By Rachel Dry
Sunday, August 16, 2009
The universe of notoriety is bigger than it was when Andy Warhol proclaimed: "In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."
He uttered that phrase in 1968 and revised it himself almost as many times as it has been repurposed for him.
Today, though, 15 minutes no longer feels temporary. On the Internet, 15 minutes is a long time.
Too long to watch a video of a guy dressed as a beloved '80s science fiction hero. Too long to stare at a doctored photo of a cat. Probably too long to spend reading a particularly forcefully argued diary entry on Daily Kos.
When Warhol was musing on the fleeting nature of fame, Markos Moulitsas wasn't even born yet.
Today, Kos, as the liberal blogging pioneer is known, presides over a giant community of liberal activists and power brokers. The annual convention that brings them together, Netroots Nation, is taking place this weekend in Pittsburgh, a city chosen for its strong union roots and its eco-friendly convention center. Not officially, unofficially or probably even incidentally because it happens to be Warhol's home town.
But that doesn't mean the pop artist isn't in on the fun. The Warhol museum was the site of several parties, including one held by MoveOn.org Friday. Organizers liked the fact that the year after artist Shepard Fairey's portrait of Barack Obama reached iconic status, they could gather at a place that honors "the unique contribution arts make in national change," according to MoveOn's Ilyse Hogue.
So the Netrooters, this political force to be reckoned with -- Bill Clinton keynoted the convention, and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett also spoke -- that was created, nurtured and made famous on the Internet, is on Warhol's turf. It's an appealing collision: The Web comes to the Pope of Pop.
It's reason enough, anyway, to call up a few people who knew the artist well and ask what he might have thought of the Internet.
He'd love it.
He wouldn't get it.
He predicted it all.
He'd have an army of unpaid, rich, eager-to-please young people transcribing his every thought and broadcasting it across every platform imaginable.
Victor Bockris, who met Warhol in 1973, worked with him for six years and authored a biography, said the Internet would have been ideal for the artist. "He was a natural blogger." Well, Bockris says, amend that a bit: He would have gotten an acolyte -- someone "like me," he jokes -- to sit and listen and record his every thought and then post it for him.
"With no exaggeration, the Internet would have suited his voice very well," says Bob Colacello, the author of "Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up," who worked with Warhol for 13 years. "But I don't think he would have been a blogger -- first of all, he couldn't even type, and he evaded opinions. He wasn't a person who was going to sit around a dinner table and say why he was for Obama's health-care program. His idea of an opinion was 'she's a beauty,' 'he's a beauty,' " Colacello says. "I don't know what he would have blogged about."
What Warhol would have appreciated most is the sheer volume of what's available online. Brigid Berlin, who worked for many years with Warhol at his Factory, as his studio was known, remembers telling him that she'd transcribed 30 pages of interviews one day. Great, he said, tomorrow make it 33. She realized that she could pad the pile of paper -- one typed page with four blank ones behind it -- and he wouldn't check. He just wanted the satisfaction of the work literally stacking up.
Berlin, who isn't sure that Warhol would even have a cellphone if he were alive today, said that in the '80s "the one piece of technology that he totally flipped out over" was the copier. "We put it in the kitchen of the Factory and he kind of thought it was magic."
Thinking about their time together, Berlin accidentally hits on one of the most Warholian elements of the Internet: the Google alert. She says Warhol once paid her 50 cents or so for every news clipping that mentioned his name. She had to scan magazines, cut out the fawning mentions and send them to him.
"Maybe he'd be trying to get me to see how many times I could find his name on the Internet. Maybe the price would go up from 50 cents to $10," she guesses.
"He would have been 81 on August 6th," Berlin says. "I just don't think he would know anything about the Internet. He might ask questions: 'Well, what is Twitter?' "
Well, what is Twitter, Andy? It's essentially what you did anyway, on the phone. Berlin says that every morning Warhol would call her to check in and find out what she was doing, and what everyone they knew had done the night before. He craved status updates.
The Internet is a Warholian idea, his friends say. It's a place of unlimited possibility and instant gratification. "The concept of being able to release whatever you want to say, to say whatever you want to say however you want to say it, and have the potential to reach such a large number of people instantly" is the essence of Warhol, Bockris says. "He was always very impatient to get out what he was saying." He'd have enjoyed push-button publishing.
He would also have liked how the Internet has changed the nature of fame.
Netroots godfather Moulitsas helped in that regard. He is famous in the standard way, no Internet qualifier needed. He can't possibly respond personally to everyone who knows him or feels connected to him in some way. That's genuine fame, according to David Weinberger, a scholar of Internet culture who has written and lectured on online fame.
But Moulitsas set up a community that facilitates Internet fame: It's open to anybody, and people's works can achieve renown by being recommended by others, a kind of symbiotic celebrity.
Tim Hwang has seen how this kind of fame works up close. He's the founder of an event called ROFLCon, ("rolling on the floor laughing," that is) a gathering of people who became famous by attracting large online followings. Hwang says fame on the Internet isn't about the traditional sense of celebrity -- "that they're incredibly beautiful and talented and you won't be like them" -- but about relatability. "It's, 'I feel I have a really deep connection with you in some sense because I identify with you.' "
Hwang and Weinberger both think that the right Internet-era iteration on Warhol's famous phrase is that in the future, we will all be famous to 15 people. Or for 15 seconds.
Those who worked with Warhol and knew him well think he would have liked that. Bob Colacello believes the whole world has gone in Warhol's direction. "Andy must be sitting up on some cloud in heaven, just soaking it all in and just loving it all," he says.
He'd even love being usurped by an online toy.
John Watson is a freelance Web developer who created the Pop Art Poster, formerly called the Warholizer, in the early days of Flickr. Take a picture you like. Upload it to the site. Push a button. Presto, it's pop art.
"I thought it would be funny to make a tool to mass produce what he was mass producing," Watson says.
Warhol would love the fact that anyone with Internet access and a digital camera can make Warhol-inspired creations -- except for one key thing. "As long as they don't interrupt the amount of money he was making, he would be very happy," Colacello guesses. "People could Warholize their own dog and pay him a commission."
That he'd like.
Rachel Dry is an assistant editor in Outlook.