Interpreting Meaning as Pharmakon: The Good, the Bad, and the Hyperreal in Andy Warhol’s Mao Paintings

October 27, 2010

Before I get going here, I would like to lay out a couple things. First, I will be writing this paper audaciously in the spirit of the much-derided Jane Tompkins, who feels it is wrong that “you can’t talk about your private life in the course of doing your professional work” (2130). For Tompkins, the epistemology of formal critical writing acts as a straightjacket not only for reader accessibility but also upon authorial creativity (2143). Breaking away from traditional critical epistemology, then, may open up the potential for more creative, belletristic, and engaging writing. This marks an exciting proposition for me, as with this paper, I hope to share some issues of contemporary art and criticism that I have been wrestling with for quite a while in a way that readers can easily connect with.[1] For this reason, what follows will probably feel more like a extended exploratory introduction rather than a organized dialectic. Using Andy Warhol’s series of Mao paintings as a vehicle, I want to take a look at why the Maos qualify as postmodern art, introduce my modest proposal of art’s meaning as a pharmakon, discuss the various ways we may interpret the Maos using critical methodologies, show that our interpretations contribute to the continually-forming meaning of the art, and finally provide some historical context.[2] What I hope to establish is that, regardless of original intention, Warhol’s Maos create a challenging space for us to think, and, when the right critical methodologies are put to work, even provide a metacognitive platform to for us to analyze how we think.

Andy Warhol "Mao"

So, although the nature of this exploration will lead to many tangents, I will try to get off to a good start and stick to my roadmap as much as possible, beginning by briefly explaining postmodernism and showing how Warhol is a postmodern artist before moving on to how this knowledge affects our interpretations of the Maos.[3] We can understand part of what postmodernism means by comparing postmodern art to modern art. Generally, in Art History, the modern art movement lasted from about 1860 to the mid-twentieth-century. And, as the name implies, postmodernism generally marks an end to modernist avant-garde values and first began emerging significantly in America after World War II. The abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, who painted from 1896 to 1944, is a thoroughly modern artist.

Wassily Kandinksy's "Composition 7"

Kandinsky believed that his spiritually-charged art, simply by evoking feelings and emotions in viewers, could be a powerful tool for positive social change that would facilitate the ultimate victory of spirituality over materialism (31-32). This inherent sense of presence, deliberate aesthetic, and spirituality is what Marxist critic Walter Benjamin would call the work’s aura: that authenticity which is lost in the process of mechanical reproduction (1168-9).

Walter Benjamin

Directly contrasting these concerns, postmodern artists are disillusioned with art’s ability to affect social change, for this would imply privileging one approach to life over another.[4] This reluctance to generalize or universalize morality, even when faced with the promise of social harmony that modern artists found so alluring, has received attention in the poststructural theories of Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. Given that some circles call poststructuralism “postmodern theory,” we can see that the attitude of postmodernism is basically synonymous with that of the poststructuralism (Leitch et al 21).[5] As such, Jean-Francois Lyotard defines postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” (xxiv).

Jean-François Lyotard

A metanarrative is anything that suggests that it holds the key to all universal problems: for example, the life of Jesus, the American dream, or Marxism. In psychoanalytic terms, I am going to suggest that a metanarrative is roughly synonymous with Jacques Lacan’s concept of the objet petit a, or the unattainable object of desire (Leitch et al 1281).

Jacques Lacan

To my understanding, we experience what Lacan calls jouissance when we experience brief episodes of satisfaction unexpectedly.[6]

Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" - a fine example of jouissance

However, just like orgasm, which jouissance is closely related to, we can never reach a fully sustained position of satisfied jouissance in relation to what we desire, whether what we desire is to be like Jesus, to live in a communist state that Marx would approve of, or to produce circumspect writing, as is my case. So, especially considering the fragmentation of American experience that has occurred since World War II, which is at least partially due to the global logic of late capitalism, artists with a postmodern attitude will show no faith in these universalizing answers to life’s problems, instead simply focusing on their art’s exchange value and medium of production.[7] Case in point: Andy Warhol.

