Broken Social Scene

Andy Warhol: Muhammad Ali, 1977, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, 40 inches square. Courtesy University of Maryland Art Gallery, College Park. © Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


IN 2007, while social media platforms were still in their infancy, social scientist Elizabeth Currid published a book arguing that New York City’s chief economic engine is its cluster of “creative industries”: art, fashion, publishing, music, nightlife, and so on. Rather than seeing a lively cultural scene as the result of the city’s prosperity, Currid argued that the artistic milieu—the underground as well as established institutions, gatecrashers as well as gatekeepers—generates the prosperity. Thus, cities should orient planning efforts toward facilitating “arts districts” of clubs, bars, galleries, and studios where “creatives” can freely conglomerate, compounding social capital and generating lucrative innovation.

In an apparent effort to glamorize her treatment of sociality and cultural ferment as exploitable resources, Currid called her book The Warhol Economy. This seems a strange choice, given the air of cynical superficiality and chilly hauteur that Warhol seemed to deliberately cultivate—not to mention that one of the “creatives” in his circle, Valerie Solanas, took advantage of the permeability of his cultural scene to try to murder him in 1968.

Yet Currid writes as if Warhol were an all-purpose signifier for the uncomplicated desirability of a semidomesticated counterculture. Her book makes only passing references to Warhol, but in explaining the catchy title, she claims that he “understood but also encapsulated, in both his work and his Factory, the collective nature of creativity.”1 With rhetoric that anticipates the hype for social media platforms, she mentions how Warhol’s commingling of the demimonde with influencers from different culture industries allowed them to be “constantly engaging each other and sharing ideas and resources.”2 She doesn’t mention that the hangers-on at the Factory weren’t, for the most part, paid directly for their outbursts of synergistic creative energy; instead she celebrates their supposed opportunity to monetize the notoriety they gained from Warhol’s social infrastructure. This, too, describes social media platforms—not as they are promoted but as their business model actually functions.

Currid also fails to acknowledge that Warhol’s Factory—generating work with a kind of automated relentlessness, while thriving on the sensationalized coverage it attracted—mercilessly sucked people dry, leaving a series of drug-related casualties and ambiguous suicides in its wake. Warhol, inadvertently or not, orchestrated people’s exhaustion by media, turning them into so many messages set to self-destruct. His vampirism was a running joke among the scene’s denizens in the mid-1960s. Often characterizing himself as devoid of ideas, he developed artistic product instead from other people’s desperation, their hunger for a mass-media-style recognition. The scene around him provided easy means for further experiments in the attention economy, whose logic he had already explored in his mechanically reproduced paintings of branded products, tabloid photos, and celebrities in crisis or decline.

Warhol presented being manipulated, both visually and socially, as an ongoing condition—a way of being, a journey without a destination. By divorcing emotional manipulation from its practical context, he effectively isolated what was compelling about branding—the power to seduce viewers or arrest their attention—and repurposed it to advertise himself as a brand. These maneuvers granted art world audiences permission to dignify the pleasures they already took in commercial culture. It wasn’t avant-garde irony but sincere appropriation of strategies designed to infiltrate consciousness. His work sought to appear as already in demand, adapted to and approved by existing networks of circulation.

Warhol proposed that recording reality could absolve us of intentionality, even as it made us all (or perhaps everyone but ourselves) self-aware performers. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he notes: “the acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it’s not a problem any more.”3 This can be read as a naive utopianism—our problems can be solved by turning them into performances—but it is also about making a proprietary claim to the emotions that emerge from social relations.

Warhol’s agnostic attitude toward content and the realities of interpersonal responsibility and his embrace of pure circulation—of the strength of signal in and of itself—made him an avatar of art without concern for agency, of popularity without concern for people. In her memoir, Ultra Violet, one of Warhol’s “superstars,” wrote of him, “This was a man who believed in nothing and had emotional involvements with no one, who was driven to find his identity in the mirror of the press, then came to believe that reality existed only in what was recorded, photographed, or transcribed.”4


IN HIS COMMITMENT to passive recording, Warhol manifested the promise of media, casting a voyeuristic spell that brought out the masochistic performance latent in anyone who had ever hoped fame could bring salvation. Warhol embodied the promise of an audience and waited for the cast of characters around him to become unhinged. In a sense, he was a one-man YouTube. The implicit demand for content built into his pose turned receptivity into a cloaked form of manipulation. “Before I was shot,” Warhol wrote, “I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. . . . Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television.”5 When she was apprehended by police, Solanas spoke the inevitable corollary, explaining, in the officer’s account, that she had to shoot Warhol because “he had too much control over my life.”6

Warhol’s fixation on attention and recording has made him seem an especially prescient commentator on each successive wave of media culture—of each new mode of commodifiable communication, surveillance, and celebrity, whether that be the creative-class playgrounds of the gentrified city, the collapse of the public and the private and the personal and the professional in reality TV, or the feats of self-exploitation on social media. Not only did he have no qualms with pursuing attention in bad faith, he ostensibly celebrated it. He was the champion of hustlers, scammers, and sellouts.

The recurring popularity of the idea most associated with him—that everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes—also reflects this prescience; it can be construed as prophetic about anything that appears to expand the potential audience for media programming. The phrase itself is a readymade meme, sufficiently formulaic to be highly amenable to adaptation, as with its use to describe the phenomenon of “microcelebrity,” where everyone is famous to fifteen people. Of YouTube vloggers, among whom it is received wisdom that the site’s algorithms favor long clips, one might say they are famous for fifteen minutes at a time.

Fifteen minutes of fame quantifies attention-seeking as a master motive. Art, from this view, can be hardly anything but branding: a mechanism for generating familiarity and emotional connection, for producing the illusion of fame and monetizing it. No negation, no critique—just a productive stream of “likes” that generate more works, more stars. It was fitting that Warhol’s diaries—described in a 1989 New York Times review as his attempt “to achieve his ultimate comment on the culture in which meaning equals visibility”7—were popularly serialized on the Twitter account @WarholLives, which has since been suspended, perhaps for being an automated bot, for being inauthentic, or for being a copyright violator (all conditions which Warhol aspired to or achieved).

Warhol notoriously declared that “good business is the best art”—that is, commercialism orients the process of art-making and constitutes its only valid goal.8 In practice, this meant garnering maximum attention for minimum cause—the condition of becoming “famous for being famous,” then, is a kind of apotheosis for the artist. But it also means that pursuing celebrity testifies not to one’s uniqueness but rather to one’s ability to assimilate and be assimilated.

The commissioned portraits that Warhol formulaically executed late in his career testify to this—they flatter patrons with their self-importance while fitting them to a pattern that overrides it, much as social media profiles now work. The patrons become bit components in a larger homogenization that speaks to the value of the Warhol platform. Standardization allows individuality to emerge, offering a backdrop against which it can be discerned even as it is reshaped and controlled. Individualism, in other words, isn’t a form of Romantic resistance to society’s homogenizing forces but a vindication of them, and it provides an alibi for the exclusion of some by the standards.

One way to understand Warhol’s late portraits is as an effort to de-democratize fame in repudiation of the Factory’s radical openness, to replace raw charismatic potential and outsider energy with the more tried-and-true authenticators of wealth and status. This was fame sanctified and protected through the schema of patronage. It has little to do with innovation or the creative energies at the social margins.

The ideal that Currid associates Warhol with—the Warhol “who merged cultural production with a social scene”—lives on in the social spaces most primed for exploitation, in the influencer and vlogger culture on platforms like YouTube and Instagram. Just as Warhol considered a problem to be a good tape, impresarios like Jake Paul have adapted his point-and-shoot, slice-of-life filmmaking strategies to an always connected medium, producing videos at a relentless rate that itself confers more meaning than the content of any particular clip. The point is not what Paul and his entourage are doing so much as the fact that there is always more coming to watch. “It’s everyday, bro,” as he puts it. The goal is to sustain audiences by supplying a sense of hanging out, a vicarious belonging and loyalty maintained through constant connection and fresh material. These audiences, often dubbed “communities,” in turn supply the likes, faves, and subscriber numbers that make an influencer’s personal brand valuable to advertisers.

Like Warhol, Paul has maintained a glamorized hangout space (the “Team 10 house”) that doubles as a film studio, where staged conflicts among his pseudo-superstars are quickly manufactured and recorded for syndication on his various channels. In 2017 he told a New York Times reporter, “I want to create an empire of dozens of talent under me, to take my power and multiply it so that I become bigger than myself.”9 Part of this is his Warholian approach of using other people as his medium; another part is his seventy-four-episode video series that purports to teach viewers how to become online influencers.

Paul appears to exert a lot of effort to come across as half-assed and talentless, as if making it without talent is the ultimate confirmation that one is destined for attention. About his ad hoc attempt to become a rapper—reminiscent in its studied nonchalance of the way Warhol tackled new mediums—he told the Times, “To me, the whole thing was a joke. I was like, I’m going to morph into a rapper and just go for it, 100 percent.”10 The indiscriminate platforms now available make this strategy seem viable: everyone can try to be anything for an audience that could always potentially materialize and validate it. But a spate of recent articles have reported on the phenomenon of YouTube burnout, an inability to produce at the requisite pace. YouTuber Matt Lees told the Guardian, “It’s one of the most toxic things: the point at which you’re breaking down is the point at which the algorithm loves you the most.”11 The algorithm has already produced its own Solanas-like figure, Nasim Najafi Aghdam, who stormed the YouTube campus and shot three people after she concluded that the company’s filters were suppressing her attention metrics.

Warhol was among the first to figure out how to use avant-garde prestige to exploit the contemporary desire for celebrity. But social media platforms have scaled up that process and stripped it of any artistic pretensions. It no longer seems remarkable or defensible to claim that being good at that sort of business is “the best art” when it has become a billion-dollar industry in its own right. Extracting value from social networks at the expense of their participants is as mainstream and ubiquitous a practice as branding soap boxes or soup cans. But rather than recast the world as an enchanted consumer paradise full of symbols pregnant with inarticulable significance for untold masses, social media platforms make us all failing creators, has-beens whose fifteen minutes are always already up, even before they have arrived.