly cites Meaghan Morris’s classic essay “Banality in Cultural Studies.” But she simultaneously denies that recognition when she takes the work Morris criticizes–and not Morris’s critique itself–to be representative of cultural studies. After all, Morris identifies her practice with cultural studies, her critique is immanent to cultural studies, and the ten-year-old “Banality” essay has been widely influential on cultural studies.

Krauss turns to Morris for a discussion of cultural studies’ move from an analysis of production to one of consumption, where consumption is seen as “far more than just economic activity; it is also about dreams and consolation, communication and confrontation, image and identity.”19 Krauss’s adoption of these phrases, which Morris takes from Mica Nava’s “Consumerism and Its Contradictions,” captures little of Morris’s complex response to them. The full passage of Morris’s text from which Krauss quotes is as follows:

Among [Mica Nava’s] enabling theses–and they have been enabling–are these: consumers are not “cultural dopes,” but active, critical users of mass culture; consumption practices cannot be derived from or reduced to a mirror of production; consumer practice is “far more than just economic activity: it is also about dreams and consolation, communication and confrontation, image and identity. Like sexuality, it consists of a multiplicity of fragmented and contradictory discourses.”

I’m not now concerned to contest these theses. For the moment, I’ll buy the whole lot. What I’m interested in is firstly, the sheer proliferation of the restatements, and secondly, the emergence in some of them of a restrictive definition of the ideal knowing subject of cultural studies.”20

Morris proceeds to specific cases of this “restrictive definition of the ideal knowing subject” in the work of John Fiske and Iain Chambers, whose ethnographic and populist assumptions she subjects to incisive critique. Her analysis does not in any way oppose the aims of this work, which Morris states as “to understand and encourage cultural democracy”; rather it opposes its unself-reflexive ethnographic methods–its failure to account for the “analyst’s own investment–some recognition of the double play of transference.”21 One result of this failure on the part of the analyst of popular culture is an identification with “the people,” such that “the people” “have no defining characteristics,” except as “the textually delegated, allegorical emblem of the critic’s own activity. Their ethnos may be constructed as other, but it is used as the ethnographer’s mask.”22

My point in focusing on Morris’s justly famous essay is not only to recover it from a reductive misappropriation, but also to contrast its complex arguments with those made by Hal Foster when he criticizes the “anthropological model” of visual culture and what he calls the ethnographic tendency in contemporary art. Foster’s criticism of the anthropological model is aligned with Krauss’s attack on visual studies’ psychoanalytic theory of the image through the attention of both to the question of alterity, to the ways in which artists and critics approach the “other.” Foster states this explicitly: “Anthropology is prized as a science of alterity; in this regard it is, along with psychoanalysis, the lingua franca of artistic practice and critical discourse alike.”23 Foster’s views about the cultural studies intellectual as faux-populist anthropologist and the artist as ethnographer have appeared in a number of essays beyond his contribution to the October issue on visual culture. Their most complex and sustained presentation appears in his book The Return of the Real.

Foster’s book provides perhaps the best synoptic study that exists to date of significant recent strains of (mostly American) art. Its ambition is to provide this art with a genealogy in the avant-garde, both historical avant-garde and postwar neo-avant-garde. Arguing persuasively against Peter Bürger’s view of the avant-garde as failed and the neo-avant-garde as recuperative by positing the importance of nachträglichkeit, Foster traces this “deferred action” of the historical avant-garde from minimalism, pop art, and the textual turn in conceptual art to “The Return of the Real” and “The Artist as Ethnographer,” the two chapters of his book that deal most explicitly with the art of the present. I cannot do justice to all of Foster’s arguments here, but I want to raise some questions about certain of his admonitions about approaches to the “other.”

