Andy Warhol famously said: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
This quote is everywhere. Artists wear it on t-shirts. It’s hard not to agree: go your own way, ignore the critics, and success will follow. And doesn’t it come from an artist who made it big by doing just that? I used to think it was great advice; but lately, not so much.
Warhol certainly transformed the art business, but the real value of his art is arguable. He said he wanted to let other people decide, and over 50 years later, we’re still trying to do that. The soup can image was hot stuff in 1962; but what does a viewer feel when seeing it today – particularly if it’s the first time? Speaking for myself, I get a flash of nostalgia for what the world was like when I was a kid and Andy Warhol’s art seemed ultra-modern and exciting – and that’s about it. It’s not like I see skill I wish I could develop, or an idea to use in a photo.
Warhol wanted to succeed, so he probably worried a bit about critics killing his business. And critics can be rough. Robert Hughes (no relation to me) referred to “the perfunctory and industrial nature of Warhol’s peculiar talent” – and of his works, said that “their most discernible quality is their transparent cynicism and their Franklin Mint approach to subject matter.” That Franklin Mint reference was a zinger, implying that Warhol’s prints were overpriced and a lousy investment.
So maybe Warhol’s strategy was to just outrun those critics by producing a lot of work, getting it into galleries, and making sales – so fast that by the time the bad reviews were in print no one cared. Hence the quote. But left unanswered is the question of whether Warhol, himself, thought his work was “good or bad”. Was there really anything behind it but a desire to be a celebrity and make money? He seems not to have been too forthcoming on that question – which is maybe why Robert Hughes so politely called him “one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life. Because he had nothing to say.”
For photographers, this famous advice from Warhol is dangerous because it’s so easy to “make even more” and worry less about whether it’s “good or bad”. On microstock and POD sites I see people uploading tons of repetitious stuff, trying to win at the keyword search game with sheer quantity. But it’s not going to work, because too many others are playing the same game. And Getty, for example, has literally millions of photos on those same POD sites. In Warhol’s day there was no internet, so his work never ended up all in one place – you’d see a piece here and a piece there. Unless your work catches on and sells like Warhol’s, you might be just burying your best stuff under a growing pile of mediocrity, making it less likely to be found.
I guess letting “everyone else decide if it’s good or bad” doesn’t work for me; like a former President once said, I’m the decider. When someone finds me online I don’t want them thinking “gee he has a lot of stuff, maybe I could find something I like” – I want them thinking “WOW”.
In the end, though, I have to admit I still get a buzz from Andy Warhol. Here’s my photographic tribute: