I am a deeply superficial person. – Andy Warhol
This past Thursday I took two of my daughters to see the great Andy Warhol retrospective currently on display at the Portland Art Museum. Most people are familiar with his work, the most famous of which consists of highly colorized sequences of reworked photos of Mao, Marilyn Monroe, and the Campbell’s Soup can series. We got lucky with our timing, as Jordan Schnitzer, the scion of a local real estate family who also happens to own all the works on display in the show (he owns the largest collection of works on paper in the country), was there to give a talk about the collection. I’ve heard Jordan speak on a number of occasions, and he always has some interesting insights into the lives and moitvations of the artists he collects, so I was excited for my girls to get a chance to hear him explain the backstory of the most famous of Warhol’s works (included in the show are 10 Maos, 10 Monroes, and a few dozen Campbell’s soup prints). Instead, I got a lesson in American commerce from the 1950s and 1960s that explains a lot of what we are seeing in today’s economy and global politics, but in reverse. Stick with me on this.
Briefly, Warhol’s works, especially the Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup can pieces, were a commentary of the commoditization of culture in America that occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Warhol started his career working in advertising as an illustrator. Before the widespread advent of television advertising, if you wanted to market a product across the whole of the United States, you had to place ads in about 150 local newspapers. There was no national culture in the sense we know it today. There were a series of local cultures, with local products, local tastes, local production, etc. With the rollout of national television networks during the 1950s, companies could now advertise nationwide. Culture became commoditized, via the Madison Avenue Mad Men. Now to reach everyone, you just had to sponsor a popular show on one of the big three networks and off you went. Hence, the growth in national brands like Coca-Cola, which could create a brand image that was consistent nationwide. It was this commoditization of culture that Warhol was critiquing with his art.
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke. Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. – Andy Warhol
In a bit of a weird coincidence, later that same evening we decided to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. I hadn’t seen it in awhile, but was immediately struck by its focus on the same themes that Warhol was skewering: the over-commercialization of American culture. (Ironically, the production was commissioned and sponsored by…Coca-Cola). Warhol’s first exhibition of the Campell’s soup cans was in 1962. The Charlie Brown Christmas special came out in 1965. This timing coincided exactly with the mass-adoption of television and the building of the interstate highway system. In 1946, only 0.5% of U.S. households had a television, in 1954 this was 55%, and in 1962, it reached 90%. For the first time, everyone in the country could see the same shows, be sold to by the same companies, and get the same products shipped to their stores. The significance of this for our culture and the nature of business for the next 50 years cannot be overstated – it literally reshaped the way companies were constructed, how products were produced, and the winners and losers in the battle for the consumer. And I think that era is over.
Today, we are experiencing the dismantling of a national culture. It is occurring not only because we have hundreds of TV channels instead of three, but because we can all choose which news media fits our worldview and only listen to the news we want to hear. Advertisers have a harder and harder time reaching everyone, which is why print advertising is dying and the only television advertising that has retained pricing power is for the Super Bowl, which may be the last truly national experience we share. While the recent presidential election made the echo chamber problem more visible to more people, it has been occurring for years, as power to influence tastes and desires has shifted away from Madison Avenue to Youtube influencers and organic, authentic marketing campaigns aimed at more subtle associative feelings of good, or bad, will. Culture is splintering in hundreds of mini-cultures, each insulated from the others. And it’s happening all over the world. The world is becoming more insular, more closed-off from other cultures, and more intolerant. The Silicon Valley version of the future had the internet at the nexus of a global culture in which everyone would finally love their neighbors, because they finally got to know them. (This was a lot of the thinking behind the European Union as well). But a funny thing happened along the way – the more people got to know their neighbors, the more intolerant of them they became. Familiarity bred contempt, not compassion. The vision of Twitter as a distributed information network has devolved into a sort of hellish hate-transmission vehicle for the radically intolerant on both the far-left and far-right, with the middle left wondering what the hell is going on and why are so many people apparently so angry all the time.
Now and then, someone would accuse me of being evil – of letting people destroy themselves while I watched, just so I could film them and tape-record them. But I didn’t think of myself as evil – just realistic. – Andy Warhol
The increasing Balkanization of politics in western democracies is manifesting itself in incredibly intolerant micro-cultures on both ends of the political spectrum. The victimhood culture that relies on extreme reactions to perceived microaggressions only serves to reinforce this phenomenon and further isolate its proponents from mainstream society, while the rise of the “alt-right” for lack of a better term is a mirror-image manifestation of a similar victimhood culture that expouses violence instead of whining as a solution. Neither is useful for resolving societies problems, and both will continue to eat away at the foundations of western civil societies as the ability to only hear what you want to hear and only read what you want to read becomes increasingly prevalent. Facebook and Twitter really have ushered in an information revolution, but not the one they were expecting. The Balkanization of thought has turned out to be a very nasty thing to unleash.
I think we’re going to see this same Balkanization in the upcoming European elections. Brexit wasn’t an outlier, it