Michael Angelo Tata, Andy Warhol: Sublime Superficiality

Review by Leanne Gilbertson

Tata, Michael Angelo. Andy Warhol: Sublime Superficiality. New Smyrna Beach, FL: Intertheory Press, 2010. 156 pp. with bibliography "Sources") and index ("Who's Where"). $22.00 (978-0-97899-023-7).

[1] In this slim volume, Michael Angelo Tata unpacks one of the truisms that has intractably attached itself to Andy Warhol, his prolific artistic output, and his media-inflected life: Warhol and his productions mark the end of one era and the beginning of another, specifically the end of modernism and the beginning of postmodernism. Beginning with this now-popular understanding of the artist famously proposed in Arthur Danto's much-discussed books and essays on the artist, Tata considers Warhol's lasting significance by employing a methodology he characterizes as a nosology—an approach introduced by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Describing his misologic method as a "homeless discourse," Tata uses a disruptive, poststructural play that mixes and moves between literary and cultural theory, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, physics, and trash culture and thwarts easy instrumentalization by recognized disciplines of knowledge. Flirting with the irrational, the author adapts an experimental approach he hopes might do justice to Warhol's love of the inane, a love verging on stupidity that Tata argues distinguishes Warhol most markedly from other postmodern artists of his generation (17). [1] In his thematically-organized text, Tata troubles categories and flaunts stylistic alliances while seeking a coherent interpretation that makes sense of Warhol's unique contribution to twentieth-century art and lifestyle and that accounts for his significant, corollary roles as cultural impresario, pop star, and philosophical mind. Tata seeks to unearth a concept that might make sense of the central components of the Warholian enterprise—"the mania to document; the tensions between an impulse to accumulate and another to achieve maximum emptiness; the fan mentality; the cinematic attention to otherness,"—and finds it in what he calls "sublime superficiality" (4). Original, illuminating, and even thrilling at times, Tata's meditation on and explication of Warhol's "sublime superficiality" risks descending into philosophical territories that bog down his argument and loses sight of some of the most pressing issues the artist and his productions have posed for twentieth- and twentieth-first century art. [2]

[2] Trained in biology, poetry, and literary studies, Tata's breadth of knowledge translates into a refreshing, wide-ranging approach to the artist, and his text moves fluidly among discussions of such well-known works as Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans, Electric Chair series, and film Empire, to lesser-discussed works like Warhol's' films Afternoon and Vinyl. Tata insists he will devote equal attention to the pre-and post-198 works of Warhol, refusing to let his discussion fall into the well-worn assessment that Warhol's work loses its edge after the Valerie Solanas shooting. He offers incisive, sustained discussion of Warhol's little-discussed literary works from the oft-overlooked later decades, but still glosses over much of Warhol's visual productions of the 1970s and 1980s. The most convincing of Tata's critical analyses are devoted to Warhol's 1970s and 1980s literary experiments completed with his secretary Pat Hackett including POPism: The Warhol Sixties (1980), the posthumously-published, The Warhol Diaries (1989), and most compellingly, THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1975).

[3] Tata has published several articles and chapters on Warhol prior to this latest addition and is obviously well acquainted with the artist's media-divergent work. [3] His familiarity is likely responsible for the efficiency of his text, but at times his expertise works as a liability. Tata drops rather sketchy descriptions of Warhol's works while building his philosophical argument with far too-much ease for my taste. Readers less acquainted with Warhol's work will likely be disappointed to find little in the way of either extended formal descriptions or contextualization of Warhol's work and may end up feeling alienated by a fast-flowing text purportedly about Warhol devoting such considerable discussion to explicating ideas of Romantic philosophers. Even as a Warhol initiate, Tata's argument occasionally tripped me up. The text is least satisfying in illuminating how Warhol's works specifically visualized a postmodern subliminity since the author devotes little time to considering the visual logic or visual influences and legacies of Warhol's works and largely ignores the vast existing art historical scholarship. Additionally, while discussing several visual and filmic works of Warhol, the book itself is sadly and entirely devoid of any illustrations, including any documentation of the radical typography Warhol and associates employed in some of his textual works, which Tata at least manages to lucidly describe.