In “The Return of the Real,” after tracing a genealogy in certain works by Warhol and superrealism, and a discursus on Cindy Sherman, Foster is concerned with what has recently been termed abject art, where, according to his argument, the Real returns as trauma. His examples include Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, Nayland Blake, and Zoe Leonard, among others. Foster cautions against two dangers in this work; both represent what he calls an “envy of abjection”: first “to identify with the abject, to approach it somehow,” and second, “to represent the condition of abjection in order to provoke its operation–to catch abjection in the act, to make it reflexive, even repellent in its own right. Yet this mimesis may also reconfirm a given abjection.”24

These dangers are symmetrical in Foster’s argument with those of ethnographic art, where the very “reflexivity… needed to protect against an overidentification with the other (through commitment, self-othering, and so forth)… may compromise this otherness.”25 Foster’s examples here include Renée Green, Mary Kelly, Lothar Baumgarten, Fred Wilson, Jimmie Durham, and Edgar Heap of Birds. In this case, Foster grants the artist a more viable position: what he calls a “parallactic” position, where the work “attempts to frame the framer as he or she frames the other.” But this has its dangers too, since “reflexivity can lead to a hermeticism, even a narcissism, in which the other is obscured, the self pronounced.”26 The trap of art and theory that take up the question of difference, finally, is that “if the invoked artist is not perceived as socially and/or culturally other, he or she has but limited access to transformative alterity, and that if he or she is perceived as other, he or she has automatic access to it.”27 And this causes a “restriction of our political imaginary to two camps, the abjectors and the abjected, and the assumption that in order not to be counted among sexists and racists one must become the phobic object of such subjects.”28

Foster himself provides the means by which this opposition can be overcome, his notion of parallax, in which the framer is framed, in which the subject of the discourse reckons with his or her own positionality, partiality, identifications, interests, and stakes. But perhaps because this idea is hardly his own, because it is in fact central to work in cultural studies–think, for example, of Morris’s call for “some recognition of the double play of transference”–Foster does not take this course. His requirement that parallax contribute to the way we rethink the question of “critical distance” does not extend to his own discourse, which leaves him only with his model of deferred action. Here, Foster is concerned to maintain a balance between what he calls “a disciplinary criterion of quality, judged in relation to artistic standards of the past,” as against “an avant-garde value of interest, provoked through a testing of cultural limits in the present.”29 This defines the genealogical project of Foster’s book.

A critical distance that attempts only to account for the deferred action of avant-garde practices in the present offers little, however, in the way of the critique of intellectual vanguardism, where the critic as universal subject remains unspecified, outside, above the fray, imperiously adjudicating, pointing out all the dangers along the way. In the introduction to the October issue on visual culture, the editors write, “Clusters of the professoriat now proclaim themselves an avant-garde, one located, however, within the academy.”30 Krauss makes it clear in her essay who is meant by these clusters: “Cultural Studies has always proclaimed itself as revolutionary, the avant-garde operating within the academy.”31

This seems to me seriously to misrepresent claims made in the name of cultural studies. One of the central tenets of cultural studies has been the contestation of the vanguard role of the intellectual in relation to the culture and cultural constituencies he or she studies. But my defense of cultural studies against its detractors cannot be made by making any particular definitional statements about the field. Rather, I want to say that if cultural studies is significant to me, it is because it defines itself as political specifically by recognizing that the political is the space of contestation itself. Needless to say, this thwarts the adoption of any particular politics in advance.

Perhaps this can best be understood by noting that cultural studies is obsessively self-reflexive, obsessed, that is, with its genealogy. In “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” Stuart Hall, who has published a number of genealogies of the project, makes the statement about cultural studies: “It can’t be just any old thing which chooses to march under a particular banner . . . There is something at stake in cultural studies.”32 We can argue about what cultural studies is and what is at stake in it, as Cary Nelson does rather prescriptively in his “Always Already Cultural Studies,”33 but that cannot prevent someone else from making a different argument. What this means is that cultural studies is genealogical in the sense that Foucault derives from Nietzsche. Cultural studies is the history of it’s own disputed self-definitions, which remain undecided. Interestingly, Stuart Hall begins his essay on the theoretical legacies of cultural studies with the following statement: “Autobiography is usually thought of as seizing the authority of authenticity. But in order not to be authoritative, I’ve got to speak autobiographically.”34 By this Hall means that his genealogy of cultural studies will necessarily be a situated, interested, and partial one.