Andy Warhol

As one of the founders of Pop Art, a style often thought of as ushering in the attitude of postmodernism to art, Andy Warhol sought primarily to destabilize distinctions between everyday life and the high art of avant-garde modernism, which, as we can now see, based its avant-gardism on the assumption that society could progress towards something greater. One way that Warhol blurred the divide between life and art was by readily embracing (as opposed modernism’s avoidance at all costs of) Walter Benjamin’s discussion of technological reproducibility through his very medium of production: photo-silk-screening. By using silkscreening, a technique that can print the same photograph-based image exactly over and over, Warhol denied his art any sense of spirituality, aura, or presence in the ways that Benjamin or Kandinsky would use those terms. In fact, Warhol once famously stated, “The reason I’m painting this way is because I want to be a machine. Whatever I do, and do machine-like, is what I want to do” (Wilson 15).

If I were to put on my Lacan hat an make a snap judgment about this statement, I would say that Warhol’s objet petit a, or impossible desire, is to be a machine. However, I could just as easily don my Marxist ushanka and interpret this statement to be indicative of how humans in late capitalist society actually desire to become mindlessly efficient producers, which is actually a common criticism of Warhol himself (The Mona Lisa Curse). While Stanley Fish and other reception theorists could not privilege either of these interpretations, they both undoubtedly miss something about the complexity of Warhol’s statement. Without getting into redundant questions like ‘what does he really mean?’ if we were to contextualize, and thus discover the circular tensions and ironies of Warhol’s statement, could we develop a better interpretation?[8] Eventually arriving at the interpretation? How can we best inhabit a liminal space as critics between the stereotypical be-all-end-all conclusions of new criticism and the anything-goes nihilism of reader response?

I suppose now would be a logical time to discuss the terms intention, message, work, text, and meaning. With non-postmodern art, the critic must address a specific artist’s intention. For Kandinsky, again, this intention was facilitating the victory of spirituality over materialism. As such, the viewer can either know outright, based on artist’s statements, what messages are in the work, or attempt to decipher these messages using an appropriate critical methodology. In this way, modern art may have right and wrong interpretations if intention and interpretation of messages do not align.[9] Whereas the modern artist created works, the postmodern artist creates texts. Both art forms have meaning, which I will define as the sum of the arts’ effects on the world, but whereas meaning for the work is ideally closely related to intention and messages, the postmodern artist acknowledges that privileging messages with intention is an act of universalizing and generalizing truth, which, of course, leads to problems for post-structuralists. Therefore, the primary intention of postmodern artists like Warhol is to remain intentionally ambiguous about their intentions and messages, if there are any at all. The text then becomes an invitation for the viewer to create meaning (interpretations and their effects) for the art.[10] As such, everything in a postmodern world, literature, art, buildings, and popular culture, becomes a readable text.

When boiled down as much as possible, “A Text is a methodological field” (Barthes, “From” 1471). That is, whereas a work is closed and defined by what it is not, we can think of a text as open and receptive to its dynamic meaning, which is continually being formed by the interpretations it receives, i.e. more texts. Interpretations require the viewer to adopt a critical methodology of some sort, even one as simple as ‘like/do not like.’ As reader-response theorist Roland Barthes is happy to tell us, the introduction of the text, and resultant omnipotence of the readers’ interpretations, coincides with “the death of the author” (“Death” 1470).

Roland Barthes

This means that the intentions and messages of the artist are irrelevant in comparison to the importance of how the text actually functions in the world. We see this trend in Warhol’s statements as he avoided any discussion of his art’s meaning, other than stating, “it has no meaning” (Andy Warhol). This statement is of course as loaded as his machine-statement, and like his art, cannot be deciphered to yield a single message.

The point of the text is that even if there is a one-to-one correlation between an artist’s intentions and public interpretations of a text, it is the interpretations that form the art’s meaning. As cultural studies scholar John Storey states, “Texts… do not simply reflect history, they make history and are part of its processes and practices and should, therefore, be studied for the (ideological) work that they do, rather than for the (ideological) work (always happening elsewhere) that they reflect” (3). Similarly, pragmaticism, and Charles S. Peirce’s pragmatic maxim, from 1878, might provide a course of action for me as an art historian: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings we conceive the object of our conception to have: then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (24). Both of these thoughts culminate in Stanley Fish’s idea that “The reader’s response [to a text] is not to the meaning; it is the meaning, or at least the medium in which… the meaning comes into being, and therefore to ignore or discount it is… to risk missing a great deal of what is going on” (3).

