The sheer magnitude of Warhol’s 1963 masterpiece Marilyn Diptych – which takes up over a hundred and fifty square feet and features fifty repeated images of Marilyn Monroe’s face, half of them in black & white and half of them in stark, nearly violent colors – is meant to leave the viewer awestruck. “This is the correct way to look at the painting,” wrote critic John Yau. “Any remark or content that breaks the spell of aesthetic emotions would be a sign of the viewer’s lack of taste” (52).
This awe is symptomatic of the painting’s size, but also of what it achieves. Warhol is often quoted as saying “I want to be a machine,” but to be machinelike, for him, was not to be cold or without emotion. Warhol knew that machines have a great capacity for inspiring worship. They can create, through repetition, symbols – and in this way they create culture. In a personal nod to the power of machines to construct culture, Warhol was famous for showing up at parties, and then leaving immediately after he was photographed. Yet, he also knew the dangers of this – that the more one worships the symbol of a person, the more the reality of that person is obscured. “The kids at the office treat me like dirt,” he wrote, “because they know me. But then there was this nice friend that somebody had brought along who had never met me, and this kid could hardly believe that he was having dinner with me! Everybody else was seeing me, but he was seeing my ‘aura’” (77). His serialized images point to the divide between these two levels of existence, the reality of the thing and its ‘aura’; the serialized print demonstrates the power that technology has to saturate a space with images, to create symbols, while simultaneously debasing the subtlety and authenticity that exists behind and prior to the images. The very act of repetition in Marilyn Diptych – the quantity of images, and the facelessness of each one – lends itself to both of these ends, both empowering a symbol and trivializing the reality behind it. The two processes move in opposite directions, and are summed up in different understandings of originality: the death of one ideal, that of artistic “authenticity” or “genius,” and the birth of practically inverted one – the rise of celebrity aura.
Yet one notices, when the awe subsides, upon further inspection of the large Marilyn Diptych, a chink in this simple schema: there are mistakes. Notice that the faces on the left have slight variations in color, and that the size of their hair varies; notice the fade out on the right; notice that one half is black & white, and other is color. The existence of these differences call into questions many of the assumptions made by critics about the Warhol’s relationship to mass culture. If he indeed wished for everything to be the same – they why did he fail in his own paintings to achieve this?
Warhol was not merely nodding to the power of modern reproduction technologies to degrade the individual and create images in his stead. The difference between the frames on the canvass points to something more complex and more interesting: Warhol’s use of “difference” – which is understood here as change from image to image that is “unexpected” – in his serialized painting of Marilyn Monroe captures the struggle that the individual makes against his own symbology, against the set of myths and images that are superimposed on top of his reality. The difference points to the failure of cultural imagery to ever extinguish time, growth, decay and also the individual’s free will to choose. The persistence of difference in Warhol’s work is the persistence of the individual in a mass society.
Theodor Adorno, the German sociologist and theorist, is famous for his characterization of the “culture industry.” He argued that mass reproduction technologies had the effect of collapsing the distinction between art and everyday life, resulting in a leveling out, a heat death. “The commercial character of culture,” he writes, “causes the difference between culture and practical life to disappear. Aesthetic semblance (Schein) turns into the sheen which commercial advertising lends to the commodities which absorb it in turn…On all sides the borderline between culture and empirical reality becomes more and more indiscript” (53).** Adorno predicts that this will lead to a loss of imaginative capacity. “Imagination,” he writes “is replaced by a mechanically relentless control mechanism which determines whether the latest imago to be distributed really represents an exact, accurate and reliable reflection of the relevant item of reality” (55). The top-down production of images creates a culture of consuming images rather than freely creating them. These images are best when they are most similar. The result is total homogenization.
Warhol, along these lines, is frequently cited as saying “I like boring things. I like things to be exactly the same over and over again. If you look at something long enough, I’ve discovered, the meaning goes away.” (Wrenn 16). In an interview he responded to this:
I’ve been quoted a lot as saying, ‘I like boring things.’ Well, I said it and I meant it. But that doesn’t mean I’m bored by them. Of course, what I think is boring must not be the same as what other people think is…Apparently, most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different. But I’m just the opposite. If I’m going to sit and watch the same thing I saw the night before, I don’t want it to be essentially the same – I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away. And the better and emptier you feel. (emphasis mine)
From this exchange we get an important characterization of the process of repetition: it is exact; it is a process of inuring one to an image until the “meaning goes away”; and without meaning, one feels “better and emptier.” Some critics point to these statements and say that Warhol has done Adorno one better: mass homogeneity is not only his prognosis but also his desire.
Warhol, it seems, captures this desire with more than just the images that he chose to paint, but also in the painting process itself. His silkscreening process is notable for its machinelike complexity. It takes place like a progression on a conveyerbelt. Steps include: cropping the image; “processing” it at a professional studio into a high-contrast negative; “burning” it onto the silkscreen; painting the color scheme onto the canvass; and finally “transferring” the silkscreen. Warhol was clearly conscious of this association with the industrial – he called his studio the Factory, after all. Warhol wrote on Picasso’s four thousand masterpieces: “‘Gee, I could do that in a day.’ So I started…You see, the way I do them, with my technique, I really thought I could do four thousand in a day” (148). In the space that once occupied only a paintbrush, Warhol added steps and processes that further divided the intention of the artist from the canvass. His painting was, in both image and in process, a commentary on the ideals of mass culture. His effect must be measured against this intention.
But one should hesitate before judging his success. Warhol in the above passage makes a fundamental division between something that is “the same basic thing” and something that is precisely the same. Warhol claims “I don’t want it to be essentially the same – I want it to be exactly the same.” Yet difference, as we will shortly explore, persists on his canvass, and persists in important, substantial ways. Likewise, if it is true that Warhol modeled his Factory on a real factory, incorporating as Adorno says “industrial forms of organization,” than the fact that difference exists on the canvass, that there is variation between images, and none are “exactly the same” must be seen as a failure of the factory ideals to replicate perfectly. Warhol attached great meaning to the process of replication embodied by his portrait; to him repetition creates symbols, and thus worship and culture and myth. Therefore, we are lead to believe that the very fact that the images in his own paintings were not “exactly the same,” where “the meaning goes away,” but rather they were, with sundry mistakes, discolorations, variations, only “essentially the same” – we are lead to believe that the true meaning of the painting is embedded in the existence of difference between frames.
To understand this meaning, we first must ask: In what sense does Warhol consider the image or the individual behind the image in Marilyn Diptych to be free? At first one might think: in no sense is she free. There is not much space between frames on the canvass, signaling constraint; the face is cropped, which indicates a moment of violent detachment between image and person; the rigid lines of the grid convey a feeling of bars and of being trapped in place. These elements point to the great power that those who “create” culture have to take hostage images, and manipulate without resistance.
I suggest that there are two senses in which Warhol’s painting indicate the freedom of the individual, residing in two examples of difference: first, the narrative structure that is created in viewing the panels from right to left and in viewing the right panel from left to right suggests change; and second, in the mistakes and variations occurring in the left panel, which show the persistence of spontaneity and thus individual choice.
First, is the individual’s capacity to change. Warhol’s decision to serialize Marilyn Monroe’s picture was prompted by news of her death. On August 5, 1962, Monroe took a deadly overdose of barbiturate sleeping pills, and it was ruled a suicide. Shortly after that, upon returning from an exhibit in Los Angeles, Warhol begins Marilyn Diptych by cropping a publicity image from her 1953 movie Niagara. 1953 was an important year for Monroe: it was the year that Niagara, How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes all came out, and also a series of nude photographs that had originally appeared in the first issue of Playboy were reprinted. Monroe, by the end of that year, had been voted by the American film distributors as “the top star of 1953” (Rollyson 39-72). Thus upon her death, Warhol uses an image from the moment in which she became a star. Marilyn Diptych captures the moment when Monroe’s image was freed from her own reality, and space was opened for her symbol to engage most freely with our cultural and collective myths.