If, as Foster claims, “the shift from art history to visual culture is marked by a shift in principles of coherence–from a history of style, or an analysis of form, to a genealogy of the subject,”35 the real significance of this move is that this subject–the subject constructed in representation, the viewing subject, the popular audience, the fan, indeed the other–cannot be theorized from a position outside that genealogy. The subject of the discourse, like its object, cannot be exempt from the questions of historicity and relationality (of self and other) that are raised by the theory of subjectivity itself. This does not–in fact cannot–entail assuming a coherent subject position in advance. Rather it means recognizing the continency, the instability of one’s own position, the necessarily situated place from which one speaks, the fragmentation and partiality of one’s vision. And more, it means recognizing how one’s position is constituted, through what exclusions it is secured. For genealogical criticism indeed entails the parallax Foster requires of “ethnographic art,” interrogating the subject as it interrogates the object.

In the opening section of the title essay of The Return of the Real, Foster attempts to reconcile two apparently opposed readings of Andy Warhol’s work, which he designates as the “simulacral” and the “referential.” His “third way” he calls traumatic realism, which is effected by Warhol through repetition, a “multiplicity [that] makes for the paradox not only of images that are both affective and affectless, but also of viewers that are neither integrated…nor dissolved.”36

I find Foster’s analysis interesting and generally persuasive, but in reading it, I was struck by a particular statement Foster makes in his characterization of the referential view of Warhol:

The referential view of Warholian pop is advanced by critics and historians who tie the work to different themes: the worlds of fashion, celebrity, gay culture, the Warhol Factory, and so on. Its most intelligent version is presented by Thomas Crow, who…disputes the simulacral account of Warhol that the images are indiscriminate and the artist impassive. Underneath the glamorous surface of commodity fetishes and media stars Crow finds “the reality of suffering and death”; the tragedies of Marilyn, Liz, and Jackie in particular are said to prompt “straightforward expressions of feeling.” Here Crow finds not only a referential object for Warhol but an empathetic subject in Warhol, and here he locates the criticality of Warhol.37

Citing Crow’s version of the referential argument about Warhol makes possible what follows in Foster’s discussion of traumatic realism, since Foster focuses on the same group of Warhol paintings as does Crow: the “Death in America” pictures. Is it this shared focus, then, that makes Crow’s the “most intelligent” version of the referential Warhol? If not, what does make Crow’s version the “most intelligent”? Foster doesn’t say. What he does say is that Crow has an agenda, and that he–Foster–does not share it.

Crow pushes Warhol beyond humanist sentiment to political engagement. “He was attracted to the open sores in American political life,” Crow writes in a reading of the electric chair images as agitprop against the death penalty and of the race-riot images as a testimonial for civil rights. “Far from a pure play of the signifier liberated from reference,” Warhol belongs to the popular American tradition of “truth telling.”

“This reading of Warhol as empathetic, even engagé,” Foster asserts, “is a projection.”38

Now, if this “most intelligent version” of the referential Warhol is a “projection”–the very epithet Foster applies to visual culture–what would Foster say of the others, those that are interested, for example, in tying Warhol’s work to gay culture? Such a version of Warhol–a version that makes no effort to conceal the desire that propels all interpretation–appears in a variety of readings in the book Pop Out: Queer Warhol.”39

Perhaps more instructive in this context is an article that preceded the publication of Pop Out, Richard Meyer’s “Warhol’s Clones”–more instructive because Meyer’s essay, like Foster’s, attempts to reconcile the simulacral with the referential views of Warhol by examining the effects of Warhol’s use of repetition, though to very different ends. Where Foster is interested in the function of repetition to screen the real, understood as traumatic, Meyer argues that the function of repetition is to conjure the sex appeal of the same, or what Leo Bersani in another context calls the homoness of homosexuality. Nevertheless, both Foster’s and Meyer’s arguments hinge on the intrusion of difference within repetition. Foster refers, for example, to what he calls “pops, such as a slipping of register or a washing of color,”40 while Meyer writes of a “model of duplication that can accommodate difference, whether generated through idiosyncracies of silkscreen registration, variegations of color, or the unpredictability of compositional format.”41 Referring to the ways in which Warhol’s “pops” produce both distance and nearness in the disaster pictures, Foster notes parenthetically, “Sometimes the coloring of the images has this strange double effect as well.”42 With regard to a different series of works, Meyer writes, “Warhol applies garish colors to [Elvis] Presley’s otherwise manly outfit such that his cowboy shirt becomes a scarlet blouse, his jeans lavender hot pants, his lips lusciously painted pink, his face pancake white. The publicity still’s intended identification of Elvis as a gunslinger has been shifted into the royal register of the drag queen.”43

