Many who hung around Warhol’s studio, the Factory, were cultural space-debris, drifting fragments from a variety of 60's subcultures - transvestites, drug users, S&M enthusiasts, rockers, poor little rich kids, criminals, street-hood rats, and their permutations. It was a dark garden of personalities and stories. They religiously orbited around Andy, the unmoved mover. His only subject was detachment: the condition of being a spectator, dealing hands-off with the world, through the filter of photography.
Although real talent was thin and scattered in this tiny universe, it surfaced in music, with figures like Lou Reed and John Cale. Various 70s punk groups, and many of today's darlings were/are, wittingly or not, the offspring of Warhol’s Velvet Underground. The VU are more popular today than they were at the time. But most of the cast of characters, groupies and curiosity seekers who filled the Factory, left almost nothing of interest behind.
They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself." — Andy Warhol
It's nice to feel special. Warhol called them all “Superstars”. If they actually possessed talent, discipline, or stamina, they would not have needed Andy. But then, he would not have needed them either. The submitted gave Andy his ghostly aura of power. If he withdrew his gaze, his carefully allotted permission or recognition, some felt that they would cease to exist. The poor ones would melt back into the toxic indifferent chaos of the streets. The rich ones might end up in some magazine, if they lived. Edie Sedgwick, the Vogue model and star in many of his films, never saw thirty. She checked out from a barbiturate OD. Meanwhile, Valerie Solanas shot Andy because she said Warhol had too much control over her life.
Raised as a dirt poor yet strict Polish Catholic, Warhol offered them absolution, the gaze of the blank mirror that refuses all judgment. When he made his films, the camera deified him, as he collected hour upon hour of tantrums, misery, sexual spasms, and nose-picking trivia. This was an instrument of power over the actors. He was their 'selfies' creator. For most audiences, Warhol’s films were usually boring and alienating. To others, it was cutting edge art.
In this way, the Factory resembled a cult sect. It was a parody of Catholicism enacted by many people who were or had been Catholic. In it, the rituals of total B.S. showed that they were hungry for approval and forgiveness. This all came in the all too familiar American form: publicity. Warhol became the Pontiff and the instrument of this change. Inspired by the examples of Dali and writer Truman Capote, Andy went after publicity with the single-mindedness of a shark feeding frenzy.
To be one’s own PR outfit before then was nearly unthinkable. This may be one of many reasons NYC artists felt contempt for Salvador Dali. But in the 60s all that began to change, as the art world began to turn into the Art Business. Andy got that publicity spades, because the press and television were in the process of reshuffling and re-stacking the social deck. Aided by social engineers, the media was used to construct a parallel universe in which critical thinking was replaced by the new tyranny of the “interesting". Its rules had to do with the rapid shift of style and image, and selling the assumption that all civilized life was discontinuous, and worth only a short attention span. Ring any bells? According to this new scripture, to enter, all you had to do was be born. This was noted by Warhol's quote, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” But to remain famous, and to stay drenched in the glittering spray of promotional culture, you also needed other qualities. One was an air of detachment. A 'pop icon' must never look into the lens. Another was an acute sense of nuance, an eye for the next anorexic runway goddess, and trends of fashion which would regulate the other senses and appetites, to give detachment its point.
Diligent and frigid, Warhol had both to a striking degree. He was not a “hot” artist, a man mastered by a particular vision and anxious to impose it on the world. Warhol wished to be Culture and Culture only: “I want to be a machine.” But Warhol was the only one at the time who embodied a culture of promotion as such. He had enjoyed success as a commercial artist, doing everything from shoe ads to recipe illustrations. He understood the tough 'art world'. He was not yet an “aristocracy”, but was trying to become one, where the machinery of fashion, gossip, image-bending, and narcissistic chic could be played like a piano. He knew packaging, and mass produced his art in 'limited number' runs.
With the 1977 opening of Studio 54 , his Interview Magazine found its “new” Factory, its spiritual home. It became a kind of marionette theater in print, with the same figures month after month, doing a few twirls, sucking or snorting something.Marisa, Bianca Jagger, Margaret Trudeau, and the rest of the new stars replaced the discarded Superstars of the old Factory days. The magazine was primarily a social-climbing device for Andy and his staff. And it worked. The aristocracy was hungry for approval and Warhol selfies, too!
Above all, the working-class kid who had spent so many thousands of hours gazing into the hypnotic glare of the TV screen, realized that the mid-60s cultural moment favored a walking void. Television was producing a void culture, and Warhol succeeded in becoming one of its heroes.
It was no longer necessary for an artist to act crazy. Other people could act crazy for you, and that was what Warhol’s Factory and Studio 54 were all about. By the end of the 70s craziness was becoming normal, and half of America seemed to be immersed in some tedious and noisy form of self-expression. Craziness no longer suggested uniqueness. Warhol’s bland, ice cube translucency was much more intriguing. His works and legend live on.