Working Class Hero?
Art historian considers Andy Warhol via social class
- By Thomas James Weaver
What would the late Andy Warhol make of the social media age? Snapchat moments and Instagram pics direct from The Factory?
Daring to speculate on the vision of an 89-year-old Warhol armed with an iPhone, art historian Anthony Grudin says, “He would have been deeply excited by, enchanted by, mystified by all of these new possibilities.”
Apt terminology in this regard—“amateur cultural participation”—is a phrase the UVM associate professor of art history discusses early in his 2017 book "Warhol’s Working Class," published by The University of Chicago Press. Today, that could describe the high school kid whose cell phone video of police brutality goes viral or a comedian who finds her first audience via YouTube.
Decades before this revolution, Warhol was carving a similar path.
“I think of him as one of the first people to really glimpse and get excited about this new possibility,” Grudin says. “I think that is at the core of his achievement and his importance as an artist. He sees the early stages of this opening through all of these relatively cheap reproductive technologies he loves to experiment with—Polaroids, tape recorders, video recorders, silk screens, even the personal computer.”
"Warhol’s Working Class" is an outgrowth of Grudin’s research at the University of California, Berkeley. Setting out to write a comparative discussion of minimalism and pop art, he became deeply intrigued by Warhol, particularly in regard to class issues. Warhol was one of very few modern artists from a working-class background, Grudin notes. His father worked construction; his mother cleaned houses; Warhol was born into “the abject poverty of a Pittsburgh ghetto.” But his achievement as an artist would vault him to a place among the glitterati, the rare millionaire artist and the rare individual who experienced life at both ends of the class spectrum.
Grudin breaks new ground with his discovery and examination of a marketing campaign by Macfadden Publications, an odd moment in early sixties consumer culture. It came at a time when national brands (like, say, Campbell’s Soup) were losing ground to generics and store brands. Macfadden, publisher of pulpy magazines such as “True Story,” argued that the future of national brands depended on the masses of working-class consumers who would remain loyal because of the perceived higher status of name brands. That same demographic defined Macfadden’s readership. Seeing an opportunity, they made their pitch to potential advertisers with tough-to-miss, full-page ads in "The New York Times," "Wall Street Journal," and "Chicago Tribune."
The first Macfadden ad appeared Aug. 14, 1961. A few months later, Grudin notes, Andy Warhol began painting soup cans.
While it’s impossible to directly connect dots between those two events, they’re indicative of the times and the milieu around consumerism and class within which Warhol blazed his trail. And they add another dimension to a critical consideration of the artist’s life and work. While scholars have looked at performance of gender, sexuality, and race in regard to Warhol, this focus on the performance of class introduces a fresh perspective.
Grudin notes that a more egalitarian art world, allowing for expression across class lines, isn’t necessarily comfortable or welcome. He says, “That provokes a lot of anxiety in people, and it also provokes responses to that anxiety—people who come along and say, ‘you’re scared of what us ‘low-lives’ are going to do with this access; let us show you what we’re going to do. It will be scary. It will be rough. It will be weird. That’s part of Lou Reed, part of punk rock, and definitely part of Warhol.”