When I pose the question, What makes Crow’s version of the referential Warhol the most intelligent for Foster? I am less interested in an answer than in suggesting that, in so summarily eliding any other version of the “referential” Warhol, Foster protects himself from making the same claim about these versions as he does about Crow’s–that they are projections. What would it mean to say, for example, that Richard Meyer’s interest in the sex appeal of the same, the homoness of repetition, the relationship of Warhol’s technique to the “cloning” of gay men–what would it mean to say that this interest is a projection? Foster might well protest that he says that both views of Warhol–the simulacral and the referential–are projections and that neither is precisely wrong. “Both camps make the Warhol they need, or get the Warhol they deserve; no doubt we all do,” he writes.44

Indeed. But if this is the case, then surely it would be useful to explain why we think we need or deserve the particular Warhol we are making. This is what it would mean for criticism to be self-reflexive, recognize the double play of transference, interrogate the subject as it interrogates the object. Rather than leading to a simple relativism of competing claims, Foster’s insight might lead instead to a recognition that there are significant political stakes in interpretation, that dominant forms of interpretation generally work to foreclose the possibility of alternatives. Nearly thirty years of silence about Warhol’s sexuality is “much more than a simple absence,” as the editors of Pop Out write. This silence, “has played an active role in creating the ‘commonsense’ attitudes toward Warhol.”45

When Foster argues that a shift from art history to visual culture–or what I insist on calling cultural studies–entails a loss of history, what he seems really to mean is the loss of art history, the historicity of artistic forms as they are understood through the deferred action of avant-garde practices in the present. But far from abandoning history, cultural studies works to supplant this reified art history with other histories, histories written, for example, in relation to “the Warhol we need and the Warhol we deserve.” What is at stake is not history per se, which is a fiction in any case, but what history, whose history, history to what purpose.

Richard Meyer begins “Warhol’s Clones” with an analysis of the censorship of Warhol’s commission for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the New York State Pavilion mural Thirteen Most Wanted Men. He writes of these silkscreened mug shots:

Although the subversive status of the World’s Fair mural has been noted in the scholarly literature on Warhol’s early work, what has been largely ignored is the strongest aspect of that subversiveness: the circuitry set up between the image of the outlaw and Warhol’s outlawed desire for that image…and for these men. To put it another way, Thirteen Most Wanted Men crosswires the codes of criminality, looking, and homoerotic desire. The gritty appeal of the mug shots and the pleasures of repetition embedded within the mural’s composition (the format of the grid, the deployment of men inside it, the exchange of gazes passing among those men) figure the force of Warhol’s homoerotic vision. In addition the title of the mural–initially known as Thirteen Most Wanted Men, but often referred to, more simply, as the Most Wanted Men–turns on a double entendre: it is not only that these men are wanted by the FBI, but that the very act of “wanting men” constitutes a form of criminality if the wanter is also male, if, say, the wanter is Warhol.46

Meyer’s argument about Warhol’s Most Wanted Men forms part of a larger historical project examining key episodes of the censorship of homoerotic images in the United States.47 The political urgency of the project derives from one such recent episode, which is the decisive event in the on-going right-wing attack on federal support for the arts: the censorship of The Perfect Moment, the retrospective exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. The urgency is twofold: at issue is the slander of sexual minority expression as a virtually guaranteed means of building political consensus against public arts funding in the U.S., and, as a result, the continuing viability of all alternative, critical cultural practices and the institutions that support them.

Although the cultural and political stakes of Meyer’s Warhol discussion are thus clear, articulated as they are with current concerns (is this not also a way of thinking about nachträglichkeit?) relevant to other current debates, that Meyer’s essay does not take up, but which might help illustrate what a cultural studies perspective can bring to the analysis of contemporary art.

If we accept Meyer’s argument that the censorship of Warhol’s Most Wanted Men was at least in part occasioned by the mural’s coded homoeroticism, we can place that censorship in the context of a wider crack-down on queer life in New York in preparation for the world’s fair. As was the case prior to the world’s fair of 1939, New York authorities stepped up their harassment of public gay establishments and activities in the period leading up to the 1964 fair. A New York Times feature article of December 1963, “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern,” provides official period background and flavor:

The city’s most sensitive open secret–the presence of what is probably the greatest homosexual population in the world and the increasing openness of its manifestations–has become the subject of growing concern . . . .

