You have doubtless heard people draw comparisons between short-lived stardom and Andy Warhol’s prediction that ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’

His words are a chillingly accurate description of the conveyor belt that transforms unknowns to celebrities via The Apprentice, viral news clips, Twitter and talent shows, and most recently TikTok. More importantly, Warhol foresaw the changing appetites of audiences that would foster this change. His 1962 piece entitled Campbell’s Soup Cans alludes to this transition.

There is, of course, nothing remotely remarkable about a soup can. It is a mundane, inexpensive, low-order necessity that lacks artistic merit. And yet its image, printed over and over again, is somehow mesmerising. Seen many times over, it becomes strangely hypnotic. The onlooker wants to see the cheap and humdrum reflection of our reality over and over again. This is the perfect analogy to contemporary Pop Culture or, more accurately, the entertainment we now desire, produce and consume. Crucially, Warhol foresaw that our attention spans would shrink.

Warhol as  Clairvoyant Savant

Research tells us that people are more likely to embark on watching a film or television programme if they already know the ending.

Song lyrics are also becoming more repetitive. One study compared songs from 1958 to 2017. Exactly half of the thirty most repetitive songs had been released in the last 22 years. Warhol’s Soup Cans painting predicted what future audiences would crave: the least demanding, most repetitive and predictable entertainment possible.

The once unthinkable fusion of reality with television entertainment spawned a number of ‘fly on the wall’ BBC documentaries in the ‘90s and the ‘Reality’ genre truly took off. Simply reinforcing the normal and ordinary sufficed as entertainment — except it didn’t. The public wanted more, devouring reality TV like cans of soup. Since it featured no paid actors, it was cheap to produce and the ‘reality’ — that viewers tune in to escape — became inescapable.

This appetite for ordinariness hasn’t waned. Not only have these ‘docusoaps’ been revisited on television networks and the Web, we now trawl the ocean bed of the Internet in search of programmes from yesterdecades to see the familiar again and again. At least, some of us do, given the number of Likes and Views these uploads receive. Topics of interest include airport staff (87K views), Blackpool Pleasure Beach (61K views), life in a village (10K views) and seeing a doctor (2.4M views). The ordinary has never been so curiously gratifying.

March of the Banal

The appetite to see on our screens … exactly what would be there if we looked up from them, remains voracious. We delight in uploading and sharing clips of the banalest action where it is warmly received by eager consumers of mundanity. Viewers cannot get enough of the most unremarkable footage showing plastic bags flying in the wind (2.4M views), the etiquette of bread eating (83K likes), girl ‘in [her] mum’s car’ (93K likes) and children eating fruit (54M views).

There was a time when it would be embarrassing to admit searching for a clip from a ‘90s BBC documentary, with many viewers then calling it a misuse of licence fee. Today, there is so much demand to view what was once considered, well, trash — or certainly lacking in ‘artistic merit’; think old soap opera clips, banned adverts, one-hit wonders, cut film and music scenes, many of which we (it can’t just be me) have watched countless times, though it’s often mortifying to admit to it. Black Lace’s 1984 hit, ‘Agadoo’ was banned by the BBC ‘for not being credible enough,’ yet now has 16M views on one upload alone. The novelty record ‘Crazy Frog’ can be proud of 3.8B (sic!) views, in addition to beating Cold Play to Number 1 (are we surprised? He is a lot happier).

Exactly as Warhol’s Soup Cans foretold, the predictability of the recurring, familiar image does not render it any less engaging. It is the cheap, ordinary, and predictable images, easily manufactured with minimal imagination, that viewers thrive on. So much so, that content producers make compilation videos that simply reproduce music hits, TV moments and interviews gone wrong for the lemmings who want to relive them. Read the comments on these uploads, and you’re guaranteed to find a particular word recurring throughout: ‘iconic.’ This expression has shot up in usage since 1995, enjoying an all-time high in 2019.

The word is derived from an old Greek word, ‘eikōn,’ meaning ‘an image,’ often used to mean ‘a visualised memory.’ Even if you cannot say that the clip you’ve just watched was in any way remarkable, calling it ‘iconic’ at least confirms that it has been remembered. Often, we manage to find such footage from a single quote: ‘You won, Jane,’ ‘You ain’t my mother!,’ ‘Roger, what did you do?!

Redefining Art

Artistic merit implies that something should be forgettable and not need discussion, but our response to most Pop Culture is anything but. We acknowledge that certain easy-to-digest content has stood the test of time and immortalise it by placing it on a pedestal carved from likes, retweets and countless views. Rather than asking whether a song or clip has objective value, we canonise it regardless just because it sticks in the mind. Examples of this frivolous tendency include footage of how a celebrity chef pronounces ‘microwave’ (1.4M views) and a clip of people discussing a Top 40 pop song (84K views).