[4] In the first chapter, Tata introduces Arthur C. Danto's understanding of the artist as ushering in the End of Art, which he uses as grounding for his own argument and an interpretation through which to develop an original contribution to the ever-expanding Warhol scholarship. The author chooses to follow Danto's lead because he was the one philosopher to have identified Warhol as "the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced," an assessment with which the author agrees (1). Throughout his text, Tata, like Danto before him, insists on Warhol's status as philosopher of art and as one in whom art realizes itself by way of philosophy. He focuses on the history of aesthetics and Warhol's own sometimes marginalized and extensive literary production to build an argument that discusses Warhol and his work in relationship to major philosophers and philosophical traditions. His discussion moves from Danto to considerations of the notions of sublimity offered by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant and then onto to a discussion of how Warhol's work relates to the German Idealism proper of eighteenth-century philosophers Friedrich Schlegel and Georg Hegel. [4]

[5] Danto introduced the now largely accepted understanding of Warhol as initiator of post-modernism by interpreting the exhibition of Warhol's Brillo Boxes at Eleanor Ward's gallery in New York City (1964) as marking the end-point of art history in an Hegelian sense—a moment when art not only collapsed the high/low or fine art/kitsch divide, but also placed itself outside of history, locked in a self-reflexive non-time that rejected the notion of artistic originality as criteria for evaluation and flatly dismissed modernist ideals of revolutionary impulse and artistic progress. For Tata, Danto's interpretation elides the many pleasures of the Warholian surface upon which the artist insisted—pleasures Tata views as buried within Danto's own argument, locked inside Warhol's own muted Brillo Boxes. [5] To remedy this situation, Tata uses and goes beyond the dead-end proposal of Danto to find in Warhol a future for art that Danto's largely accepted reading has closed off. In Warhol's particular approach to art, Tata identifies a "postmodern sublimity" that offers the possibility of moving beyond the irony, superficiality and simple comfort with capitalist alienation commonly associated with postmodernism, while also suggesting an overlooked connection to a history of aesthetics. For the author this "postmodern sublimity," is not only significant for its role in contributing to the flowering of postmodernity in America, but also for offering a lasting legacy for the artist that looks both back to the origins of aesthetics and forward to the future of art in the twenty-first century.

[6] Tata views the Romantic notion of the sublime as reaching an apex and terminus in Warhol and his work, which become the outpost and outer limit of sublimity without lapsing into an anti- or counter-sublime. Refusing the revolutionary impulse of the sublime associated with earlier manifestations, Warhol opens art in general to the sublimities of kitsch. Tata characterizes this open, "postmodern sublime" of Warhol's art as "volatile, unstable shaky" and as vanishing as quickly as is appears (6). Thriving on an oscillation between a belief in aesthetic transport and its ultimate failure or superficiality, the "postmodern sublime" simultaneously promises the possibility of aesthetic transport through sublimity and the threat of complete and utter mundanity (43). It is this oscillation found in Warhol's constructed self and his work upon which the postmodern thrives and it is this oscillation that Tata argues future artists might build upon by viewing it as alternately either ending or beginning Romanticism anew.

[7] In Tata's understanding the aesthetic category of supreme import to the evolution of modern and postmodern art is the Enlightenment notion of the sublime, which becomes the yardstick against which art and self are measured in and after the Romantic moment of the eighteenth century. Tata argues that Warhol's significance is found in works and an attitude, which embodies and expresses a Romanticism carried to its end without vaporizing it entirely (25). Warhol does not place himself and his art outside of history as Danto's interpretation might suggest, or as radically opposed to the sublime, but rather strives to rephrase the historical sublime in the most banal terms. Warhol accomplishes this by extending the aesthetic transport reserved for original modernist art objects of painting and sculpture to human beings refashioned into glamorous entities (Superstars) and to objects that embrace machine production, including kitsch. Tata explains how this extension and distortion of the sublime accompanying late capitalism transforms all aspects of Warhol's life and work:

Inevitably, plastic invades all corners of the world, turning cultural activities defining originality, such as painting and writing, into practices centered on factory production (the silkscreen) and dictation (his literary collaborations with Pat Hackett and Bob Colacello). (29)

By discussing a range of Warhol's visual works and films, writings, and Superstar personalities, Tata demonstrates how a viral "plastic inevitability" becomes Warhol's contribution to the evolution of aesthetics, a novel form of the sublime that is "ironized," stretched flat and thin, and well-suited for assimilation by consumer culture. [6]

[8] Tata examines how Warhol in his obsessive, non-judgmental, maniacal collecting of objects and personalities from all social strata, transfigures commonplace commodities like Campbell's soup cans and common people, like Jersey-girl Ingrid Superstar, into works of art. Preoccupied with the outcast, the left-over, and the trash of late capitalism, Tata views Warhol as embracing and elevating the abject, which for philosopher Julia Kristeva is the "lining of the sublime" (11). Warhol exploits how this abject, which flirts with aesthetic vacuity and elicits a delicious horror in its darker moments, also generates a potent species of fascinating glamour, a "superficial sublime." [7] In Tata's estimation the denizens of the Factory who become the "Superstars" in Warhol's extensive film productions and companions in his social circle should be understood as extending and transforming the Romantic trend of the aestheticization of selfhood. Significantly these "stars" equate self not with sincere or id-assaulted genius, or even performative guile, but rather with a kitschy, unnatural, histrionic self. Selfhood in Warhol's world and the world of late capitalism dissipates into proliferating selves that are "disposable, fluffy, and evanescent," (46) rather than deep, mysterious, or stable. [8] By closing the gap between art and economics insisted upon by Romanticism, Warhol manages to turn art objects and personalities into frivolous, eye-glutting spectacles prior to the era of reality television in Tata's estimation.

[9] Tata also finds in Warhol's literary experiment, THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), a parallel to the "superficial sublime," he discerns in the phenomenon of Warhol's "Superstars." This text, comprised of recorded interviews, anecdotes, and transcribed conversations, and edited by Warhol's secretary Pat Hackett, complicates both the traditional philosophical text of the avant-garde, the manifesto, and poses problems for any traditional interpretation attempted by literary theory. The text oscillates between promising profound insights in autobiographical incidents and descending into pages of mundane minutiae. Denying traditional narrative structure, THE Philosophy produces a sense of a definitively unfinished work (or conversation) to which the parenthetical subtitle alludes. Unlike a modern manifesto, the text rejects authoritative tone and grand historicity and replaces it with a collaborative, anecdotal accounting that has no program or fixity. In place of the authorial function, Tata argues THE Philosophy creates a mood or atmosphere that captures a peculiar brand of superficial aesthetic aliveness that rejects textural depth and replaces it with an alternating exhilarating and boring experience suggesting subliminity stretched to its limit. Rather than offering the transportive experience of the sublime, the text recasts that promise into a rambling work that sends the reader skimming along a network of associations and random thoughts that Tata likens to the experience of watching Warhol's film Empire (1964).

[10] In the final chapters, Tata continues to explore the idea of the sublime as it is reformulated by Warhol by returning to two philosophers, Friedrich Schlegel and Georg Hegel, who first put the question of the potential end of art in circulation and tied that end to Romanticism proper. In returning to these grand thinkers, Tata adds further dimension to Warhol's "sublime superficiality" and furthers an agenda to solidify Warhol's position as an historical significant philosopher. In Schlegel's theorizing, Tata identifies a fixation with the concept of Romantic Irony, the art of bracketing and presenting a fragment of the social world in vital "situations," which he refers to as an arabesque. Schlegel invokes this concept of the arabesque, a variant of the grotesque, to propose an aesthetic that is inherently sportive and embodies a principle of play. Tata traces how this Romantic fascination with the arabesque cuts through modernism and postmodernism, reaching an apex in Warhol, for whom the diurnal flux, the twists and turns of his social world's inhabitants, constitutes a supreme artistic content in his films and writings (91). If Schlegel theorizes a world of social play distilled as art in the form of the arabesque, Warhol devotes his life to recording the social play of personalities and events surrounding him (90-91) and thus continues this Romantic preoccupation.