Stanley Fish

However, while this understanding of the dynamic meaning of art helps me in the sense that the total reception of Warhol’s Maos contributes to historical awareness of the effects of the art on the world, arguably for some, most importantly its economic effects, this does not help me in my struggle to want to identify if or how the art itself is good, or if the criteria I am using to determine this position is legitimate either. Do these statements mean we can determine whether the work is good or not based on investigation of the total effects of its interpretations?[11] Rather than assuming that we can place a text somewhere on a continuum of positive or negative effects on the world, I am going to suggest that the answer to all of my questions at this moment rests with Jacques Derrida’s writing on the pharmakon.

Jacques Derrida

In Plato’s Pharmacy, Derrida shows how pharmakon, the Greek word for language, actually denotes ‘remedy’ and ‘poison’ at the same time (1849). The word requires plurality. Furthermore, according to Derrida,

“Writing is no more valuable, says Plato, as a remedy than as a poison…. Plato is suspicious of the pharmakon in general, even in the case of drugs used exclusively for therapeutic ends, even when they are wielded with good intentions, and even when they are as such effective. There is no such thing as a harmless remedy. The pharmakon can never be simply beneficial” (Pharmacy 1849).

As the concept of the text incorporates language, writing, and art, I do not have trouble thinking about the effects of art as a pharmakon.

That is, the meaning of art, understood as continually forming body of effects, cannot be considered solely beneficial to society – the intertextual effects of anything are to great to reduce to a single position on a good/bad binary or continuum. This anti-answer to my questions of ‘what is art and how do we interpret it?’ can accommodate my approval of Warhol’s Maos for simply making me think as well as art critic Robert Hughes’ hatred of Warhol’s art for fetching undeserved millions on the art market (The Mona Lisa Curse).[12] Likewise, the porosity of open, intentionless art can easily lead to equally good or bad interpretations and resultant writing and practice. However, to me, the shift from modern intentions to postmodern ambiguity does nothing to alter meaning’s status as pharmakon. Both Kandinsky and Warhol’s work is infinitely deconstructible to reveal how it both poisons and remedies the world through its effects, including its interpretations.

However, this is not to say that the art itself (art in a vacuum) is capable of being called good or bad, but rather that the art’s relationship to history determines its meaning. Whatever critical methodology we adopt to interpret a text will prove equally important, whether intentionally or not on the part of the interpreter, in supporting my meaning-as-a-pharmakon theory. When we consider meaning as a pharmakon, we jump into not a Hegelian dialectic, but a infinite series of theses and antitheses whose only synthesis is the continuation of back-and-forth privilege-reversals. So, for me, the answer to the question ‘how do we look at art?’ must be ‘deconstructively,’ which is to say that we will never reach a conclusion about it. The position embraces a state of liminality and acknowledges the unattainability of metanarratives and the objet petit a through art.

However, this is not to mean that our work is done whenever we choose. As Louis Althusser states, “the only way we can hope to reach a real knowledge of art… is precisely to spend a long time and pay the greatest attention to the ‘basic principles of Marxism’ and not to be in a hurry to ‘move on to something else,’ for if we move too quickly to ‘something else’ we shall arrive not at a knowledge of art, but at an ideology of art” (“A Letter” 1483).

Louis Althusser

To me, his language here does not imply that knowledge is itself wholly attainable, but that we can only hope to reach the real through time and effort, which should always be our goal. So, I would like to transition now towards looking at Warhol’s Maos, keeping in mind all the while that, as Paul de Man states, every text possesses both blindness, in that it is somehow a misreading of another text, and insight, which actually is the fact that it, like every text, contains blindness (141).

