- Through the Looking-Glass: Reading Warhol’s Superman
‘Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow. . . . Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—’ She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.
In another moment Alice was through the glass. . . .—Lewis Carroll
The persistent and reigning metaphor in Warhol studies is that of the artist’s works as cultural mirrors. 1 Confronted with comic book panels and iconic heads of movie stars, historians and critics since the early 1960s have affirmed, with near unanimity, 2 that Warhol offers his audience an unmediated view of themselves. He “made his canvases,” says Daniel Wheeler (1991), “a collective mirror for contemporary mass culture” (152). His admirers construe the specular aspect of his work as the brilliant strategy of a social critic dedicated to “expos[ing] the values of contemporary society” (Fineberg 1995, 250), 3 while his (more numerous) detractors see this putative mirroring as the product of a sensibility that was the perfect embodiment of its cultural moment, a man and thus an artist “completely of his time” (Danto 1987, 132). 4 To be sure, Warhol himself actively contributed to the view that he had become synonymous with the superficial, popular subjects of his art. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” the artist remarked in 1968, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it” [End Page 107] (Andy Warhol n.p.). Carter Ratcliff (1983), citing this statement, concludes that Warhol’s paintings “are filled with facts, empty of [personal] revelations” (9). In 1975 the artist reaffirmed his repudiation of intellectual and emotional depth in the alphabetic joke in the title of his book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). 5 Wendy Steiner (1988), contemplating its argument, sees an artist who “presents himself . . . as a contentless image-maker—a mirror” (179).
But surely this cultural mirroring business is more a convenience, more a loose, rudimentary way of pointing toward something than a rigorously tested conclusion. By now we should understand that Hamlet, who imagines art as holding the mirror up to nature, has it wrong. Indeed, if we require a precept from Shakespeare, better to listen to Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, who shakes her head at a character in the play within the play and makes the remark (so intriguing to Freud): “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” She prompts us to suspect Warhol and his critics of overstating and thereby falsifying the case. They see too little, we argue, who see only an art that reflects a mindless consumer culture. They have accepted too readily and affirmed too casually that Warhol’s subject matter excludes the personal. In fact, to concur with Cécile Whiting (1987) that “Warhol completely breaks the link between painting and private artist” (70) requires one to ignore too much evidence to the contrary. 6
Which is not to say that Warhol did not attempt to erase himself in favor of his subjects. In this he resembles the poet who famously argued, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” for an aesthetic of impersonality:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.(Eliot 1964, 10–11)
Eliot even tried to prevent the writing of his biography. But neither Eliot nor Warhol could permanently dictate the terms [End Page 108] on which audiences might engage their works. Readers and viewers do not wish to escape feelings and emotions. They value feeling and remain curious about the personal experiences behind great art...