Sunday, August 23, 2015

On stealing like an artist and Andy Warhol's more than fifteen minutes of fame

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” -- Andy Warhol

"If I have to live in fear, my ideas will slowly slip away/If I have to live in fear, I'm afraid my life will slip away." -- Lou Reed and John Cale, "Slip Away (A Warning)"

Here is Part 2 of my Squawk about my Pittsburgh trip. (Here is a link to Part 1.)

I thought a lot about creativity on my trip to Pittsburgh. And while "creativity" and "Pittsburgh" may seem more than a little oxymoronic, there is a connection. Bear with me here.

First: ever read a book that gets you so fired up you want to get going on the rest of your life right then and there? That is how I felt when I read Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative on the 8 1/2 hour Greyhound bus ride to Pittsburgh Wednesday night.

Given that I live by myself, and don't have family obligations involving a spouse or children, you would think it would be easy enough to have time and space to be creative. But it recently occurred to me that the siren sound of the Internet can be a distraction, as can TV and other assorted shenanigans.

So when I took the bus to and from Pittsburgh, I had time and space to do nothing but read and write. I started by reading Steal Like an Artist. It is a short book -- 160 pages. I was able to read it in just a few hours on the bus to Pittsburgh, and then reread it. I was so excited about it, I breathlessly sent a note to a fellow writer to pick up this book as soon as possible to inspire his own writing!

The book is all about how to get creative work done. I ended up incorporating some of the ideas from the book during my trip, and worked on a non-Squawker writing project of my own on the bus ride back! So it turns out the book was well worth reading!

My last stop in my trip to Pittsburgh was the Andy Warhol Museum, located on the North Shore right near PNC Park. The Warhol, as they call it, is the biggest museum in the country devoted to one artist. Andrew Warhola (he dropped the “a” as soon as he started as an artist) was born and raised in Pittsburgh.

Given that Warhol was so identified with New York City, you might wonder why this museum is in Pittsburgh. But I think it actually works, given that he is a quintessential American artist.
He also had more of a heartland sensibility than you might think. It was fitting that after Faith Night, I went to see an art by a man inspired by his religion. While it wasn’t well-known during his life that Warhol was a devout Catholic, he was a believer. He went to church at least several times a week and volunteered in a church-run soup kitchen. His funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and he is buried in a Byzantine Catholic cemetery just outside of Pittsburgh. He lived his faith, in his own quirky way.

The museum is on Sandusky Street, of all places. (An aside: I thought Jerry Sandusky was the biggest celebrity monster in history, But now between Bill Cosby, Aaron Hernandez and Jared Fogle, he now has some competition! Good grief.)

The front desk person at the museum said that the best way to see the Andy Warhol Museum is to take the elevator to the seventh floor and work your way down. To which I add, an even better way to see the museum is to listen to Velvet Underground members Lou Reed and John Cale’s concept album “Songs for Drella,” which tells the story of Warhol’s life, as I did when visiting the museum. Click here to hear the album for yourself.

Drella – combining Dracula and Cinderalla – was a nickname Warhol had, but didn’t particularly like. Reed and Cale were Warhol’s protégés in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the 60s happening that featured the Velvet Underground. And Warhol designed their banana album cover!

But “Songs for Drella” is an honest tribute album. Warhol isn’t perfect, but neither are Reed and Cale, as they recount in their lyrics.

Seeing Warhol’s childhood pictures when listening to Lou Reed sing “Smalltown” really worked for me, especially with lines like this. “When you're growing up in a small town/Bad skin, bad eyes - gay and fatty/People look at you funny/When you're in a small town” and “I hate being odd in a small town/If they stare let them stare in New York City.”

So did seeing the Pop Art Warhol works of Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy and Natalie Wood while listening to the lyrics of “Work.” Which talk about how Warhol felt that “the most important thing is work. In the most memorable part of the song, Warhol chastises Lou Reed for not doing the work:
No matter what I did it never seemed enough/He said I was lazy, I said I was young/He said, "How many songs did you write?/"I'd written zero, I'd lied and said, "Ten.""You won't be young forever/You should have written fifteen"/It’s work.”
What the museum does is show that Warhol was a true artist, and not just a wacky personality. The Factory -- his studio and his system – may have had others involved with creating the art, but the vision was all Warhol’s. He was an authentic multimedia artist, working in everything from drawing to painting to music to film.

The Warhol also has a variety of interactive exhibits. You can make your own screen test, as Warhol filmed as art. You can go down to the lower level and go to The Factory and make your own art. There is a room with those Warhol-designed floating silver pillows of air. There is even a Warhol kids’ section in the museum.

In addition to the art and the interactivity, the museum also has some information about Warhol the person. In a really cruel irony, he was initially pronounced dead after Valerie Solanas shot him, and suffered severe injuries that affected his quality of life for the rest of his days. But he really died at the age of just 58 after a routine gall bladder surgery, thanks to some awful medical care. (Lou Reed blames Solanas for Warhol’s death, too; the gall bladder issues Warhol had were due to the shooting.)

I could identify with Warhol in a lot of ways – especially feeling different and being seriously ill during our childhoods (he had St. Vitus’ Dance; I had encephalitis.) As I know from personal experience, going through that when you are young is something that affects you for the rest of your life.

Like me, Warhol also spent a number of years in advertising. He was so successful, he was making $70,000 a year – in the 1950s! Heck, I wish I were that successful now!

My favorite things at the Warhol were seeing the celebrity portraits, which have everyone from Mao to Mick Jagger, and to check out all the Velvet Underground-related stuff and hearing their music. There is also an exhibit devoted to Warhol's work on the "Sticky Fingers" cover (the one with a zipper.) You learn more about Warhol’s life in a film shown on the first floor. “Fifteen Minutes” is actually a nearly 30-minute look at Warhol’s life and times, as well as his art. I wish I had seen the film before touring the museum, though, as I would have paid extra attention to some things.

I would have liked to learn more about Warhol’s personal life, especially his love life. Did he have a great love? The most the museum gets into such topics is the note that even fellow gay painters thought he was flamboyant! 

I also wanted to know what the deal was with Andy's hair! What made him adopt that fright wig look? I asked one of the museum employees, and he didn't know the answer. Bummer.

It is also pretty clear to me, given the Warhol "time capsules" -- hundreds of boxes with his collectibles -- that he was a hoarder. (But I guess if you are rich and have enough room for your stuff, you are just eccentric!)

Towards the end of his life, Warhol was known more for being a celebrity than his art.  As Lou Reed puts it “Hello It’s Me,” the last song on “Songs for Drella,” that “your Diaries are not a worthy epitaph.” Fortunately, that has changed, with Warhol's genius getting the attention it deserves.

The museum does give Warhol more than that infamous 15 minutes of fame. And the work endures. He wanted to be rich and famous and have his work matter. He got all three. And visiting the museum dedicated to him inspired me very much. Now I want to get my own fifteen minutes of fame!

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