Andy Warhol’s Queer Practice: Disidentification and Utopian Desire
Andrew van der Vlies
In a 1963 ARTNews magazine interview with the critic Gene Swenson, Andy Warhol famously stated – apparently in all seriousness – that ‘everybody should be a machine’. The same interview included other pithy responses: everyone ‘should like everybody’, and pop art was, in essence, about ‘liking things’. Warhol’s personal reputation as reticent and fond of gnomic or evasive answers, and his professional reputation as an artist fascinated with commodification, mechanisation, seriality and the surface, have long relied on soundbites such as these. And yet the published account of this interview omitted, apparently at the behest of a bigoted editor, a crucial framing context. Swenson had opened with a leading question: ‘What do you say about homosexuals?’ In the full transcript, Warhol’s responses can thus more fully be seen for what they most likely were: performatively affectless statements, offered in a knowing, ironically flat manner, cultivated to subvert the art world’s predilection for exaggeratedly straight (and straight-talking) male artist personae.
The full transcript also includes interventions from three associates, including studio assistant Gerard Malanga and a ‘John’, who was most likely John Giorno, Warhol’s one-time lover, star of his 1963 film Sleep and subject of Screen Test #116. These sidekicks serve as foils to Andy’s straight-man impersonation, improvising hypothetical responses to the same question by other pop artists – although pointedly not by abstract expressionists, who at the time still dominated the New York scene with canvases that exuded macho bravado. Warhol, by contrast, by describing artistic production as machine-like, sought to draw attention to processes of repetition rather than acts of individual genius – and their one-off products. He wanted to foreground equivalence and liking over consummation.
We might see Warhol’s answers in the interview as utopian gestures that constitute – I argue – a decidedly queer practice, one that sought to counter the status quo, socially in relation to gender, and in the art world, by producing work fundamentally at odds with what the arbiters of taste had decided to value. Warhol’s queer practice – what we might, with a nod to the mechanics of repetition at the heart of the project, call his queer ‘technics’ – involved less an embrace of commodification than a recognition of radical difference and equality. These were always mutually dependent in Warhol’s work and the basis for what we might regard as a philosophical commitment, one that informed his entire career.
I believe we see this especially in Warhol’s films and photography, those aspects of artistic practice most overlooked by the critical establishment who rushed to canonise Warhol as the High Prince of affectless serial pop in the 1990s. Warhol’s photographs and films not only attest to the radical collectivism and performance-art culture of his Factory (the name is significant), they are also the most resistant to market logic. The photographs have been reproduced as saleable commodities less often – or to lesser degree – than his work in other media (screenprints, paintings). They also attest to some of the key paradoxes at the heart of Warhol’s whole body of work.
Photographs, after all, are often treated as aide-mémoire ephemera and are (almost) endlessly reproducible: the negative renders theoretically infinite numbers of positives. Warhol’s photographs, however, tended to the singular as well as the serial: polaroids (one of a kind) and silver-gelatin prints (from a negative, able to be multiplied), the ephemeral (throwaway records of a moment) and the auratic (emanating the aura of singularity and originality). They could be both simultaneously, too. Warhol’s photographic subjects are also more varied than the celebrity images that many associate with his screenprint practice: they range from unidentified objects of vicarious desire to glitterati – although Warhol’s celebrity subjects were often represented in ways that subverted or manipulated their mass-produced public image for effect, in line with the radical equality that is the essence of machine reproduction.
In ‘Notes on “Camp”’, published only a year after Warhol’s ARTNews interview, the critic and public intellectual Susan Sontag wrote that ‘Camp’, which she called ‘Dandyism in the age of mass culture’, did not distinguish between unique and mass-produced objects. For this reason, Camp transcended what Sontag called ‘the nausea of the replica’: replication need not be, well, repetitive; indeed, there was something potentially redemptive about replication if it was approached in a certain spirit. Camp, Sontag argued, is marked by a ‘mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve’; it refuses moral relevance as well as aesthetic judgement. All of these qualities are crucial to understanding the power of Warhol’s subjects, and his practice – including his engagements with machine processes, commodity culture, screenprint multiples and photography.
If it is a commonplace that any photograph is a record of a particular moment, we have, at least since Roland Barthes’s important essay on photography, Camera Lucida, thought about our engagement with photographs in terms of a complicated affective-temporal nexus: feeling and time are intertwined in the image. Looking at a photograph, we might find ourselves pinned to a compositional point, what Barthes calls the punctum, that which pierces us. The punctum is itself an arresting of time and a claim on our emotions. So much about the photograph as medium, then, militates against the impression of Warhol as nihilistic or hopelessly detached (everybody … a machine; art as liking things). Warhol’s photographs and films stand as a record to – but also invite us to reinterpret – the artist’s radical insistence on celebrating that which the ruling social and art-world mores cast as peripheral, disposable or banal. (The transmutation of the banal into the fantastic is another hallmark of Camp sensibility, Sontag suggested.) Warhol frames his photographic work instead as central to a future-oriented, utopian construction of US cultural identity, even when off centre, out of focus, candid.
The cultural theorist José Esteban Muñoz gave a name to the process by which those outside a social, racial, or sexual mainstream negotiate majority culture, not by aligning themselves with or against exclusionary representations (staying in their own lane, so to speak), but by transforming mainstream representations for their own purposes. They might do this by identifying with models of aspiration or experience denied to them. Muñoz called this ‘disidentification’; to ‘disidentify’ was ‘to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject’ with which one was ‘not culturally coded to “connect”’. LGBTQI people have long understood this kind of identification intuitively. (This is not quite the same as drag, though there is similar energy in drag-ball performances of categories like ‘Executive Realness’, for example.) Disidentifying means identifying in spite of, or at an angle to, the model prescribed for you by a dominant culture; it involves the scrambling and reconstructing of coded meanings of cultural objects to expose the encoded message’s universalising – and therefore exclusionary – machinations, recircuiting its workings to include and empower minority identifications.
