Today’s popular culture is the playground of influencers, tastemakers and celebrities creating original content that taps seamlessly into our everyday lives, punctuated by hashtags, product placement and the cult of superstardom. A pioneering concept invented with the rise of online culture? Not so, the master of Pop Art has never felt so relevant.
Pioneering Product Placement
Andy Warhol transformed the Coca-Cola bottle seen on billboards everywhere from the 1960s and the Brillo boxes found under every kitchen sink in America into something extraordinary. With pops of colour and his own slight adjustments, Warhol transformed these familiar images into art. In part in credit to his prior career in advertising – he worked as a graphic artist for big companies like Glamour Magazine, Columbia Records and Tiffany & Co.– he coined an aesthetic much related to Pop Art. He brought international audiences to his colourful appropriation of household brands because of their cultural relevance, comparable to that of Starbucks, Amazon and Apple today. Not only are their iconic logos instantly recognisable, they also represent the contemporary culture of mass consumerism that so intrigued Warhol and would be the lasting legacy of him as an artist and arguably the beginnings of product placement.
Warhol, both the artist himself and his work, possess an undeniable magnetism that transcends the norm, proved by Burger King’s 2019 Super Bowl advertisement which screened the iconic video of Warhol eating a hamburger. The ad is a condensed version of a scene from Jørgen Leth’s 1982 film “66 Scenes from America” in which Warhol takes apart his burger, adds ketchup and eats it, finishing with his uncomfortable stare into the camera. The scene is positively banal and starkly contrasted with the other dynamic ads running during the Super Bowl. Why would Burger King dedicate its crucial Super Bowl spot, which comes around once a year and at a notoriously high price, to a seemingly boring film of a man eating a hamburger? The reality is that he’s not any man. Warhol pictured with the burger itself is enough to sell the product, an idea further supported by the campaign that coincided with the campaign “#EatLikeAndy,” further asserting that anyone with style or taste would eat a Burger King hamburger, like Warhol himself.
Warhol is a brand, one that can sell just about anything, even post-mortem. Often referred to as the court painter of the 70s, Warhol was famously attracted to the world’s most beautiful and interesting celebrities of the time. He surrounded himself with the likes of David Bowie and Liza Minelli and manipulated existing photos of stars such as Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor. Speaking of Warhol’s depictions of the latter starlet, American art critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Jerry Saltz stated “Andy is the air we breathe; Liz was the air he breathed.” And so true a statement it is. Warhol was obsessed with the cult of celebrity and Hollywood from a young age, having found an escape from his working-class life in magazines and through collecting film star autographs. At the height of his career, Warhol applied these early interests through appropriating photographs and iconic images of the world’s favourite stars.
But if these people were already famous and these images already existed in mass, how did Warhol’s appropriation of them make them all the more famous? Simply put, because they were familiar. The world had already seen the iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe’s dress flying up and knew that anything Jackie Kennedy wore would be an instant hit. By reproducing images of these already famous celebrities in his own aesthetic, Warhol continued to reach international audiences. As such, Warhol’s works have become timelessly iconic, elevating their status with each new work produced and maintaining their relevance – even today – for a generation who now see them as popular culture icons. It is for this reason that Saltz said that for him “Elizabeth Taylor is Andy Warhol’s painting of her.”
The Cult of Celebrity
Warhol created celebrities out of celebrities, he sold the world on people they already loved. He added an extra level of validity to their careers and solidified their likenesses in history. Now, you’re more likely to find images of Warhol’s Liz on t-shirts and coffee mugs than you would of any other image of Elizabeth Taylor. Warhol had, and continues to have, an incredible influence on popular culture – even before the dawn of social media he created the persona of the influencer we know today.
The cultural effect is the same, for example Kendall Jenner, the media personality with 121 million followers on Instagram could sell anything from a tracksuit she wore in a paparazzi photograph to tickets to events like the Fyre Festival. As demonstrated by the Fyre Festival scandal, nothing else was needed for thousands across the world to run out and buy festival tickets even if the festival looked a bit bogus, if Kendall Jenner supports them then they are relevant. She and other influencers across the board, from Kanye West to Victoria Beckham, have created a Warhol effect.
Influencer Culture: A Warholian Ideology
Influencer culture today is impregnated into life online; you can’t get away from it. Warhol predated social media and influencer culture, both of which is entirely entwined into his interests. Influencers are directly connected to consumerism and technology – both very Warholian. They are people who use their power to impact the buying habits or actions of others, often through creating original content for social media. Their authority, through however it was gained, is what influences people to act on a post.
Influencers, from the likes of the Jenner sisters to Love Island graduates to vegan cooks and everyone in between, consistently reach their viewership through Instagram. For 11 years Warhol took photos every day, totalling 130,000 images. It’s easy to see how this obsessive documentation of life is comparable to the contemporary obligation to share superfluous photos of our aesthetically pleasing everyday life. It’s the subject matter of Warhol’s photographic output that so closely that mirrors social media’s tone, his collection includes everything from Keith Haring, painting his iconic designs onto a model, to a polaroid of a carton of eggs.
Ironically, perhaps, and in part the subject of the Tate’s 2020’s Warhol exhibition, Warhol was an introvert, and something of an outsider – it’s been said that this compulsive photography was his way of avoiding unnecessary conversation. The camera was his shield – an old adage with stark relevancy to today’s phone camera culture – which allowed him to fade into the background without question of his famous awkwardness. In effect, his antisocial behaviour helped create his brand seen in the Burger King commercial. This awkward guy with bleached straight hair producing images of the world around us as we know it. The strange and obvious, Warhol’s brand is one with enough historical validation to sell itself. Never before has Warhol felt more relevant to the culture surrounding us in 2020, nearly 50 years since he first reappropriated the now iconic portrait of Marilyn, the most famous woman in the world.