Paul de Man

When I consider the Maos given the information I have already provided here, I believe that more than anything, Warhol’s characteristic resistance to discussing the meaning of his art provides us with a Rorschach inkblot onto which we can project our identity’s interpretations (Hughes 381).[13] With this in mind, we can utilize the theories of psychologist and critic Norman Holland to show that a person’s interpretation of a text is entirely dependent on that person’s unconscious mind (441). From there, we can psychoanalyze our own or others’ responses to get a feeling for our repressed and unconscious desires. In this way, our responses to art can tell us more about ourselves than about the art itself. So, art that invites open interpretation may act as a means of introspective exploration, which seems like a ‘good’ thing, regardless of what we find during the process of probing our unconscious.[14] However, while this critical methodology could certainly have beneficial effects for the individual viewer, it discounts the deterministic idea that ideological powers have always-already shaped our psyches. So a critical methodology is missing something if it does not inspect the bigger picture of how and to what extent ideology determines our experience.

As Jacques Lacan points out, our unconscious is a symptom of the Other, which to him means that our identities and experiences are limited to the possibilities imposed upon us by our relationship to the symbolic order of signs: language (Leitch et al 1283). That is, identity in a poststructural world is a social construct that is subject to the influences of economics, language, and other forms of ideology. A mild example of this comes from critic Stanley Fish, who suggests that we all belong to what he calls interpretive communities, which entail a certain set of group interests and values, thus heavily influencing our responses to art (322). On the more extreme end of things, Althusser proposes that ideological state institutions, such as the education system, the family, or religion, predetermine the status of our minds through a process of prescribing identities (called interpellation or hailing) designed to designate our values and to perpetuate class distinctions (“Ideology” 1437). In this way, “Ideology ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing” (Žižek, Metastases 59). As all ideology has a history rooted in privilege, it is logical that the only good ideology is the one that attempts to subvert, or at least expose, all other ideologies, which, to my understanding is what deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Marxism seek to do.

For example, Slajov Žižek, a Lacano-Marxist and one of my favorite current thinkers, seeks to “treat the Lacanian subject as the site of potential political resistance to the reigning social and ideological order” (Valente 158).

Slavoj Žižek

It seems to me that thoroughly challenging and analyzing “the topical character of the ‘thought’ itself” marks one of the noblest intellectual enterprises possible in an of itself (Žižek, Metastases 182). If art, when subjected to a rigorous explication, can provide a platform for us to do this, then art is good, but art in its unique time and place in history inevitably has both positive and negative effects on the world via its reception, hence my appreciation of the word pharmakon. Furthermore, as contemporary art and current critical methodologies allow and even encourage viewers to create meaning for otherwise meaningless art through their interpretations, and this can lead to snap judgments, I would like to take this opportunity to exemplify the beginnings of a circular, liminal, deconstructive approach to Warhol’s Maos, which actually began at the start of this paper.

As interpellation of identity was a major contributory factor of Mao Zedong’s process of ideological indoctrination, Warhol’s Maos may be read as destabilizing that power of interpellation.[15] To make his paintings, in 1972 Warhol had a series of differently-sized silkscreens professionally produced, all based on the massive portrait of China’s then Chairman, Mao Zedong, which still hangs at Tiananmen Square.

Portrait of Mao Zedong

However, rather than reproducing the portrait with exactitude, Warhol painted abstract or arbitrary colors on blank canvases before running a black-ink silkscreen over this painting. In this way, no two paintings are exactly the same, which is impressive considering Warhol made between fifty and one hundred Maos every year between 1972 and 1975. The result of this is a fantastically diverse series of works. However, in contrast to Warhol’s celebration of diversity in his paintings’ color and size, during his rule, Mao tried to universalize his identity and everything that he stood for with his one portrait. This “original” portrait seems to represent Mao the man, but what it actually came to represent was and is the unquestionable ideology of Maoist politics and economics. Taking a look at the factual history of Mao rather than making a series of snap judgments can further develop a viewing of Warhol’s portraits that allows for a more effective ideology-destabilizing creation of meaning.

Mao was undeniably a brilliant tactician of guerilla warfare and theorist of revolutionary Marxist ideology. In 1949, with his uniquely Chinese form of communism, which focused on uniting and empowering China’s rural peasant citizens (as opposed to the Soviet, top-down, metro-centric model of revolution), Mao successfully overthrew Chiang Kaishek’s existing unstable, murderous, and dictatorial regime. Mao also helped rid China of Japanese colonization and the west’s various imperial and capitalist interventions, theoretically allowing for an economically independent and self-sustaining nation. However, after having effectively led his revolutionary followers for decades to their desired end, as an actual empowered political leader, Mao’s “twenty-seven-year rule brought little improvements in people’s living standard…. As a revolutionary, Mao had few peers. As a nation builder, he was unequal to the task” (Hsü 12). Always characterized as a man “Impatient for change, he wanted to transform the state, the society, and human nature in one stroke” (Hsü 11). Hence the beginning the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese Socialist Realism

