Celebrated pop artist Andy Warhol died 30 years ago today, following what seemed to be successful gallbladder surgery. Although he didn't live to see an era when the Internet took over our lives, let alone gave rise to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest, he was years ahead of his time with behavior that all but set the table for the social domination to come.
Warhol's understanding of the impulses that prompted the rise of social media was rooted in his start as a commercial illustrator. In those salad days, generating attention – or "page views" – for shoes in a catalogue was the name of the game, and Warhol was highly successful in that field thanks to his playful drawings and signature "blotted line" technique.
From there, Warhol rose to the forefront of the contemporary New York City art scene via the burgeoning pop movement. In part, pop art was about the erasing of barriers between fine art, with its tortured practitioners slaving away over a unique painting or sculpture, and mass-produced commercial art, designed to appease all. What was the difference between a pile of Campbell's soup cans sitting on a supermarket shelf and a pile of Campbell's soup cans sitting in a gallery?
Warhol, who was not trained in fine art and had spent the 1950s trying to gain acceptance in its elite circles, was in an ideal position to comment on this distinction. Furthermore, he grasped the connection between his own desire for acceptance and society's growing obsession with celebrity culture. This fueled the creation of some of his most iconic works, like the Marilyn Diptych and the Nine Jackies, which came after the shocking deaths that landed both women in newspaper headlines.
Warhol embraced every form of media, and for him all media was social, designed to provoke a reaction. He drew, painted, created silk screens and sculptures, wrote books, staged performances and hosted TV shows. But outside of his gallery works, he’s probably best known for his hundreds of experimental videos, which ranged from overtly sexual to mind-numbingly monotonous. These included his "Screen Tests," silent shorts of both legitimate A-listers, like Bob Dylan, and other friends and visitors to his studio said to be in possession of "star quality." In the focus of Warhol's lens, everyone had the ability to be a celebrity.
He also understood that every moment of the day offered the opportunity for expression. Warhol took to carrying a tape recorder – referring to it as his wife – with which he captured every conversation and interaction. These recordings became the basis for books like a, A Novel, and the posthumous The Andy Warhol Diaries, a collection of ruminations on fellow stars, business and other mundane subjects from 1976 until his death. Foreshadowing the rise of blogs and other forums for stream-of-the-moment thoughts, he might as well have published a book on Twitter ramblings.
There's little question that, barring a sudden renouncement of public life, Warhol would have taken to contemporary social media like a pigeon to bread crumbs. Shortly before his death, he provided a glimpse of the possibilities of computer-based expression by using an Amiga 1000 to draw a likeness of Debbie Harry. And as the rare artist who made a lot of money, both in his early days as an illustrator and his later years as a portrait creator for the rich and powerful, he certainly would have seized on the opportunity to promote his business.
Warhol once famously said, "In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes." Whether or not he envisioned a future in which people reached for fame by uploading eye-grabbing video clips, commenting on current events or seeking followers for their brands, it's one he ushered in with the standards he set as an observer and practitioner of celebrity culture.