[11] Tata proceeds to discuss Warhol's film Afternoon (1965) as a prime example of how arabesque play saturates Warhol's work and anticipates much postmodern art and culture. Filmed at Edie Sedgwick's apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, the film presents Dorothy Dean, Ondine, Edie Sedgwick, Arthur Loeb and Donald Lyons in an uninterrupted, lush temporal sprawl essentially doing nothing on an unexceptional afternoon like any other. For Tata, in this instance Warhol fulfills Schlegel's fantasy of an ironic art by subjecting the daily life of his circle to the critical act of filming and presenting events of realtime as an unedited continuum. The aesthetic force of the film is acquired by the viewer's oscillating horrific realization that a "lifetime of undocumented future afternoons poses the threat of unregistered life . . . " and the fascination with ". . . what has been captured" (96).

[12] Tata ends his text with an elaboration of Hegel's idea of Inwardness, which characterizes the Romantic personality and which Tata argues Warhol embodies.

[13] In the author's estimation, Warhol's film Vinyl (1965), best dramatizes the absolute Inwardness Hegel identifies. Edie Sedgwick who makes her debut in the film, which was scripted by Ronald Tavel and depicts a Clockwork Orange-inspired aversion therapy S&M scene, sits up front to the right of the action and displays throughout an absolute disinterest in and inability to connect to any other subjects or objects in the spatiotemporal world depicted. Describing her as a "Hegelian princess," in this instance, Tata suggests that "Edie represents a Romantic point of no Return; the outer and inner space of her mind and its cognitive map emblematize the end of art in a subjectivity perfectly inwardized" (106). In Edie's trenchant refusal to relate to any of the action or actors she remains a presence not motivated or motivating, seemingly unnecessary and excessive, yet incapable of being thought away or denied. This performance stages the Hegelian spectacle of complete subjective inwardization and Romantic disengagement according to Tata. Edie becomes in the film both a reflection of Warhol's own relationship to his collections of objects and personalities and a stand-in for the end of art predicted by Hegel: a subjectively-detached innocent dragging art down along with her.

[14] While Tata's argument is convincing and illuminating, his choice to end with an image of Edie embodying an Hegelian End of Art is revealing. This iconic female image, perhaps the most-recognizable of Warhol's doubles and companions, is left sitting at the end of Tata's work locked in a Warhol film, agency-less. This points to some of the most provocative moments in the text related to the gendered and sexual politics of "superficial sublimity," with which Tata fails to fully engage. In Tata's discussions of Warhol's extension of the sublime into his life and work, one is left pondering what personally and politically could motivate the artist toward such revised notions of Romantic selfhood and what new types of subjectivity might be allowed and not to embody its lasting authority. While nodding toward a camp sensibility and suggesting a homoerotic dimension in Warhol's work in passing, Tata's only mention of the gendering of the sublime and the possible link of the "superficial sublimity" to a sexual dimension is found in a footnote where he acknowledges that in Burke's formulation the beautiful is feminine and the sublime is suggested as being masculine. His conclusion is that a male aesthete such as Warhol, lost in the pleasures of being subjugated to an annihilating male principle, constitutes perhaps the homoerotic truth of sublimity (119). Yet this gem of insight is itself buried by Tata in his argument and the text lacks any extended consideration of the central roles female performers and collaborators like Edie Sedgwick, Brigid (Berlin) Polk, Dorothy Dean, and Pat Hackett play in the production of "superficial sublimity." If the female body and feminized labor often occupies the role of irresolution or the place-holder for the aesthetic oscillation that Tata identifies as operating in Warhol's "superficial sublimity," and if Warhol is able to maintain authority in the face of the death of the author while his female co-authors or co-producers like Pat Hackett are not, is this then a provocative commentary about the sexualized dimensions of Warhol's aesthetic or a commentary on the specifically homoerotic aspects of postmodernity? Tata leaves these questions unanswered and as such leaves a profound dimension of how the Warholian vision he so eloquently describes matters today—aesthetically, theoretically, and practically—most markedly for any figure who might find herself feminized and marginalized by the Romantic sublime and its postmodern Warholian iteration of "superficial sublimity."