Mao’s plan for implementing the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, was twofold: first, “to create a new society in which people perform social functions for the satisfaction derived from contributing to a new ideal,” thus forming unselfish and modest “human beings without egotism, vices, vile thoughts,” and, second, to resist capitalist ambitions still lingering in China (Rius 156). While momentarily empowering for the young and poor, the effects of the Cultural Revolution were devastating for China’s economy, education system, and for citizens’ personal freedoms (Hsü 22). As any post-structuralist will point out, Mao’s vision for China’s perfection through the Cultural Revolution was inherently flawed. The epic failure and human terror experienced as a result of China’s totalizing Cultural Revolution only further supports this skepticism of metanarratives. Therefore, the arbitrary use of color in all of Warhol’s different Maos may be read as destabilizing or parodying the ambitions of Mao’s perfect objet petit a represented in his original portrait. However, I would like to pause here to remind readers again that it is not Warhol’s art that is destabilizing Mao’s ideology, but my perception of that instability in my mind, which I am writing into a new text, thus affecting the meaning of Warhol’s Maos.

So, the sign “Mao,” through Mao the man’s rhetorical construction of his infallible political persona and status as Law, came to embody a metanarrative. For example, according to Rius, during the Cultural Revolution, “Mao had become a god for the Chinese. Only he was right. Not to think like him meant ending up an enemy of the people!” (156). As Mao’s portrait became a sign of perfectibility, we can make sense of one of Lacan’s ideas about the Law’s effect on the body: “The sign is a structure into which the reader has to fit his or her body….Signs thus systematically and unconsciously constitute all social codes, conventions, and prohibitions” (Leitch et al 1282). In addition,

“If a 1979 statistic estimating the production of Mao’s portraits during the Cultural Revolution at 2.2 billion-three copies for every citizen-is accurate, then the standardized image of Mao, best known in the West because of its prominent position as the frontispiece of the Little Red Book and through Andy Warhol’s remake of the 1970s, may be the single most reproduced portrait in human history.” (Dal Lago 49)

During the Cultural Revolution, this “ubiquitous presence of the portrait was turned into a highly effective tool of ideological indoctrination that contributed to the creation of a feeling of religious adoration not just toward Mao, but toward the image itself, which began to share in the godlike nature of its referent.”[16] As Lacanian scholar Catherine Liu states, “Lacan and Warhol [and I would add Mao as well] both affirm a subject whose submission to the laws of repetition renders its relationship to the sign (as both letter and icon) inexorable” (255).

Catherine Liu

The effectiveness of Mao’s portrait to create loyalty and obedience amongst his people, according to Lacan’s theories, is due to its status as sign: “The operation of the Law can be found only by implication as it performs within and behind its veiling metaphors; as a structure, the Law is a relation determinable better in its functioning rather than in any direct representation” (Ecrits 67). This may be why Warhol does not privilege any of his Maos’ color schemes, unlike the photorealism of the Tiananmen Square portrait.

The tensions occurring within the sign of Mao between contemporary Chinese and the rest of the world, or even in one person’s mind, cannot be disentangled. With Mao as his subject matter, the major or minor differences between each of Warhol’s paintings reflect that no human conception of Mao is the same. Furthermore, just as no conception of Mao is exactly the same, there is no “real” Mao – only the aggregation of symbolic human thoughts about him. Therefore, we can look at both Warhol’s Mao paintings and the Tiananmen Square portrait as simulacra, or copies without a real original. This condition summarizes Jean Baudrillard’s idea that the postmodern world functions in a hyperreal realm. That is, our understanding of the world is simply a heap of simulacra or social constructs quite distinct from any unmediated and “real” experience or cognition in the Lacanian sense (Baudrillard in Leitch 1736).