The most urgent difference that strikes the viewer is the sharp, deliberate division between the colored panel on the left and the black & white panel on the right. The title Marilyn Diptych reflects the two-ness of the image. This division reflects the division between life and death, between reality and symbol. This division is a spatial one (left side versus right side) and thus lend to the possibility of a narrative, a progression from one place on the canvass to the other that occurs like the progression of a storyboard, or of a comic strip or (one could say) of time. The diptych also reflects a change that was an important one in the 1960s media environment, from black & white to full color. Black is the mode of reality, of the past, of ink, of journalism and of fact; whereas color is the mode of a new reality, one of brands and of dreams. Everything about the left panel evokes fantasy: the vibrant, violent color scheme; the color juxtapositions; the sexual red lips and pink face; the depthlessness of the faces; its cartoonish simplicity. On the right panel, the images are more “journalistic.” They look as if they were photographs. One sees the strands of her hair and the delicate shading around her chin. The two panels are the thus two competing levels of existence. On the right, there is a black & white reality of Marilyn Monroe, which literally ended (as she died) when this painting was begun; and on the left, there is her myth, which in many ways began when the painting was first exhibited.
The images on the right panel depict reality more accurately (they are more strictly adherent to it, more photographic); but they also exhibit greater difference among themselves – one notices that the images appear to fade from left to right, each subsequent column less dark than the one preceding it, until at the border of the canvass, as if about to fall off the edge, the face is barely perceptible at all. This is also a narrative, a change evocative of the passage from life to death. And then, in the wake of her death on the right panel, we see that her image reappears on the left panel. This left panel, as we said, is the realm of myths and dreams. The narrative from life to symbol is clear. And note, in addition, that the left panel lacks the systematic change of the right panel. There is thus a contrast between change on the right panel, and a stasis on the left, thus capturing the tension between mass culture’s resistance to the working of time and the inevitable passage of it, despite our attempts to the contrary.
In this beautiful narrative are two important American myths. First, the change myth: that one can become what one wishes. Second is the opposite myth, the myth of persistence: that of the hero or the icon. The confrontation of these two myths, one of change and one of permanence, is a persistent theme in Warhol’s work. In his Before and After series, Warhol depicts a silhouette of a woman without conventional beauty on the left, and then on the rights shows the line adjustments that could be made to make her more beautiful. These images show the aspirational component of change, that aspect of self-realization that so many are told is called the “American dream.” However, the prospect of change invites the prospect of destruction and decay. His Death and Disaster captures the flipside, showing the progression from life towards death. Marilyn Monroe’s life can be said to embody both those types of changes: she rose to fame, and they she fell from grace, and indeed the right panel, in fact, can be “read” in either direction: right-left to show her rise, or left-right to indicate her fall. The message is clear: accepting the reality of time opens up both a host of possibilities and a host of problems, accounting at once for Marilyn Monroe’s fame and her death. Accepting the right panel, that of change, is accepting the trappings of freedom. The very existence of the right side questions the power of the left: the persistence of time despite our attempts to evade it. Warhol forces us to grapple with the two universes, side-by-side.
There are more differences in Marilyn Diptych than just the color and black & white binary, and the fading out of the right side. These are certainly among the most “deliberate,” but there are others: on the left panel, notice that the two frames in the top left hand corner are darker than those around them; see the white spot on the Monroe’s blue collar in the center frame; observe that the shadows around the chin are darker on some faces than others; observe that the top of the hair in nearly every reproduction has a different borderline. Where do these differences come from? They are not systematic – they do not, as the difference on the right panel did, display any pattern – but rather appear to be random products of the reproduction technique. Insofar as they were not chosen can they be properly called mistakes? We cannot, of course, know how much control Warhol exerted over each frame, but there is reason to believe that much of the difference of the type just described was unintentional. Warhol is said to have remarked, when asked about his painting process: “I haven’t painted in years!” and then point to his staff. “They do all the painting” (189 Wrenn) The existence of mistakes and unintentional variation calls into question the very foundations of the mass culture industry: Despite our efforts, can difference ever be extinguished? This is the second evidence of freedom, the existence of spontaneity.
