Delegitimizing the Modern World Through Artistic Subversion:
Behind the "Glam" Scam
Andy Warhol's Ladies and Gentleman (1975) and Dana Schutz's Fight in an Elevator 2 (2015) draw attention to elements in society seething just below the surface of what should otherwise be a nice, calm, placid demeanor. Warhol's set of silk screen prints, for instance, is situated in a sex-gender context, which should not be troublesome since sex and gender are natural expressions of biology -- yet in the silk screen prints there is trouble and conflict as the genders are seemingly pitted against one another, clashing visually and even ideologically with traditional hegemonic norms while they "vogue" it up with pop color couture designs. In Schutz's painting a similar troubled element is displayed in a flashy "pop art" way it reveals societal tensions lurking just beneath the surface. In Schutz's painting, the focus is not on gender (appearances) but on the everyday events of daily life -- something as mundane as riding in an elevator. Schutz uses the idea of the mundane to show how claustrophobic and psychotic modern society actually is -- how it is in danger of breaking out into chaos at the slightest touch, which happens in her elevator scene as the various characters get into a massive brawl while moving between floors. In a macro sense, both paintings reflect the troubled world at large, how superficial and obsessed with "glam" makeovers and splashy technology it is, and yet how pressing social issues are represented in a subtle way in the artists' presentation of reality through modern art expressions.
Both Warhol's Ladies and Schutz's Elevator capture the attention immediately through their vivid renderings of life being more than meets the eye. Warhol captures the attention by his use of shape and color and images that are easy are the eyes. Like his Monroe, his "ladies" invite the viewer eyes. But Warhol is playing tricks on his viewer at the same time, because these "ladies" are actually gentlemen in drag. Their self-mocking, semi-serious expressions give the joke away and Warhol's graphic coloring that floods the images and lays overtop the outline without respect to borders gives the "queens" both some verve and the requisite lawlessness they need for setting about their subversion of hegemonic gender norms. Sexuality was part and parcel with the social revolution of the 60s and 70s and Warhol here uses that theme to draw attention to the underbelly of polite society.
So too does Schutz capture the attention with her painting. It sizzles in its cubism and calls back to Picasso in a comic homage that doubles as a bit of social satire. At first glance the viewer is thrown off by the shiny, metallic doors that frame the action as well as by the colorful cubist shapes inside the opening doors (which open at a slant, appropriately tilting and jarring the viewer's sense of balance). Once the eyes have had a chance to make out exactly what is going on in the painting, it becomes clear that the cubist figures represent the modern world gone mad, as they subjects leap at one another's throat, making the already small elevator even smaller in their mad rush to see who can be king of the mountain. Behind the metallic, modern veneer of the doors and underneath the prim and proper social etiquette skulks a psychotic, schizoid mentality seething to get out. Just as Warhol peels back the veneer of gender and sexuality in 1970s New York, giving transgenders all the "glam" makeover they can want and hurling it in the face of the mainstream, so too does Schutz show what lies hidden behind the glamorous scam that is 21st polite society: violence, hatred, and war within the small community.
Warhol studied commercial art in his youth at Carnegie Institute of Technology before taking a degree in fine arts (Colacello 19). His craft grew out of his knowledge of both extremes of art (the high and the low) as he arranged them in a kind of marriage of Heaven and Hell to produce pop art. He "glammed" up the unglamorous -- showed the world what a Campbell's soup can looked like as though for the first time and turned the commercial into something to be admired by the "art world." For Warhol admirers, his subjects said more than meets the eye: the soup can for instance was more than just pop art -- it was an indictment of our commercialized, mass produced, mass consumerist culture of fakeness. At least, that was the theory among the "tout le monde" (Wolfe 14). Warhol thrived in New York City where he practiced art in all forms, painting, silk screen, filmmaking while celebrating his trendy underground lifestyle at his Factory where all the magic happened.
Schutz on the other hand was born when Warhol was at his height -- indeed, the same year he did Ladies and Gentlemen. Schutz studies art in Cleveland, England and New York and took up her career in NYC after finding her niche in the creation of "grotesques" -- fantastic representations of the world around her (that focus on the ugly underbelly and exaggerate its proportions in order to produce an effect on the viewer) (Rosenberg). In her paintings she captures that weird expression of mankind's underlying psychopathy, his tendency to lose control of himself, flail about wildly in both mind and body, and submit himself to a manic, violent passion (Smith).
Schutz's imagery is cubist and abstract as she utilizes the Picasso style of painting to indicate and express how society is literally coming apart at the seams by reshaping itself according to what it is not -- inhuman ideals, fantasies, and unrealistic expectations. A fight is inevitable, Schutz appears to suggest -- and Fight in an Elevator 2 shows just that. The soul of man is overflowing with so many contradictory impulses that conflict cannot help but bubble to the surface: the PC culture of the world rubs up against the Western authoritarian spirit of self-assertion and unrestraint so that the clash between sensitivity and insensitivity renders the mind in two. As much is evident in Schutz's work -- but it is also evident in Warhol's, especially in Ladies and Gentlemen, in which the gender dichotomy is thrown out the window and reflected in a startling depiction of grotesques glammed up with bright neon colors and cat-walk expressions on their faces as though these queens were loving the attention given them by the adoring Warhol and his underworld friends.
Indeed, Warhol's use of "pop" vogue colors and trendy ad-like styles ironically mocks the mainstream. By "going" mainstream Warhol fuses his two worlds -- the world of the (also ironically named) Factory where his underworld populace resided (bohemians, drag queens, artists, rock musicians) and the art world. The drag queen subjects of Warhol's silk screens appear to be rolling their eyes at tout le monde at the same time they ascend the social ladder to a position of glamorousness and significance. It is a hollow ascendency because at root it is fashion art -- a fad, a trend in style that comes and goes as surely as the seasons. If there is something at its substance, at its core, it is this: that society is splitting in two, that the "glam" scam is covering over a serious division and schizoid tendency in society -- a fractionated, fragmented, I-am-what-I-am-not culture that lives in the mindset of Shakespeare's Iago, selling one face to the admiring public and reserving another face (the real face) for private. In his drag queens, Warhol saw the effort that men took -- "double-time" he called it -- in making themselves up to look and act like women (Warhol 98). But these men are not just acting like women -- they are recreating the glamorous poses of Hollywood starlets, models set for the stage, for the limelight, for the ads, for consumers. They do not reflect real life, real women, or reality at all -- they reflect rather the fantasy -- the allure of glamorousness, attention, hyper-sexuality, sensuality, and fame. Yet, underneath, as Warhol points out, it is all an attempt to be something other than what they are. Ironically, his queens are inspired to put in the work and effort to transform themselves, to erect the fantasy and to parade it. When the world is coming apart at the seams, Warhol seems to suggest that fantasy is the last vestige of civilization.
In conclusion, Warhol and Schutz represent the real world through styles that subvert the overall the tendency of the world to generate myths about itself that are more harmful than helpful. Warhol explores the gender-creation myth and shows how our society is fascinated with the idea of becoming another sex and Schutz shows how our world is brimming with contention and self-defeating ideas that lead to dangerous emotions and conflicts. Warhol embraces the commercial aspect of art and exploits it to undermine the mainstream mentality, while Schutz embraces…