The overt homosexual–and those who are identifiable probably represent no more than half of the total–has become such an obtrusive part of the New York scene that the phenomenon needs public discussion, in the opinion of a number of legal and medical experts.

Some experts believe the numbers of homosexuals in the city are increasing rapidly. Others contend that, as public attitudes have become more tolerant, the homosexuals have tended to be more overt, less concerned with concealing their deviant conduct.

They have their favored clothing suppliers who specialize in the right slacks, short-cut coats and fastidious furnishings favored by many, but by no means all, male homosexuals. There is a homosexual jargon, once intelligible only to the initiate, but now part of New York slang . . . .

Inverts are to be found in every conceivable line of work, from truck driving to coupon clipping. But they are most concentrated–or most noticeable–in the fields of the creative and performing arts and industries serving women’s beauty and fashion needs.48

“Creative and performing arts and industries serving women’s beauty and fashion needs”–sounds pretty much like a description of Warhol’s occupations, doesn’t it?

1964 also saw other famous incidents of crackdowns on queer expression. J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum write in their book Midnight Movies:

Meanwhile, New York City was assiduously cleaning up its act for the upcoming 1964 World’s Fair. Village coffeehouses and off-off-Broadway theaters were shuttered; Times Square tango palaces and taxi dance halls were closed; Lenny Bruce was busted for obscenity at the Café A-Go-Go…. On February 17, 1964, both the Gramercy Arts and the Pocket Theater, which had been showing avant-garde films since December, were shut down by the police. [Jonas] Mekas moved his “Film-Makers’ Showcase” downtown to the Bowery Theater on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. Then, all hell broke loose. On Monday, March 3, two detectives from the district attorney’s office broke up a screening of [Jack Smith’s] Flaming Creatures,…impounding the film, some [of Jack Smith’s] Normal Love rushes, and Warhol’s Normal Love “newsreel,” along with the theater’s projector and screen. Mekas, projectionist Ken Jacobs, and two others were arrested. Ten days later, Mekas was arrested again, this time for showing Jean Genet’s 1950 short, Un Chant d’Amour …as a benefit for the Flaming Creatures defense fund.

The same day in Los Angeles, Mike Getz was found guilty of having “exhibited an obscene film,” [Kenneth Anger’s] Scorpio Rising, March 7 at the Cinema Theater….

During the spring of 1964, the underground nearly went under.49

Richard Meyer was able to make a stronger case for the homoerotic content of Thirteen Most Wanted Men by suggesting the mural’s relationship to a film Warhol made the following year, The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys, and in so doing he invoked an important link between Warhol’s paintings and his more overtly queer cinema that is missing from many accounts of Warhol’s work.50 Greater depth and texture could be added to Meyer’s comparison with attention to the queer milieu in which Warhol developed his interest in filmmaking. In the summer of 1963, Warhol accompanied Jack Smith to Connecticut for the making of Smith’s Normal Love. While there Warhol shot his “documentary” Jack Smith Filming Normal Love–seized by the police during the bust at the Bowery Theater–which is, in Warhol’s words, “the second thing I ever shot with a 16-mm camera,”51 and dates from the same year as the first Warhol silent films, Sleep, Kiss, and Haircut.

My own interest in this early 1960s queer filmmaking milieu is not merely for the light it sheds on Warhol’s art, however. Rather, my interest is shaped by a broader cultural studies project. I take my cue for such a project from an essay by Marc Siegel titled “Documentary That Dare/Not Speak Its Name: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures.” Commenting on the public and juridical panics occasioned by Flaming Creatures, which culminated in a screening organized by Senator Strom Thurmond for members of Congress, as part of a campaign to block Abe Fortas’s appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Fortas had voted to overturn a lower court obscenity ruling against the film; one senator’s response to the screening was quoted by Time magazine: “That movie was so sick I couldn’t even get aroused”52) Siegel writes,

People perceived underground films not only as dirty, but also as documents of a perverse subculture…. Assertions about the documentary nature of the films irritated Mekas and other critics who valued underground film solely for its aesthetic innovation, not for its role in documenting particular (sexual) subcultures. Yet by legitimating underground films solely on aesthetic terms, these critics avoided a consideration of how aesthetic innovation can be integrally related to self-representation. While Flaming Creatures may have been “impure,” too invested in cinematic fantasy to be accepted as a cinema verité documentary, it also expressed a “new kind of cinema truth,” one that saw in artifice, in performance the possibility for creating a more fabulous, more livable reality.

