Archive | January, 2009

PULP People: Obama, Warhol & American Secularism

19 Jan

Every line means something Jean-Michel Basquiat

As Barack Obama accepts his new role on behalf of the American people and God, I ask you: What would Andy Warhol do? As jocular an opener as that may be, it hopefully leads the reader to assume a particular amount of PULPable’s tongue is today firmly in-cheek. Academic treatises are, after all, perfectly fine; but how many people read dissertations and how many make it no further than the title and first paragraph before losing interest? Knowing more of Obama’s policies and positions than I have any previous President-elect,

Warholesque Obama

Warholesque Obama

I still doubt that the general populace has investigated their every nuance. They have, however, probably made it as far as Obama the icon—Obama the headline, Obama the first paragraph.

On to the second paragraph. I hope you’re still with me. I have written before of the importance of iconic status—what the advertising world would call branding—for a successful presidential candidate, and much has been written elsewhere on the unparalleled success of the President’s campaign. T-shirts, logos, bumper stickers, viral marketing, YouTube addresses, online fundraising: all of these methods of advertising have gotten through to the public and have furthered Brand Obama. So what would Andy Warhol do? No doubt we would already have several Barack Obamas on our walls and in our art galleries by now.

Warhol understood something more clearly than most: the power and the converse emptiness of iconography. Where true power was found was not in soup cans and Coke logos but in the empty repetition of Jackie Kennedy’s gaze or the multiplying horror of Old Sparky, its jovial nickname and dark palette both concealing and betraying its terrible

Warhols Old Sparky

Warhol's Old Sparky

purpose. If he were still with us, Warhol would certainly have taken notice of the Obama phenomenon, but what he would have made of it is rather difficult to judge.

There has apparently been some debate amongst atheist America as to Obama’s use of the phrase “so help me God” during his inauguration. For some, the wall of separation that Jefferson wrote of has always had cracks in: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word ‘God’ at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension.” This was Robert N. Bellah writing on John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, but the same holds true now. But this God Dimension is just as much pseudo-religious as explicitly, actually religious.

What would Andy say? A practising Catholic to the end, son of a Polish immigrant family, he was quintessentially American in his treatment of religion in daily life. He was free to worship as he chose but did not associate religious belief with his work or his public persona (and, though our public personas might not match the outré nature of his, they are nonetheless personas we don just like Andy).

Looking for Andrew Warhola

Looking for Andrew Warhola

Hopping back to Jefferson and his wall of constitutional separation, it is not a huge stretch to see that a nation in which people are free to do whatever they want with whichever gods they want would inevitably lead to a heterogeneous cultural landscape. But when mass media began to rear its head, there were suddenly icons for a homogenous nation.

Warhol began his career drawing women’s shoes and department store consumer items. ‘Art’ aside, he realised at a young age that he wanted to reach a wide audience and that, though producing advertising copy was not terribly exciting, it would certainly achieve this end. His transformation into producer of ersatz-religious icons spliced together from mass media advertisements and consumed celebrities owed as much to advertising as to the comic books and movies of the high Pulp era. For the most part wordless, his images hark back to adverts’ predecessors—a cobbler or butcher featuring an image to explain their trade to the illiterate—but also suggest that the non-verbal world of comic books and films were making consumers just as illiterate. There was an unmissable

Political PULP

Political PULP

emptiness behind these icons.

If Andy were a 21st Century man, he would either be a street-art and guerrilla marketing impresario or else would be the genius behind the reinvention of infomercials. The age of conspicuous consumption has brought us even closer to explicit product worship, with cultural niches forming around consumer items as much as around religion, geographical location or political ideology. The rise of religion in politics has been largely a thing of the past eight years, and whether God so helps Obama or not, we can only hope that his governance will be as strategically sound as his branding, and that the Obama phenomenon is a target for just the right amount of lampooning from today’s cultural iconoclasts. And sadly, we can only imagine what Andy would do.