Andy Warhol and language

“Words troubled and failed Andy Warhol,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum on the first page of his biography of the artist (Penguin Books, 2001), even though Warhol wrote many books, “with ghostly assistance”, and had a distinctive speaking style.

Wayne Koestenbaum - Andy Warhol - Penguin Lives biography book coverKoestenbaum returns several times to Warhol’s relationship with language and with time, noting how Warhol’s love of repetition manifested in verbal expression, and remarking on how he “distrusted language” and didn’t understand “how grammar unfolded episodically in linear time, rather than in one violent atemporal explosion”.

I want to quote one passage in particular, from later in the book (which is more psychological portrait than straight biography). Warhol’s magazine Interview, first titled inter/VIEW and then Andy Warhol’s Interview, featured stars interviewing other stars with the results transcribed generously and precisely, without the editing that conventionally turns spontaneous speech into readable prose:

Interview magazine was Andy’s most sustained attempt, after a [a novel], to cross the border between tape-recorded speech and the written word: his experiments in bridging this divide involve a serious philosophical quest to figure out where and how verbal meaning breaks down, and to track the imprecise, shiftless way the words occupy the time it takes to utter and understand them. Andy’s intensest experiences were visual, not verbal, yet he remained fascinated by his own difficult, hampered process of verbalization. Interview, an ideal vehicle, allowed him to indulge his interest in dialogue, as well as his desire to bodysnatch reality and to seal it in falsely labeled canisters. Via the technological mediation of tape recorder, Andy hoodwinked time and talk, and canned it as a product bearing his own name.

I don’t know how serious a philosophical quest it was, but I can relate to the interest in unedited dialogue. Anyone who has transcribed recorded speech will have noticed how halting and erratic is its syntax, compared to the deliberate (if not always elegant) order of writing.

Speech, particularly in conversation, is characterised by false starts, broken phrasing, and disorganised ideas; full, coherent sentences are the exception. Little wonder our memory of syntax and vocabulary is so poor.

Warhol’s unashamedly commercial attitude can belie the fact that he was a deeply sensual artist, and for all his awkwardness with language I think he must have savoured this slippery, intimate side of it – especially when it manifested in so messy and profligate a fashion.

9 Responses to Andy Warhol and language

  1. Garrett Wollman says:

    It’s worth noting the enormous difference between the unedited speech of live radio talk hosts and the same people heavily edited in a prerecorded interview on a public broadcaster. (I don’t even need to specify *which* public broadcaster: pretty much all of the English-language ones are very liberal with the [now only metaphorical] splicing tape.)

  2. Reblogged this on MR. HELLSTRØM and commented:
    Unedited Dialog
    Oscar Wilde was said to have spoken like the written word. His spoken sentences were elegant, perfectly structured finished pieces, though he spoke them spontaneously. But certainly that is a rare gift. Wasn’t any use to him in the long run anyway.
    I love uncut spontaneous interviews. Some of the best thing of this kind I’ve seen is a long interview with the Texas psychedelic punk band Butthole Surfers, in their early years. All of them reclined in a big hotel bed, most likely all stoned out of their minds. Hearing a longer uncut interview gives one a completely different feel for those involved, and you see how the conversation evolves. It may seem chaotic at first, with loose ends all over the damned place, but in the end your impression is far more cohesive. It doesn’t work as well with experienced interviewees, I find, because they start using the same formulations over and over, in order to reduce the effort they have to put in to an interview. It sounds smoother, polished, but they are using stock sentences that can be heard in thousands of interviews. Most interviewers are no better in this respect.
    In any case, what got me on this tack was the following, reblogged from Sentence first. Thanks for the pointer.

  3. Stan says:

    Garrett: That’s true: we might take radio editing for granted, but it often contributes enormously to the listening experience.

    Mr. Hellstrøm: W. B. Yeats reported being astonished upon first meeting Oscar Wilde, so polished was the latter’s seemingly spontaneous speech. Thanks for the Butthole Surfers example; it sounds interesting.

    • Roger says:

      CBC Radio lately replayed an excerpt from a Dick Cavett episode of long ago in which Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer delivered shots at each other. They were spontaneous but practised, not to say habituated, and the shots were what one would expect from these two writers. The audience liked a Maileresque shot at Norman by Cavett himself. So expectations were generally met.
      Re Yeats on Wilde: I don’t know why Yeats would have been astonished, considering Wilde’s reputation, unless it was before Wilde had one, if ever he hadn’t.

      • Stan says:

        Roger: I’m not sure about the chronology myself. If I ever get around to reading the biography of Wilde on my shelf I’ll see if it’s clarified there.

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    It’s been my experience in viewing (or hearing) interviews w/ Andy Warhol over the years, right up till his untimely death, that he seemingly wanted to be perceived by the art-viewing public, and art critics alike, as a kind of ‘mystery-man’, an enigma wrapped in a conundrum incarnate—- a ‘slippery’, quizzical interviewee who responded to most serious queries either w/ a one-word answer, or a sprinkling of terse, cryptic, monotoned retorts, that often came off as more like intentional obfuscating nonsense-speak, rather than any attempt at clarity in expressing his true feelings, or explicating what a particular work of his art was actually trying to convey.

    He struck me as a masterful obfuscater, constantly pulling the wool over the eyes of his inquiring, ofttimes frustrated critics and the art media of the day, in general. That seemed all part-and parcel of the elusive Warhol persona that he so craftily, and intentionally created.

    I recall the Warhol contemporary, a young Bob Dylan of the ’60s, dealing w/ a rather hostile British press corp in London while in the middle of a much-anticipated concert gig in the UK, just at the point in his early career when he had switched over to playing electric guitar; much to the chagrin of his loyal, purist acoustic guitar fan-base. Dylan had created quite the kerfuffle in the transition.

    A seemingly bored Dylan, ever the playful wordsmith played w/ those Brit interviewers, using his masterful gift of manipulating language, using veiled sarcasm, one-word-answers, and subtle double entendres to make these stuffy, formal British newsmen seem like green cub-reporters. Admittedly Dylan was being difficult and he was also licking his wounds over the push-back from his major guitar switch.

    IMHO, both arguably creative geniuses, Warhol and Dylan, knew exactly how to use wordplay, and cryptic comeback comments to their advantage in these often tedious and tense meet-the-press interview scenarios.

    • Stan says:

      Good to hear a Warhol sceptic’s take on it, Alex. He may well have obfuscated in interviews, but to what purpose is open to debate. He had a talent for self-promotion, certainly, but I think there was more to his awkward use of language than just that.

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