Indeed, for present-day queers attempting to reconstruct our histories, the aesthetic value of a film like Flaming Creatures cannot be so easily separated from its role as documentation. Yet much gay historiography has tended to ignore the importance of queer cultural expressions as a kind of documentation, emphasizing instead the organizations and institutions that have been constructed around the articulation of a sexual identity.53

By bridging the divide between a history of avant-garde aesthetic innovation and a history of gay identity politics, Siegel seeks to alter our view of both. The importance of Flaming Creatures’s orgy of performative pansexuality, he argues, is its “strategic disruption of gender and sexual norms,” its “attempt at expressing the possibilities of an eroticism that is always beyond the reach of representation.” “For [Smith’s] quest, like ours, is not solely to document that we really do and did live like that, but also to proliferate queer challenges to the normalization of erotic life.”54

Such challenges define a wide range of expression in New York during the 1960s, from the films of Smith, Warhol, and Anger, and those of Gregory Markopolis, the Kuchar brothers, Ken Jacobs, and Ron Rice to, somewhat later, John Vacarro’s Theater of the Ridiculous and Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. A whole motley crew of artists, actors, writers, and drag queens and other sexual deviants worked on one another’s projects and generally found mutual inspiration in a shared counter-cultural milieu. And they inhabited and helped make a world beyond their aesthetic endeavors, a world that devised innumerable means of resisting the forces of conformity and repression with radical hilarity, perverse pleasure, defiant solidarity–a truly queer world.55 A history of sexual subcultures that fails to include the contributions of this milieu will be seriously impoverished, and apt to perpetuate the oversimplified, conventional picture of sexual minorities leading shadowy, isolated, abject lives until the Stonewall riots of 1969 brought forth an era of greater tolerance. Without knowledge of the insurgent disruptive force expressed in early queer alternative cultures, we are left with a bland narrative of progressive normalization, the narrative that dominates–and poisons–sexual politics in the U.S. today.

In the recent retrospective exhibition of Jack Smith’s work at P.S.1 in New York, one of a number of Smith’s casually scrawled notes on display leapt straight into the present: “Normalcy,” it said, “is the evil side of homosexuality.”56 What Smith wrote then–whenever it was–could never have been more pertinent than it is right now, with normalization the battleground of queer political struggle. That is one reason why an art such as Smith’s–and Warhol’s–matters, why I want to make of it the art I need and the art I deserve, not because it reflects or refers to a historical gay identity and thus serves to confirm my own now, but because it disdains and defies the coherence and stability of all sexual identity. That to me is the meaning of queer, and it is a meaning we need now, in all its historical richness, to counter both the normalization of sexuality and the art historical reification of avant-garde genealogy. Where will it come from, if not from cultural studies?