We see something like this in the early works by Warhol that draw on found photography. Elvis, 1963, for instance, uses a publicity still from the iconic singer’s role in the Western Flaming Star (1960) as the basis for an image that references the sex idol star’s performative embodiment of a particular mythic trope of US masculinity – the frontiersman caught on the edge of a moral dilemma. The ‘outlaw sensibility’ associated with such a model, Elisa Glick argues, came to signify in gay male culture in a version of what Muñoz would call disidentification. Other examples might include Montgomery Clift in Red River, or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (not a Western, but with similar energies). Apparently straight figures, apparently the embodiment of the spirit of liberty, promise and rebellion, a heady (and sometimes internally contradictory) mix in popular US culture, they are also objects of coded identification at an angle (of disidentification) for queer subjects, black subjects (etcetera).
Elvis is emblematic of Warhol’s interest in performance and replication, in other words, but also, viewed as an act of disidentification, deeply transgressive. Most of the celebrities the artist would go on to image in similar serial form would be female, often women who had suffered some kind of trauma. These are disidentificatory subjects too, but they are also perhaps more cautious models for a queer artist (especially one whose sensibilities were formed before the Stonewall Rising), whether models of resilience or of sacrifice, in a hostile, straight-male-dominated world. Or, as Jonathan Katz argues, activating the suggestiveness of Warhol’s most iconic represented commodity, they constitute ‘camp bells’ (perhaps also belles) in Warhol’s oeuvre. They announce something, chiming with popular press adoration of the beautiful, but they do not sound the alarm bells that might have rung had Warhol focused (only) on beautiful men. Perhaps there was something too obviously queer in Elvis more easily hidden in plain sight in representations of women.
Warhol would later produce polaroid photographs of some significant exemplary figures from the Stonewall era, including the leading transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, for the Ladies & Gentlemen series, images that suggest (in ways we recognise as complicated today) equally complex politics of what I’ve called, after Muñoz, a politics of disidentification. Warhol’s two published portfolios of photographs (1980) also included models of gender expression that were both very different from drag and also entirely on a continuum with drag’s performative modelling of identity (or identification). Consider the candid image of Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Factory, his head at an angle that further diminishes its size in relation to his enlarged alabaster-firm arms and sculpted shoulders. Telephone at an ear, pencil in hand, the Austrian he-man appears unexpectedly to be at work rather than working out, confounding the tone of his mass media representations (fixed grin, flexed biceps). If Schwarzenegger is an erstwhile object of disidentificatory desire, the hyper-masculine opposite to Warhol’s ghost-white fey fragility, in this image, he is also machine-like and like everybody – taking dictation, doing office work – like (an) everybody.
Consider also Warhol’s photograph of Truman Capote at home in New York, reclining in a pose that seems to recall and to parody Capote’s infamous cover photo for Other Voices, Other Rooms (1947), an image in which, Hilton Als argues provocatively, ‘Truman Capote became a woman’. Warhol was reportedly ‘captivated’ by that representation of the famously Camp writer, although here we might recall Sontag’s attempt to distinguish some of the key markers of Camp from pop art in order to help us to understand what it is that makes Warhol’s photographic archive so fascinating. Pop art, Sontag writes, tends to embody a different but related approach to Camp, one that is both ‘more serious’ and ‘more detached’ (even nihilistic). Camp, by contrast, involves ‘love for human nature’, ‘neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness’, and delights in contradiction.
In Warhol’s film work and photographs, we see multiple contradictions taken to their Camp extremes. Consider another work, perhaps Warhol’s most significant early film, Haircut (no. 1) (1963): in its formal and thematic paradoxes, disidentificatory politics and treatment of time, this short film – only 24 minutes – offers a useful analogy for Warhol’s queer practice more broadly. Haircut features a gathering of young men. In the foreground, erstwhile waiter turned Warhol muse Billy Name (Linich) appears to play barber to matinee-idol-like John Daley. Off to the side (on the left in), the enigmatic and ill-fated Judson Theater dancer Fred Herko, who would commit suicide by leaping from a friend’s apartment window the following year, saunters about smoking and divesting himself of all his clothes. Little hair appears to fall, despite the film’s title. The film’s own physical form resists cutting: it is unedited, and includes the leader, the blank film at the beginning and end of each of its six 100-foot reels.
Haircut documents – or stages – intimacy amongst men. It also refuses any assumption of realism: ‘actors’ break the fourth wall; they rub their eyes as if waking from a dream, disbelief, or innocence. And the film stretches time, too: projected at silent film speed, it takes longer to watch than it did to shoot. Wayne Koestenbaum argues that Haircut – like much of Warhol’s work, and not only the films – asks the viewer to think about desire’s relationship to time. Desire is always timebound; it involves expectation, anticipation, often disappointment. Looking and being looked at, elevating the everyday to the status of art, transforming the banal into the sublime – these are all central to Warhol’s utopian spirit, his art’s revaluing of the marginal, his queering of the everyday.
Andrew van der Vlies is Professor, Department of English, Creative Writing, and Film; Interim Head of School, School of Humanities; and Deputy Dean, People and Culture, Faculty of Arts, Business, Law, and Economics, at the University of Adelaide.