Adorno wrote that the “system of the culture industry that surrounds the masses tolerates hardly any deviation and incessantly drills the same formulas on behavior…” (66). The culture industry, he said, will extinguish difference. And the cost will be to extinguish free, individual thought as well. The cultural forces from “above,” he wrote, will cease to “tolerate any longer the tension between the individual and the universal…” (57). The individual, in this state of total similarity, is nothing but an “appendage of the machinery” (85). His relationship is entirely vertical: the individual is passive in his reception of the images, and can do nothing to resist their influence. For Adorno, the ultimate end of Western rationality was not democracy or socialism, but fascism because, in J.M. Bernstein’s words, it “continued reason’s work of domination through integration and unification” (3).
Adorno lined total homogeneity with the end of free thought – and therefore, the fact that difference exists on Warhol’s canvass indicates a skepticism about this process of industrial “domination.” It castes doubt on the association made between mass reproduction and the extinction of individuality. Some may argue that they are merely mistakes and therefore have nothing to do with freedom in the sense of individual choice. However, the existence of spontaneity shows the failure of total domination, and therefore a space for individualism to exist. It is in this margin of spontaneity that exists within the grid of Marilyn Diptych that individuals have the capacity to interact with culture. It means that culture is not a process of one-directional domination, and suggests – not overtly, but as if a promise – that instead the creation of culture is a dynamic process where the individual has the ultimate capacity to make the cultural image his own – to turn it on its head, to reimage its use, to synthesize it with other images.
Warhol called a good performer an “all-inclusive recorder” because he or she “always does exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment in every show they do.” Good performers are the repetition ideal. But he immediately rejects this. “That’s why,” he says, “I like amateur performers and bad performers – you can never tell what they’ll do next” (82). This spontaneity is what distinguishes a person from a machine; it is at the heart of the individual’s capacity to resist and create. Warhol commented that art was made up of “leftovers”: “ I always like to work on leftovers...Things that are discarded, that everybody knew were no good…It was like recycling work” (93). By leftover, he means instances when human spontaneity disrupts the efforts at mass society to homogenize a group. For example:
When I see an old Esther Williams movie and a hundred girls are jumping off their swings, I think of what the audition must have been like and about all the takes where maybe one girl didn’t have the nerve to jump when she was supposed to, and I think about her left over on the swing. So that take of the scene was a leftover on the editing-room floor – an out-take – and the girl was probably a leftover at that point – she was probably fired – so the whole scene is much funnier than the real scene where everything went right, and the girl who didn’t jump is the star of the outtake. (emphasis mine, 93)
The “leftover” is the girl whose spontaneous will disrupts the intention of a system to create synchrony. According to this framework, art exists in the discrepancy between the dictates of culture and reality of its implementation; it exists on the margin between what society intends for the use of something and the way the individual ends up using it. Art resides in differences.
The fact that each Marilyn image is slightly varied is meant, in this vein, to represent the way that individuals take cultural images and make them there own. Critics claim that Warhol espoused a breed of passive art consumers. However, his entire life embodied the ideals of cultural appropriation and re-conceptualization – the opposite of a passive consumer. Meaning was the individual’s ability to make use of the images, to change them, working within the grid.
Two things can be said about this, one about the nature of art and the other about the freedom of the individual – both closely aligned. First, this view of art as a resistance to the form that was prescribed presaged the development of (in J.M. Bernstein’s words) an “affirmative postmodernist culture,” where art is not just intended for consumption, but rather functions as direct input for more art. Art, according to this ideal, is not a finished product, but a stage in a longer stage of reinterpretation, recontextualization and resynthesis. This conception of art relies on a blurred distinction between creator and receiver. “A text,” Roland Barthes wrote in his 1968 manifesto “The Death of the Author,” “is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (146). “To give a text an Author,” he later explained, “is to impose a limit on that text” because it prevents the exchange of “multiplicity” between the reader and the writer: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”
With the advent of digital culture, such “post-modern” tendencies have gained new tools and new salience. The personal computer and the internet has put in the hands of millions the capacity to receive information, reorganize it, add to it, re-conceptualize it and publish it to the world. As one theorist has put it: “In the networked information economy, the physical capital required for production is broadly distributed throughout society” (Benkler 7) The result, he says, “is a ﬂourishing nonmarket sector of information, knowledge, and cultural production.” Lawence Lessig, a Stanford professor who has written extensively on the potential that the internet provides for a rebirth in creativity, writes of the internet that the individual can “rip creativity from culture” and resynthesis the parts into something greater than the whole. “Rip, mix, and burn.” (24) “Technology,” Lessig writes, “has thus given us an opportunity to do something with culture that has only ever been possible for individuals in small groups, isolated from others” (184). In other words, the tools of the internet are allowing people in large scale to treat cultural leftovers in the way that Warhol was doing, nearly fifty years ago.
