Was Andy Warhol a Social Media Genius?

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Andy Warhol’s “Maria Shriver,” from 1978, was taken with a Polaroid camera. Models frequently wore white powder, black eyeliner, and red lipstick.

Locally, Rhode Island is having a Warhol moment: NewportFILM, the year-round documentary film program, is hosting its Andy Warhol-themed friend-raiser tonight; meanwhile, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum is hosting two exhibits of the artist’s work. Globally, though, the population of Earth is having a Warhol moment, too.

Everybody knows that Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” But this cultural prophecy didn’t end there.

Though he’s best known for his Pop Art phenomenons such as his “Campbell’s Soup Cans” and celebrity silk screens, Warhol was also a compulsive documentarian who made hundreds of short films and snapped more than 100,000 photographs during the course of his career.

Between 1964 and 1966, Warhol filmed more than 350 “Screen Tests,” some of which are currently on view at the RISD Museum in Providence. These black-and-white, silent films were captured on 100-foot-long rolls of film, which ran for 2 minutes and 45 seconds, then slowed down to play back at about four minutes long. (Coincidentally, that’s almost exactly the length of the most popular ads on YouTube; the most popular user-generated content is in that range, too.) They weren’t used for auditions, they were just, what we’d call today, reality clips.

As a proud non-consumer of reality TV, I sat down to watch these videos assuming they’d be hard to sit through. In fact, the opposite was true. I found myself wondering why Jane Holzer, flawlessly pretty, hardly moved a muscle, while Marcel Duchamp kept licking his lips. A mostly motionless Dennis Hopper effortlessly exuded his signature intensity. Nico looked like her voice sounds, a diva completely comfortable in her own skin. Sure, they were getting direction from off-camera and Warhol was lighting and framing the shots, but I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on in each person’s head. I wanted in. (It was no coincidence, I realized, that “An American Family,” which can only be described as the first reality TV show, was filmed in 1971 and aired two years later on PBS.)

A capture of Edie Sedgwick,  Warhol's muse, from his video series, "Screen Tests."

A capture of Edie Sedgwick, Warhol’s muse, from his video series, “Screen Tests.”

Warhol’s muse, Edie Sedgwick, was a 1960s version of what we now know as a reality TV star. Like Kim Kardashian, she was a pretty, intriguing train wreck, probably vapid, yet — love or loathe her — gravitationally impossible to ignore. Both women were and are strongly influenced by their rich, dysfunctional families and their constant need to be within the orbit of a camera, while never fully developing any acting craft.

“What I liked was chunks of time all together, every real moment…I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves,” Warhol said about his “Screen Tests.” Or was that Ryan Seacrest in his last pitch meeting?

These videos reveal everything that is fascinating about our modern obsession with “reality” in a succinct way: We are passive observers in a one-way relationship with our voyeurism, allowed to judge, watch, project, and measure other people, as well as ourselves against them. You also can’t help but wonder what you’d look like on that screen.

Also on view now at RISD are 150 of Warhol’s Polaroids and black-and-white photos. The Polaroids, which he began taking in the early 1970s with a SX-70 Big Shot, feel like a clear precursor to Instagram and its filters. At a glance, the Polaroids look like impromptu snapshots, but look more closely and you’ll see a masterful skill of the medium and the tools. Warhol was obsessed with preserving moments in time. And I don’t think it’s a reach to say that most of us using Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and Instagram — that’s more than a billion people on Facebook alone — are, too.

In 1976, Warhol was introduced to smaller, 35-millimeter, auto-focus cameras, and began to carry one with him almost all the time. “His intent seemed to be about taking pictures that looked like life — messy, awkward, spontaneous, full of yearning, and fun,” writes the RISD exhibit’s curator.

"Committee 2000 Champagne Glasses," from 1982, feels prophetic of Instagram.

“Committee 2000 Champagne Glasses,” from 1982, feels prophetic of Instagram.

Later, Warhol wrote, “A good picture is one that’s in focus, and of a famous person doing something infamous. It’s being in the right place at the wrong time.” And like that, the paparazzi was born. (It’s worth noting that Warhol was often the celebrity at the center of his own universe.) Ten years earlier, Warhol had launched Interview magazine, and voila, the celebrity magazine had been born. It may have taken Instagram a few more years to come along, but our self-obsessed, look-at-me, selfie-taking culture had begun.

So did Warhol actively change the course of the collective American psyche? Or was he just an awesome trend predictor? It’s impossible to extrapolate. One thing’s for certain though, Warhol — celebrity-obsessed, compulsive photo-taking, voyeuristic, gossip-y fame-whore — was way ahead of his time. Think about that next time you snap a photo of your brunch, labor over a filter, and push it out on social media for all the world to see. Somehow, he managed to turn us all into a bunch of radical over-sharers. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go promote this article on Twitter before canoodling with my inner circle at the NewportFILM party tonight. You can look for the pictures on Instagram.

All images by Andy Warhol, © Andy Warhol. Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. RISD Museum, Providence, RI.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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