We are a society that largely prioritises popularity and sentimentality over skill, inspiration and effort. This conforms to Warhol’s definition of ‘Art’ as ‘What you can get away with,’ in a nutshell. Uploaders who immortalise low-brow clips become Artists. Art has been downgraded to the banal task of putting out familiar items for consumption by the masses, like humble cans of soup in a factory. This is hardly surprising. Anyone with a Smartphone can become an ‘indie’ filmmaker and what you see out your window has the potential to be engaging content. Art itself has become an exercise in pushing the boundaries of what can go unpunished. Instead of putting it through the test of imagination and newness, the new art form is to capture, view and rewatch everyday life, and to regurgitate old reels which are as malleable as soup tins. Footage of what we recognise attracts responses like iron filings to a magnet. From reaction videos to remixes and deepfakes that garner innumerable views, this is the new playing field if you want to be creative and commercially successful. The desire to see the familiar slightly repackaged — like Warhol’s soup cans as they progress along the canvass — magnetically holds our interest.

Spending time making Art (or at the very least, an artistic statement) with easy-to-use software that edits undemanding material, perfectly reflects how Warhol described himself: ‘a deeply superficial person.’ It also plays directly into a contemporary subculture: the basic b*tch. An ironic status, since anybody genuinely basic would never have sufficient awareness of subculture to label themselves as such.

Hypnotic Real-Life

Warhol’s Soup Cans and their subsequent prophecy has become our Pop Culture’s Memory Boom. Instead of being bored by more of the same, we are dissatisfied without the familiar and memorable. His image of Campbell’s canned soup — which requires little on our behalf to consume visually — perfectly demonstrates and foretells the reproductions, edits, re-uploads, deepfakes and remixes of well-known TV clips that we just can’t get enough of. Whether it’s homemade Reality TV or digitised fragments of past decades, we want to see real-life repeatedly. Like Warhol’s cans lining the shelf, the endless supply of thumbnails holding clips of the familiar is somehow hypnotic when seen on a device.

Like his Campbell’s Soup Cans, Warhol’s silkscreen painting Marilyn Diptych is a 1962 print that predicts an aspect of modernity simply by repeating the image and playing with colour tones and saturation. The face of screen goddess Marilyn Monroe looks at us with almost mock humour. Fifty prints of Monroe’s face, half in vibrant colour, half in monochrome, reveal two of Warhol’s obsessions: celebrity and death. On the colourised side, we don’t really see Monroe’s face. Every feminine contour and endearing wrinkle is reduced to blotches of hair and makeup — perhaps intentionally, to deplete her human complexity and capitalise on her face and celebrity status the way Hollywood did. Norma Jeane the individual is reduced to a crude abbreviation on a page, in the name of advertising. This rings eerie bells with an Internet archetype: the Social Media Influencer, synonymous with the use of light rings, fillers, filters and ‘Turkey teeth’ to promote products.

Just as the Marilyn Diptych does not faithfully show Monroe’s face or promote her films, it doesn’t really matter. Viewers want Marilyn Monroe herself. Her persona is the product, the film is simply how we acquire her. Similarly, an influencer is not selling the product, it is the other way around. As Mariale Marrero explains:

‘When you follow an influencer, you’re not just following for the content that she posts, you’re following her for her opinion. These are her ten favourite products, they are now you’re ten favourite products.’

A personality is for sale. The product helps us obtain it, just as the films of Marilyn Monroe help us gain access to her. This plausibly explains why there is so much User-Generated Content (the platform for homemade Reality TV) dedicated to the phenomenon of Influencing: it’s the culture and lifestyle of Influencers that we’re really after.

Warhol’s colourised frames of Monroe show her staring at us from a box — as if promoting herself on Instagram to drive sales. Her image is in inexhaustible supply. This is aptly analogous to what we see on social media, recruitment and dating sites, as well as numerous apps. Users are able to self-promote alongside targeted advertising within the fleeting world of cyberspace. In that world, there are an infinite number of substitutes, even copies, displaying the same image over and over again inside a box. If and when our engagement with one ‘copy’ runs its course, there are plenty more to like, follow, message or add. A large chunk of our daily interactions is now as unsentimental as a production line. Little surprise, then, that so many wonder if we ‘have forgotten how to make friends.’

Forming connections today merely requires pressing a button on a mass-produced device; much like using factory equipment to achieve a certain desired result. We have become as disposable to each other as canned goods. (‘Dear God, what a sad little life …’) Perhaps, Warhol’s greatest strength was in seeing how superficial we were to become. Even if you disagree with this, you cannot deny that he is iconic.


Image: ‘ART IS WHAT YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH’ in Station Road, Chingford. Printed with kind permission of the artist, Pegasus.

Twitter: @artistpegasus

‘ART IS WHAT YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH’ Commissioned by The Art House Gallery, Waltham

Artist represented by Clarendon Fine Art

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