© Journal of InVisible Culture, 1998

  1.  Robert Rosenblum, “Warhol as Art History,” in Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, ed. Kynaston McShine (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 25-37.
  2.  Gary Garrels, “Introduction” in The Work of Andy Warhol, ed. Gary Garrels (Seattle: Bay Press, 1989), x-xi.
  3.  “Discussion,” in Garrels, 124.
  4.  Simon Watney, “The Warhol Effect,” in Garrels, 118.
  5.  Ibid., 122.
  6.  Quoted in Scott Heller, “Visual Images Replace Text as Focal Point of May Scholars,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 July 1996, A8.
  7.  “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” October 77 (Summer 1996): 25-70.
  8.  Quoted in Scott Heller, “What Are They Doing to Art History?” Art News 96 (January 1997): 105.
  9.  Rosalind Krauss, “Welcome to the Cultural Revolution,” October 77 (Summer 1996): 96.
  10.  Hal Foster, “The Archive Without Museums,” October 77 (Summer 1996): 104.
  11.  Ibid.
  12.  “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” 35.
  13.  “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” 25.
  14.  Foster, 114.
  15.  Krauss, 90-91.
  16.  Foster, 106.
  17.  Ibid., 107.
  18.  Diana Fuss, Identification Papers (New York: Routledge, 1995), 6. Fuss is summarizing the insights of Judith Butler’s work.
  19.  Krauss, 90.
  20.  Meaghan Morris, “Banality in Cultural Studies,” in What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader, ed. John Storey (London: Arnold, 1996), 156-57.
  21.  Ibid., 156.
  22.   Ibid., 158.
  23.  Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 182.
  24.  Ibid., 157.
  25.  Ibid., 203.
  26.  Ibid.
  27.  Ibid., 173.
  28.  Ibid., 166.
  29.  Ibid., p. xi.
  30.  Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster, “Introduction,” October 77 (Summer 1996): 4.
  31.  Krauss, 96.
  32.  Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), 278.
  33.  Cary Nelson, “Always Already Cultural Studies: Academic Conferences and a Manifesto,” in Storey, 273-86.
  34.  Hall, 277.
  35.  Foster, “The Archive without Museums,”103.
  36.  Foster, The Return of the Real, 136.
  37.  Ibid., 129-30.
  38.  Ibid., 130. For a recent critique of Crow’s argument, together with other examples of an “insistence on certain theoretical constructs in the face of artistic phenomena” that clearly belie those constructs, see Paul Mattick, “The Andy Warhol of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Andy Warhol,” Critical Inquiry 24 (Summer 1998), 965-87.
  39.  Jennifer Doyle, Jonathan Flatley, and José Esteban Muñoz, eds., Pop Out: Queer Warhol, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). Foster was perhaps unable to assess the genuine value of this book, since it was published in the same year as his own; Pop Out collects the papers of a highly publicized conference, “Re-Reading Warhol: The Politics of Pop,” held at Duke University in 1993. It is particularly interesting to compare Foster’s longer version of the Warhol portion of “The Return of the Real,” “Death in America” (in Who Is Andy Warhol?. ed., Colin McCabe (London: British Film Institute), 1997, 117-30) with Jonathan Flatley’s “Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopoeia” in Pop Out. Both essays rely upon Michael Warner’s “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject” (in The Phantom Public Sphere, ed., Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1993), 234-56), but whereas Foster neutralizes the radical democratic politics of Warner’s important essay, Flatley draws on its queer possibilities for a brilliant reading of Warhol’s work.
  40.  Foster, The Return of the Real, 134.
  41.  Richard Meyer, “Warhol’s Clones,” in Negotiating Lesbian and Gay Subjects, ed. Monica Dorenkamp and Richard Henke (New York: Routledge, 1995), 105-06.
  42.  Foster, The Return of the Real, 136.
  43.  Meyer, 113.
  44.  Foster, The Return of the Real, 130.
  45.  Doyle, Flatley, and Muños, 2.
  46.  Meyer, 97-98.
  47.  Richard Meyer, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in American Art, 1934-1994, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
  48.  Quoted in Martin Duberman, About Time: Exploring the Gay Past (New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1986), 203-06.
  49.  J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983), 59-60.
  50.  This is one benefit of the shift Foster characterizes as “from art to visual”; visual studies thus exposes, once again, the limitations of modernist criticism’s medium-specificity
  51.  Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol ’60s (New York: Harcourt Brace Jonanovich, 1980), 32. Warhol’s film has never been retrieved since its confiscation by the police.
  52.  See J. Hoberman, “The Big Heat: Making and Unmaking Flaming Creatures,” in Flaming Creature: Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times, ed. Edward Leffingwell, Carole Kismaric, and Marvin Heiferman (New York: The Institute for Contemporary Art, 1997), 164-65.
  53.  Marc Siegel, “Documentary That Dare/Not Speak Its Name: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures,” in Between the Sheets, In the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 92.
  54.  Siegel, 104-05.
  55.  Michael Moon has written wonderfully of many of the figures in this queer world in A Small Boy and Others: Imitation and Initiation in American Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).
  56.  Also included in J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell, eds., Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith (New York: High Risk Books, 1997) in the section “Statements, ‘Ravings,’ and Epigrams,” 151.

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