les presses du réel

Warhol's Dream


Here's one for the Dream Syndicate: Picture Andy Warhol — silver wig, black turtleneck, the works — waiting a small eternity for Robert Smithson to cross the threshold of an elevator to the Empire State Building. The two have spent the morning trawling a deserted stretch of midtown Manhattan; and naturally, their conversation has turned to that most sublime icon of New York architecture. A trip to the building's observation deck is in order.
Along the way—and to his surprise—Warhol learns that Smithson is more than a little phobic about elevators, which variously rouse feelings of claustrophobia and dread for the younger artist. The back-and-forth that anticipates this moment—a conversation that ranges from Warhol's virtually motionless, eight hour film of that very building, Empire; to Smithson's increasingly vertiginous theories of Ultramoderne architecture; to the land artist's proposition that Warhol start a rug factory—seems no less absurd than the circumstances that prompted the dialogue: a chance encounter at Warhol's favorite diner, the Star Palace, completely void of human presence save for the man Warhol calls “the best nowhere artist” he knows.
This is but one of the bizarre scenarios Saul Anton has conjured in Warhol's Dream, a fictional dialogue staged between Smithson and his at once perplexed and bemused interlocutor. And it is, of course, a dream—both a discursive and aerobic ramble that sees the two through New York city, culminating with a strange tete-a-tete in Central Park. In calling this conversation a dream, Anton wreaks havoc with a narrative device popular to sit-coms and made-for-TV movies: the moment when the hero awakes to discover that the remarkable turn of events just transpired is only a dream. “The strangest thing about this dream—what else could it have been?—Warhol himself suggests, is its clarity of detail: the fact that every last word of this Smithsonian conversation is recalled with the fidelity of his trusty SONY tape recorder. And so it goes for this book, which borrows liberally from the archives of Smithson and Warhol as much as it spins their peculiar syntax in its own phantasmatic direction. At first blush, an imagined meeting between arguably the most influential artists of the 1960s reads as inspired parody, as if the darkly brooding Smithson—best known for producing work in the most remote of sites—played the titular straight man (or intellectual foil) to Warhol, always dispatching his witticisms with bland indifference; and always at the eye of the social hurricane. And you would not be wrong to call Warhol's Dream a deftly fashioned and very funny parody, dazzling in Anton's capacity to mime the rhetorical habits of both artists. No doubt, Anton has read closely—even internalized—the writings of Warhol and Smithson. His feel for their patterns of speech, their solecisms and cadences, is uncanny. The art historian of the period, however, understands that a dialogue between the two is to the point, and not only because Smithson paid homage to Warhol on more than one textual and artistic occasion; and not only because they rubbed elbows with some frequency down at Max's Kansas City. Their various writings, to say little of their sculptures, photographs, silkscreens and films, have played no small role in the language of contemporary theories of art and art writing. We are in absolute thrall to their critical legacy.
Yet one need only scratch the surface of Warhol's Dream to see that Anton's project goes well beyond showcasing an enviable gift for ventriloquism as well as the concerns of Art History proper. In fact I want to call it a demonstration piece of the “Metalogic Imagination,” suggesting the impossible (because imaginary and dreamlike) dimensions of the conversation itself. Readers with a taste for literary theory might hear in this phrase the ring of the Russian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin, whose notion of the “dialogic imagination” or novelistic discourse, broadly understood language to be a dialogic operation, ever open to the conditions of heteroglossia in contrast to the strait-jacket functionalism of grammar. The“metalogic imagination” stands to trump Bakhtin's dialogism in turn: it troubles further the presumptions we make about dialogues in the first place. Indeed, in everyday speech, we place faith in the structure of the dialogue for its putative revelation of information; the generation of discourse; the achievement of consensus through the reasoned communication of its participants. A dialogue, we imagine, performs the concrete work of the dialectic. Through the engagement of two speakers, critical theses are hypothesized, contradicted, debated and resolved.
But there is no such resolution between Warhol and Smithson, only a conversational volley that goes on from the subject of death to the movies to the fear of time to Richard Nixon. In calling this endless reflection “metalogic” I borrow from the influential anthropologist and cybernetician Gregory Bateson, who knew a thing or two about that acutely contemporary notion of the dialogue, feedback. Bateson defined the metalogue in the following terms:
A metalogue is a conversation about some problematic subject. This conversation should be such that not only do the participants discuss the problem but the structure of the conversation as a whole is also relevant to the same subject. (1)