Jean Baudrillard

The fact that Warhol does not privilege the different colors of any of his paintings seems to reflect the idea that our symbolic conceptions of Mao cannot be generalized, they are all equally false or untrue to the unattainable real. Warhol’s art can provide a vehicle to begin a dialogue to articulate this considerable disconnect between the actual history of Mao as a person and Mao as an abstract representation, thus giving us the perfect outlet to either project our predetermined values onto in snap judgments, put any fetishized contemporary critical methodologies to work, or deconstruct ideologies. Therefore, the ambiguous nature of Warhol’s Mao series in particular can be interpreted as destabilizing, challenging, questioning, affirming, reflecting, glorifying, and observing the socially constructed sign of “Mao Zedong” all at the same time. However, the meaning of the Maos for me has been this paper, which has resulted in my tentative position of believing that deconstruction provides the best way to look at art’s dynamic meaning as a pharmakon, thus simultaneously forcing me to accept a state of liminality, for this text will never be complete.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001. 1483-1509. Print.

——-. “A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001. 1480-1483. Print.

Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, Dir. Daniel Wolf. PBS Home Video and Paramount Pictures, 2006. DVD.

Antliff, Mark. “Fascism, Modernism, and Modernity.” The Art Bulletin 84.1 (March 2002): 148-169. Web.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001. 1466-1470. Print.

——-. “From Work to Text.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001. 1470-1475. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001. 1163-1186. Print.

de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. Print.

Dal Lago, Francesa. “Personal Mao: Reshaping an Icon in Contemporary Chinese Art.” Art Journal 58.2 (1999): 47-59. Web.

Derrida, Jacques. “Of Grammatology.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.1822-1830. Print.

——-. “Dissemination: From Plato’s Pharmacy.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001. 1186-1876. Print.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980. Print.

Hsü, Immanuel Chung-yueh. China without Mao: The Search for a New Order. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Print.

Holland, Norman. “The Miller’s Wife and the Professors: Questions about the Transactive Theory of Reading.” New Literary History 17.3 (1986): 423-477. Web.

Hughes, Robert. “The Rise of Andy Warhol.” Pop Art: a Critical History. Ed. Steven Henry Madoff. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 375-384. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art Volume 1. Ed. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1982. Print.

Kuspit, Donald B. “Conflicting Logics: Twentieth-Century Studies at the Crossroads.” The Art Bulletin 69.1 (1987): 117-132. Web.

——-. “The Semiotic Anti-Subject.” Interview by Emmet Cole. themodernworld.com. 28 May 2004. Web. 5 April 2010.

——-. Reconsidering the Spiritual in Art. Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA. May 2003. Blackbird.vcu.edu. Keynote lecture. Web.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B. et al eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001. Print.

Liu, Catherine “Lacan’s Afterlife: Jacques Lacan Meets Andy Warhol.” The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 253-71. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print.

The Mona Lisa Curse. Dir. Robert Hughes. PBS Home Video, 2009. DVD.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking: The 1903 Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism. Ed. Patricia Ann Turrisi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Print.

Rius. Mao for Beginners. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. Print.

Storey, John. Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Cultures: Theories and Methods. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. Print.

Tompkins, Jane. “Me and My Shadow.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001. 2126-2143. Print.

Valente, Joe. “Lacan’s Marxism, Marxism’s Lacan: from Žižek to Althusser.” The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Ed. Jean-Michel Rabate. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.153-172. Print.

“Warhol’s Mao Portrait Sells for Record $17.4 Million.” usatoday.com. McLean, VA. 16 November 2006. Web. 2 March 2010.

Wilson, William. “Prince of Boredom: The Repetitions and Passivities of Andy Warhol.” Art and Artists March (1968): 12-15.

Žižek, Slajov. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. New York: Verso, 1991. Print.

——-. The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality. New York: Verso, 2005. Print.


[1] My Spring 2010 semester at Truman State, I was enrolled in Contemporary Art, Art Historical Methods, Contemporary Literary Criticism, and Psychoanalytic and Post-Colonial Criticism and yet I felt more uncertain than ever about what art is and what qualifies as “good” art criticism (probably because every time I shared whatever thoughts I had at the time with Dave Leaton, my boss at the Writing Center, he voiced his unrestrained Fredric Jameson-based critiques). As such, I feel compelled to share my dilemma. Furthermore, rather than using this acknowledgment of my agnosticism on the issue of “good” scholarship as a defense mechanism, I hope to raise questions and observations that are rife for deconstruction. All’s fair in art and criticism. Just as Warhol’s art has challenged my critical thinking, I am writing with the assumption that my text will challenge and be challenged by my readers.

