The name “Andy Warhol” is as ubiquitous in the American cultural landscape as Campbell’s soup cans are in grocery stores or Marilyn Monroe imagery on the internet. Commercializing consumer products and celebrities are how Warhol made his name and legend. Warhol’s name is not usually associated with the Civil Rights Movement or any form of identity politics activism. And yet, Warhol associated himself with the fight for American racial equality through this artwork.
This silkscreen, made in 1964, is manipulated by Warhol from a 1963 newspaper photograph documenting the Birmingham Civil Rights movement (Hofstra University Museum). Warhol’s use of another artist’s image without giving credit for the purpose of his own art is appropriation. However, given this artwork’s subjects -- a black human figure being attacked by two dogs -- the question arises of whether there is more than one type of appropriation occurring.
This image is being removed from the context provided by the newspaper and made to stand alone. The image is removed from time and space, requiring the viewer to see the image for what it is -- a human figure being attacked as other human figures standby. This act of violence, regardless of race or political views, could possibly be condemned as universally bad, if not for two features. Firstly, we cannot see the attacked human figure’s face, and therefore his humanity. Secondly, Warhol’s process of transforming a black-and-white newspaper-print photograph into a silk screen has blackened all of the print, rendering most of the figures with black skin to be just black skin and no faces (look to the figures in the background). Warhol has made the black bodies just that -- no longer black Americans or black humans, but black figures. These people, who at the time of Warhol showing this work were experiencing the battle between Jim Crow and Civil Rights, are made inhuman. These people are made art without their consent via Warhol’s appropriation of their body.
Warhol appropriated, but to what ends? What was his intention with this work? Was Warhol hoping to immortalize a moment of socio-political change or require the privileged urban gallery viewer north of the Mason-Dixon line to see oppression in black-and-white? Is this a commentary on how mass media such as newspapers were also commercial products producing and reproducing humans as media fodder? Or was Warhol producing Warhol -- the brand that created Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962) and Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) -- at the expense of objectifying and selling off of black bodies (Museum of Modern Art)? At the end of the day, does Warhol’s intentions in 1964 truly matter? Given who he branded himself then, who his work was shown and sold to, and how he is known now, then Michael Ray Charles’ words regarding his own reception of his work may apply to this Warhol print:
But for the most part, collectively, I would say that blackness continues to hover around this comfort zone of entertainment—providers of entertainment. You know, I think those areas are pretty comfortable for whites to see blacks in (qtd. in Art21).
- Hofstra University Museum. Museum label for Andy Warhol, Birmingham Race Riot. Hempstead, NY. 18 Dec 2017.
- Museum of Modern Art. “Andy Warhol | MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org/artists/6246.
- Art21. “Advertising and Art: Michael Ray Charles.” Art21, PBS, art21.org/read/michael-ray-charles-advertising-and-art/.