A metalogue, in other words, reproduces the subject of a dialogue at the level of its form. The structure becomes a mirror to the topic introduced. And what gets reproduced in this exchange—what may or may not be adequately communicated or translated between “form” and “content”—goes to the ambitions of criticism itself, its viability and continued relevance. (Here, as Reinhold Koselleck reminds us, we need recall that modern criticism finds its genealogy in the rhetoric of the emergency room, as if criticism—linked to the sense of a medical crisis— functioned as a strategic intervention, a type of “life-or-death” decision). The form of the metalogue, however, complicates this idea through the logic of its internal reproduction. It stages the crisis of critical discourse, though it may not clear whether with the intent to resuscitate or to kill criticism. Or, to put this in less dramatic way: Is the critical form of a metalogue a transparent medium of communication—transparent in making the goals of the dialogue plain? Or rather, is it a communicative mise en abyme—a recursive hall of mirrors given over to endless echoes and ever multiplying reflections, a dialogue never to resolve itself?
This is not the usual stuff of art history, to be sure. When we think of these questions—if we think of them at all—we tend to consult a Derrida or a Jean-Luc Nancy whether on the buried metaphysics of the speech act or on a theory of community founded on infinite (and necessarily failed) conversation. Yet with an academic training in modern critical theory and aesthetics, Anton knows the lay of this land very well. In Warhol and Smithson, he has recognized fellow travelers in their respective attitudes to criticism. One of the merits of Warhol's Dream is that it reveals the artists to be doppelgangers of a type, whatever their ostensible differences in style and approach. More often than not, the convergence between the two rests with the problematic of criticality and communicative mediation. Take, for instance, the “Death and Disaster” series by Warhol, which reflect on the limits of representation in their blank-faced depictions of trauma. Or consider the theory of entropy elaborated by Smithson, which articulates the disintegration of a message (“energy drain”) as it is subjected to the vagaries of communication. It is in this sense that the form of a dream-like dialogue between the two is a mirror to their own theoretical pursuits: the dream of criticality in general. That the trope of the mirror and endless reflection is so vital to both artists is itself in keeping with the structural bases of the metalogue—a mirror to the topic under discussion.
To push this conceit even further, Warhol's Dream bears little pretension to reinvent the wheel for art criticism. Instead, it takes repetition and reproducibility as both the generative mechanism of criticism and its potential aporia. The Warhol acolyte immediately recognizes Anton's book to be both homage and mirror of another sort: a mirror to Warhol's own The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back again (1975). This summa of Warholian banality was loosely based on “transcripts” of taped phone conversations between Warhol and the redoubtable Brigid Polk. (Anton, for his part, swaps the “B” of Brigid Polk with the “B” of Bob Smithson.) And the dialogical structure of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, which unfolds with the narrative tension of the Pittsburgh Yellow Pages, is a mirror—or rather, a faintly heard echo—in another sense. For the book reads like an echo of the 1960s, a time in which, as Warhol puts it “everybody got interested in everybody.” This he opposed to the time in which he “wrote” The Philosophy—the 1970s— the moment when “everybody started dropping everybody.”
You could read this as an allegory of criticism, the historical point at which an interest in “everybody” (a public, so to speak) gave way to the evacuation of all social discourse, a veritable “dropping” of the world. Not that this was a new topic for Warhol by any means. As one of the canniest observers of the burgeoning information society—the endless horizon of television, film, print journalism, computers—Warhol's work was always enmeshed in, and always questioning of, the relative powers of communications media and the utopian dream of its pure and utter transparency. At roughly the same moment Jürgen Habermas was advancing his theories of the public sphere in Germany, Warhol, in his own fashion, was challenging the viability of that sphere at the Factory, the Dom and the Filmmakers Cinematheque. Typically, though, Warhol made ample use of the media alleged to debase that very communicative sensibility. Smithson was no slouch in this department either. To flip through the pages of his collected writings is to confront, over and over again, what he saw as the recursive logic of art and media in general, what he deemed “reproduced reproductions” in his important essay “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space.” Like Warhol, Smithson understood it as axiomatic that the fullness of any type of “message,” be it a piece of art criticism or a work of art, was contingent upon the peculiar form of reproduction it took; and where, in turn, that reproduction was sited in space and time.
Anton will mine this tradition even further back in history. Apart from the model of “criticism” proposed by Warhol, the structure of his dialogue finds its touchstone in much older prototypes: think, for instance, of Mondrian's trialogues on abstraction or Paul Valery' Socratic exchanges set in the Elysian fields. Above all, Anton harkens back to the example set by Enlightenment aesthetics in the form of Denis Diderot's Salon dialogues. Diderot, who might well be called the father of modern art criticism, probed the limits of a criticism he was himself inventing, dramatizing what is necessarily partial in all matters of aesthetic judgment. And far in advance of so many bad television shows, Diderot deployed the form of the “dream” narrative to make his points about criticism, too. Listen to this imaginary exchange between a connoisseur and an ordinary woman, untutored in the business of what counts as good art:

“Do you like this painting?”
“No, not at all.”
“But, why not? It's a Raphael?”
“Well, that may be, but I think your Raphael is an idiot.”
“Whatever makes you say that?”
“Isn't that supposed to be the Holy Virgin?”
“That's right, and that's the Christ Child with her,”
“Well, of course. But who's the other baby there?”
“That's Saint John.”
“So it is. Now how old would you say Jesus is?”
“Fifteen, eighteen months?”
“And Saint John?”
“Four or five years old?”
“Oh, I see…Then why does the Bible say that both mothers were pregnant at the same time?” (2)
The punch line, of course, is that no matter how reasoned and logical the position of the “average” woman, it does nothing to sway the opinion of the art expert, who takes sides with Raphael regardless of the Renaissance master's demands on our credulity.
Anton is at once faithful to the spirit of this tradition as well as rightfully skeptical of its imperatives. He is not the slavish heir apparent to this genre of writing. Some two hundred years plus separate the moment of Diderot's Salons from ours, after all; and while it's selfflattering to imagine that contemporary writing on art carries a polemical charge equal to the founding moment of art criticism, the more recent fate of public discourse suggests otherwise. The reasons why this is so are far too complicated to do justice to in this context, but no matter how you parse the phenomenon, one thing is clear: there are very few “standout” internecine battles being waged in the trenches of art criticism today, no modern day Goethes, Diderots, or Lessings to take up the cause.
Given this seemingly sad state of affairs, one might ask to what end is Anton recasting this venerable critical tradition? In the case of Warhol and Smithson, a dialogue of this order is only doomed to fail; it can only take place in a dream as such. Here, then, two moments in Anton's dialogue grant special insight into the metalogic imagination. The first, occasioned by a glimpse at the Empire State Building, is an oblique commentary on criticism's modeling of, or intervention into, history:

B A famous critic once wrote that it was a matter of “brushing history against the grain.” He meant that we need to understand it in ways that it never understood itself…

A …I've always thought it's not worth it to brush things against the grain, because the problem is how everyone else takes what you do once you've done it. The minute someone starts to get it, they start to copy it. Then, all of the sudden, instead of brushing against the grain, you're going with the flow.

Thus Warhol suggests (if in his own way) that the dialectical gesture of “brushing history against the grain”—one of the methodological hallmarks of modern criticism—is little more than a Benjaminian flipflop: always in danger of being copied, reproduced and assimilated into the “flow.”
Another passage—both hilarious and serious—brings us even more abruptly to the heart of the matter for criticism. In an exchange about the movement between uptown socialites and downtown habitués—the rarefied climes of Madison Avenue and the demi-monde of the Factory—Smithson trots out one of his favorite turns-of-phrase. “It's dialectical” he opines, to which Warhol responds with strange vehemence:

Will you please stop using that word.

Warhol would put an end to Smithson's use of the word “dialectical.” He would stop the dialectic (and all it implies for criticism, for history, and for the historicity of criticism,” dead in its tracks. And that desire to “end” the dialectic—a certain refusal to move toward critical resolution—is its own kind of non-eventfulness or death, which sheds light on the continued project of art criticism and the recognition of its failures (and failure as one of its necessary conditions). It's in keeping with one of the key topics of the dialogue itself. Metalogically speaking, the subject of death haunts the discussion between Warhol and Smithson. Warhol, in fact, is convinced that both are actually dead, a realization that doesn't really seem to trouble either artist too much in the strange and timeless place in which they find themselves.
It's precisely this “Non-Site” of the critical wilderness that Anton maps so skillfully in Warhol's Dream. As an art critic, he knows too well the stakes, foibles and dreams of the very enterprise to which he repeatedly returns. You have to wonder: who's dreaming whom? Anton on Warhol? Warhol on Smithson? Smithson on all of us? Perhaps it's only fair that Warhol have the last word on the topic. Until, of course, there is another last word:
The annoying thing is that whenever people hear the word “art,” they start acting like lawyers. Whenever you mention that word, they start getting very stiff and nervous, and begin asking what you mean, as if you were signing a contract and they wanted to know what you mean when you say you're going to “pay” them a thousand dollars. Critics are the worst. I guess it's their job, but you say one word and they start asking what you mean, but if you ask them the say thing, they behave as if they've said the most obvious thing in the world. If I were a critic, I would worry about my words rather than what artists mean when they talk.

Pamela Lee

1. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing for Health Sciences, 1972), 2.
2. Cited in Udo Kultermann, The History of Art History (New York: Abaris Books, 1993), 31. For the original French version, see Denis Diderot, Pensées détachées sur la peinture, la sculpture, l'architecture et la poésie, pour servir de suite aux Salons, in Héros et Martyrs, (Paris: Hermann, 1995), 398.