[2] And I am fully aware that this paper, as it was originally inspired by Warhol’s Maos, and therefore embodies an effect of the Maos, contributes to the “meaning” (a term I will define more fully later) of the images. In addition, I recognize that any further criticism this paper receives likewise adds to the effects of Warhol’s Maos. (There is nothing outside of the text!)

[3] Just to be perfectly forthright, part of what I am doing here is exposing readers to information and history that will affect their interpretation of the Maos, which hopefully will not be a closed interpretation. However, my intention is not to privilege any interpretation that I might unintentionally steer my readers towards through what limited information I chose to present, but to hopefully contribute to a slightly more circumspect viewing experience than would have otherwise occurred.

[4] For an example of a space that possesses this postmodern attitude, we can look at Andy Warhol’s Factory, a large remodeled studio in New York where Andy and his aides made his art throughout the sixties. In addition to Warhol’s site of production, The Factory provided the ultimate liminal space for anyone willing to enter. The anti-philosophy of The Factory at least attempted to reject anything resembling hegemonic order or socially constructed identity. Its tenants could be whoever they wanted to be, have whatever kind of sex they wanted, do whatever drugs they wanted, and destabilize prescriptive ideologies however they creatively saw fit. However, regardless of how “cool” it was, The Factory’s ideology of rejecting all ideologies was far from a utopia. In fact, Warhol is often blamed for harboring a community of drug addicts without doing anything to intervene, most famously in the case ending with the death of rising film star Edie Sedgwick. Furthermore, The Factory naturally attracted many unstable individuals, including Valerie Solanas, the woman who attempted to assassinate Warhol (Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film).

[5] At least in one sense of the word. Fredric Jameson defines postmodernism with a more Marxist tinge: “postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process” (x).

[6] As my objet petit a is understanding art and its function in life, jouissance for me takes the form of an overwhelming euphoria that occurs after I read something, usually in theoretical writing, that either totally destabilizes my understanding of life or contributes to my understanding of art. This usually only happens about once or twice a semester, but for a period of about twenty minutes, I feel like there is no question that I could not answer. Shortly after this high, however, I realize that what I just read actually does not make as much sense as I thought it did or does not answer another question I just thought of. Back to liminality.

[7] So, if postmodern art is “about” anything, it is about the status of art in life today, which makes it all the more frustrating for me to cope with not understanding it.

[8] For an example of a contextual marker, a survey of any number of the 10,000-plus works Warhol produced in the course of his lifetime, particularly the 200-plus paintings of Mao, will quickly show that no two are exactly alike. As one critic notes of Warhol’s statement, while “a machine is capable of endless and perfect repetitions,” Warhol contrastingly created intentionally inconsistent images, so “we can say that he can only succeed in failing to fulfill this ambition [to be a machine], succeed in showing that when repetition is an ideal, it is unattainable” (Wilson 293). Personally, I find every painting’s idiosyncratic play of color beautiful, so the suggestion that a machine produced them is ludicrous.

[9] For example, Italian fascists co-opted modern art’s avant-garde ideals and skewed them to support their nationalist rhetoric in a way that Kandinsky would have abhorred (Antliff 148). The German fascists interpreted modern art quite differently however, as their “Degenerate Art” show of 1937 demonized avant-garde and modern art.

[10] For these reasons, many conservative art critics and historians lament the current state of art. Art historian Donald Kuspit even goes so far as to say we cannot think of Warhol’s repetitive production as art, but rather we should call it “postart” (“The Semiotic Anti-Subject”). Contrastingly, Kuspit loves Kandinsky’s ambitions and defines good art as a representation of “what is deepest in the psyche.” That is, art that lends itself to psychoanalysis is good (“Conflicting” 132). As Warhol’s art, like most postmodern art, does not have an aura or intention beyond its accruing commodity fetishism, Kuspit dismisses it, and expresses a desire for art to return to past spiritual aspirations (“Reconsidering”). However, art has always been closely tied up with its exchange value, Kuspit’s objet petit a is for art to return to some sacred and ideal state that it has never actually occupied. Perhaps Kuspit’s problem is that he is operating under the assumption that simply because Warhol himself states that his work has no meaning and no intention of representing the psyche, that this is actually true, or that an artist’s intention has anything to do with meaning in the first place.

