In a recent article, I noted that Marilyn Monroe, though dead as a doornail for 60 years now, is still earning tons o’ dough for people she never knew. I was referring in that instance to the splashy and superfluous new Netflix series The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe, which was released on April 27 and which has received widespread attention for having, in the words of the Guardian, “uncover[ed] the secrets beneath the movie-star surface” — even though, as I observed, a small army of biographers have already claimed to have done precisely that same thing.
Five days after Mystery came out, Kim Kardashian turned up at the Met Gala — the vapid Roman Empire–style shindig where the elite meet to greet — in a replica of one of Marilyn’s dresses. And not just any dress — this was the one she wore while singing “Happy Birthday to You” to her paramour John F. Kennedy, not long before both of them, young and beautiful though they were, shuffled off this mortal coil. Simply by wearing that frock, Kim stole the headlines from such other PR-savvy worthies as Lady Gaga, Gigi Hadid, and Billie Eilish. (OK, I’ll admit that I don’t really know who Hadid and Eilish are, although I have seen their names a lot.)
The problem with Warhol’s work is that it doesn’t digest the things of the modern American world. It just spits them back.
Yet the news that broke on May 9 easily outstripped those other stories. “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,” a silk-screen portrait that is one of Andy Warhol’s many iconic depictions of Marilyn Monroe, sold that evening at Christie’s in New York for $195 million. It’s the largest sum ever paid for a work by an American artist, the largest sum ever paid for a 20th-century work of art at public auction, and the second-largest sum ever paid for any work of art at public auction.
In my piece about Netflix’s Marilyn series, I quoted something that British stage star Constance Collier said to Truman Capote about her: “I don’t think she’s an actress at all, not in any traditional sense.” In that case Marilyn and Warhol were a match made in heaven, because he wasn’t an artist at all, not in any traditional sense. Or any sense, really. He had no artistic talent. And he had nothing inside of him that was crying out to be expressed. Refreshingly, perhaps, he didn’t pretend otherwise. John Updike, in his 2003 Rolling Stone obituary for Warhol, quoted three of Warhol’s comments about himself:
In a 2005 interview with NPR, Updike praised Warhol’s work for addressing “the facts of modern existence,” which, Updike said, consists of “an awful lot of surface existence with nothing behind it.” By which he meant, I guess, stuff like the 1961–62 rendering of Campbell’s soup cans that was one of Warhol’s first big successes.
I’m reminded of some lines about American poetry by my late professor Louis Simpson, the distinguished poet: “Whatever it is, it must have/ A stomach that can digest/ Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.” But the problem with Warhol’s work is that it doesn’t digest the things of the modern American world. It just spits them back — as does the work of so many others who nowadays are considered artists.
And in the view of some of us, anyway, that means they’re not really artists at all. Great art goes deep. Great art can’t be produced by a machine. Great art doesn’t empty you out; it fills you up.
Not that the art world bigwigs care one way or the other. Reacting to the massive Warhol payday, Alex Rotter of Christie’s said, “It’s an amazing price…. Let it sink in, it’s quite something.” Entertainment Weekly quoted him as follows: “Tonight was a historic night for Christie’s and for the entire contemporary art market…. The record-breaking sale of Warhol’s iconic portrait of Marilyn … is a testament to the strength, the vibrancy, and the overall excitement of the art market today. This sale demonstrates the pervasive power of Andy Warhol as well as the lasting legacy that he continues to leave behind in the art world, popular culture, and society.”
In other words, ka-ching!
Of course, Rotter was careful not to say anything about artistic accomplishment or aesthetic merit or beauty. It’s been a long time since the art world was even partly about such things — about, to put it plainly, wanting to buy, own, display, and live with something beautiful. Surely nobody finds “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” even remotely beautiful. It’s a cartoon. It’s a joke. It’s a quick laugh. To pause and stare at it for more than a moment is to miss the point. Having it on your wall is like owning a moon rock or a framed Elvis autograph. It’s something to point out to guests. In addition, it’s something that, if the dollar takes a bad dive, may prove to have been a very good investment indeed. Or not.
In this sense, works by credentialed artists who’ve proven to be top-notch market commodities are rather like bitcoin — a form of currency that exists alongside dollars, euros, pesos, and so on. Which puts Christie’s and Sotheby’s in a category with the NYSE and Nasdaq.
At first it was a secret who’d bought “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn.” Then it emerged that the purchaser was veteran art dealer Larry Gagosian, 77. At this writing, he hasn’t yet said whether he snapped it up for himself or on behalf of a client. Interestingly, as Forbes points out, Gagosian began his art career as a protégé of art dealer Leo Castelli, who represented Warhol back in the day. At one point, in fact, Gagosian actually owned “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn.” Which is par for the course in the art world today: you buy it, you sell it, you buy it back. It’s like playing Monopoly. And just as with the houses and hotels in the game of Monopoly, the paintings that keep changing hands in the upper echelons of the art world have no intrinsic value whatsoever.