[1] At several moments during his discussion Tata offers examples of how other Pop artists, for example James Rosenquist, insisted on a presentation of self that continued to distance him from the stupid, "trashy," popular cultures Warhol fully embraced. For Tata, Warhol risks dissolving the line between kultur and kitsch, while previous avant-garde artists like Marcel Duchamp and Warhol's colleagues in Pop art, like Rosenquist, merely played with the possibility of elevating kitsch to the level of fine art by introducing popular objects and images into high art arenas.

[2] A review of Tata's text by David Carrier, a philosopher, offers a very positive assessment of Tata's contribution to the aesthetics scholarship and points out that Tata deliberately misinterpret Danto at times to advance his own argument. See Carrier, "Andy Warhol: Sublime Superficiality by Michael Angelo Tata," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 69 no. 3 (August 2011): 333-334.

[3] Tata's "The PomoTingle: From Mundanity to Subliminity and Back and Again," appeared in the anthology, From Virgin Land to Disney World: Nature and Its Discontents in the USA of Yesterday and Today, ed. Bernd Herzogenrath, (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2001), 209-28. Many of the ideas Tata discusses in the book under discussion are first introduced in this chapter.

[4] According to the author, this title is the first in a two-part series devoted to the work of Warhol. "The second part, temporarily called Inescapable Da-sein, leaves the heady world of aesthetic theory behind for diverse topics relating to Warhol's performativity, self-image, iconicity, and everydayness, with chapters planned on counter-revolution, machinehood, gossip as epistemological object, drug addiction/narcopoetics and meta-celebrity, or fame elevated to a reflective principle." Web. 1 March 2012. http://www.amazon.com/Andy-Warhol-Michael-Angelo-Tata/dp/0978990234.

[5] Moving against this notion of the Warholian surface is the recent argument of Douglas Crimp that Warhol's films are best understood in relation to their complex depictions of representational and social space. See Crimp, "Spacious," October 132 (Spring 2010): 5-24.

[6] Tata also convincingly argues that this embrace of "plasticity" distinguishes Warhol from other Pop artists.

[7] For a compelling discussion of how Warhol's films visually produce glamour, see Brigitte Weingart's discussion of Warhol's Factory Screen Tests (1964-66) in "That Screen Magnetism: Warhol's Glamour," October 132 (Spring 2010): 43-70. Weingart's article is part of a special issue devoted to the legacy of Andy Warhol and edited by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. While admittedly any interdisciplinary Warhol scholarship risks oversight considering the depth and breadth of the existing literature, this issue offers a useful critical yardstick against which to measure Tata's argument. Both are devoted to questioning the legacy of Warhol's impact, but whereas Tata confines his discussion to an examination of the philosophical import of the artist, the October issue is largely devoted to articles considering his filmic contributions. Some of the same critical issues arise in both including discussions of Warhol's peculiar brand of glamour and his obsession with collecting, but in the October issue the arguments are more satisfyingly accompanied by discussions of Warhol's visual logic and philosophical heritage.

[8] In Warhol's project of Superstars and his preoccupation with presentation of his self, Tata identifies an extension of the British Romantic project of self-fashioning and also sees a connection to the German Idealist project of envisioning art as a mode of aesthetic transport.