[11] Contrastingly, Barthes seems to suggest that texts and theory do not or should not affect practice beyond more writing, that texts just breed more texts: “The discourse on the Text should itself be nothing other than text, research, textual activity, since the Text is that social space which leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in position as judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder. The theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of writing” (“From Work” 1475). As Jacques Derrida states, “There is nothing outside of the text” (“Grammatology” 1825). I can appreciate how much writing this paper is stimulating my brain in and of itself, but is all that I have to hope for in my relationship with art a never-ending challenge to create more meaning for texts? However, interpretations do affect life, oftentimes negatively, as in the case of Charles Manson’s infamously violent and racist misreading of The Beatles’ “White Album,” which is why artists who reject messages and embrace ambiguity often get called irresponsible. So there has to be something more to understanding a text than simply interpreting it, even if all interpretations are equally legitimate.

[12] For example, In 2006, one billionaire from Hong Kong spent $17.4 million on a Mao, a record for Warhol at the time (www.usatoday.com).

[13] In fact, in the 1980s, Warhol did a series of Rorschach inkblot paintings.

[14] Furthermore, this idea of creating meaning through projection may shed some light on one of Warhol’s cryptic sayings about art: “even when the subject is different, people always paint the same painting” (Andy Warhol). That is, if looking at meaningless art is a creative act, then we always create the same response: a representation of our own psyche.

[15] This was my original reaction to seeing the works. I primarily read them as disrespectful of Mao in the same way silkscreening an image of Jesus or a deadly car crash, which Warhol did many times, can be seen as disrespectful.

[16] These feelings persist in 2010, as thousands of Chinese still line up everyday to pay respect to the corpse of Mao, which is actually made of wax (Žižek, For They 260). Actually, this phenomenon is part of what has been called the “cult of Mao,” as his image is still revered as sacred in China today. If there is a objet petit a in this situation, it is the subject’s desire to possess the ideals embodied by Mao’s portrait, which Mao himself claimed to have, thus encouraging his people to do and think as Mao would. Chinese who participate in the “cult of Mao” wish to remember Mao as a great and benevolent revolutionary ideologue, not the murderous tyrant who did little to improve their quality of life. The symbolic portrait and his wax corpse allow the Maoists to do this. So, a serious disconnect exists between the Chinese people’s conception of Mao and everything he ideally stood for and the actual effectiveness of his regime, but the truth would jeopardize their objet petit a.

5 Responses to “Interpreting Meaning as Pharmakon: The Good, the Bad, and the Hyperreal in Andy Warhol’s Mao Paintings”

  1. DSL Says:

    Unrestrained indeed. Yet how do you call Marxism a metanarrative? All it assumes is that economy is a large influence on how we understand ourselves. It is a continual study–a methodology, not a Bible. It is dialectical engagement with the material and historical context. At best, it reveals that metanarratives have problems because they propose absolute truth. Science is the same way. More later.

    • lukeinlimbo Says:

      I knew you’d like that little comment, Dave. While, yes, that statement is absolutely dismissive of the nuances of dialectical materialism, I actually borrowed it from Stuart Hall – pg 1901 in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism vol. 1.

      • DSL Says:

        And Hall was probably thinking of the fall of the Wall (the Soviet understanding of Marx’s analysis left something to be desired) and the New Left of the 1960s and 70s when he wrote that (and if so, I don’t blame him — it was basically the heyday of college/bourgeois Leftism: a lot of talk, and a lot of groups, but little actual fundamental change. The actual U.S. working class was beginning to dwindle.). Post-Marxism developed in the early 1990s–just another stall opening in the theory market.


  2. […] Baudrillard photo. Retrieved 23/04/2012 from http://lukeinlimbo.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/interpreting-meaning-as-pharmakon-the-good-the-bad-and-t… Rate this: Share this:ShareLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Categories: […]

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Very interesting and informative. I just viewed one of Andy Warhol’s Mao at the Museum of Fine Arts in St Pete Forida.


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