Second, this relationship affirms the individual’s capacity to stage creative resistance against the homogeneity of mass culture. Warhol’s supposed doctrine of passivity, in what Adorno prophesied as the extinction of individual agency, is actually a doctrine of resistance: the individual should create meaning despite the rules, not according to them. Meaning is imbedded in our resistance to the grid, not our subscription to it. Theorist Michel de Certeau in his The Practice of Everyday Life identified one of the aims of those who “administer” mass culture as the “creation of a universal and anonymous subject” (94). The act of re-ordering these images is an act of resistance to the “imperialism of intention”: “[the active reader] invents in texts something different from what they ‘intended.’ He detaches them from their (lost or accessory) origins. He combines their fragments and creates something un-known in the space organized by the their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meaning” (169). Such a space with an “indefinite plurality of meaning” is represented by Warhol’s left panel, where Monroe’s images is at once created by culture, but also subject to the individual’s personal creation of the significance of that culture. The individual can resist its meaning – he can pervert it, destroy it, create it. Warhol’s Do It Yourself series brings this theory into its fullest fruition. He depicted landscapes from a “paint-by-numbers” kit, but both the lines and the colors are chosen against the prescriptions of the kit. The individual must work within a grid created from above, but he can subvert that grid by choosing how to work within it. He can take prescribed images, and make them his own.
These acts of appropriation, according to Certeau, subvert the “logic of production” because they create personal spaces. They create margins where spontaneity continues to exist, and individuals can move freely. “Beneath the fabricating and universal writing of technology, opaque and stubborn places remain” (229). The fact of difference in Warhol’s industrial grid, his large and awe-striking Marilyn Diptych, forces difficult questions not only of Warhol’s art, but also of ourselves. The fact of difference such as systematic change, evident across panels and within them, and the spontaneity of mistakes on the left panel – these point to the persistence of “opaque and stubborn places” of human agency and of time. They point to the survival of individuality, if not humanity itself – despite, rather than because of, our own tools.
**Warhol’s Brillo Box series, which featured boxes of Brillo soap that were silkscreened to look exactly identical to the original Brillo soap box, is in direct dialog with Adorno's claim. Authur Danto writes that, “What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference merely by looking…” (137). For Adorno and Danto, the result was an aestheticization of daily life, where art said to be everywhere and in everything. This, for him, called into question a host of modernist assumptions about authenticity and genius – because if art is everywhere, even in Brillo Boxes, is it anywhere at all?
Adorno, Theodor W., and J. M. Bernstein. 2001. The Culture Industry : Selected essays on mass culture. Routledge classics. London ; New York: Routledge.
Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks : How social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Danto, Arthur Coleman. 1992. Beyond the Brillo Box : The visual arts in post-historical perspective. 1st ed. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life [Arts de faire.]. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Klein, Naomi. 2002. No logo : No space, no choice, no jobs. New York: Picador : Distributed by Holtzbrinck Publishers.
Lessig, Lawrence. 2004. Free Culture : How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York: Penguin Press.
Warhol, Andy. 1978. Oxidation Painting Gagosian Gallery, New York, New York, United States.
———. 1968. Brillo Box Contemporary Art (Larry Qualls Archive).
———. 1962. Do it Yourself (landscape) Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.
———. 1962. Marilyn Diptych The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=15976&tabview=image.
Warhol, Andy. 1975. The philosophy of Andy Warhol : From A to B and back again. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Warhol, Andy, and Mike Wrenn. 1991. Andy Warhol in his Own Words. London ; New York; New York, NY, USA: Omnibus Press; Music Sales Corp. distributor.
Yau, John, and Andy Warhol. 1993. In the realm of appearances : The Art of Andy Warhol. 1st ed. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press.