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by Donald Kuspit
Fame is a mirage and I don’t want to fuck it up by looking at its pimples.
-- Grace Slick, 1977

From this idea of the "permanent bisexual condition". . . Weininger had developed an elaborate theory of human character types, including the key notion that "male" and "female" substances vary proportionately in different individuals. Weininger explained the phenomenon of sexual attraction by his associated "law of bisexual complementarity" -- with a 3/4 masculine and 1/4 feminine man, for instance, attracting a 3/4 feminine and 1/4 masculine woman (and vice versa).

-- Frank J. Sulloway, Freud, Biologist of the Mind (1)

Now it is hard even to remember the time when the "Hall of Fame" was only a metaphor, whose inhabitants were selected by the inscrutable process of history instead of by an ad hoc committee appointed to select the best-known names from the media.

-- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (2)

You’ve got to be an adolescent -- surely not more than 14 or 15 (maybe 16 and 17 for the seriously emotionally retarded) -- to believe that Kurt Cobain is a genius ("the Rimbaud of rock"), that Keith Richards is a brilliant musician ("the Beethoven of noise") and that they’re both artists in the same sense in which Frida Kahlo, another one of Elizabeth Peyton’s idealized celebrities, is. And you’ve got to be art historically ignorant to think that Peyton’s pretty little portraits of celebrities are of the same esthetic quality and expressive complexity as Kahlo’s painful self-portraits. Cuteness is neither beautiful nor sublime, but ingratiating and shallow.

But then Peyton’s portraits -- most paintings, and most small, with the exception of three mid-size portraits (one of Georgia O’Keeffe), which also have an aura of pseudo-intimacy (but no insight, pseudo or otherwise, into the person portrayed) -- are addressed to the infantile in spirit, prematurely tarnished by temptation. Thus the coyly innocent look of Peyton’s pretty boys and boyish girls -- the look of those who have not yet resolved and have little interest in resolving what psychoanalysts call the "bisexual conflict" -- for to be unisexual is to be unsophisticated, not to say boring.

But it’s not sexual temptation that really arouses them, rescuing them from their odd listlessness, but the temptation of fame. Looking bisexy -- that’s what looking fashionably good means these days -- is a means to the end of becoming popular, which means becoming a mass culture idol. (Is there any difference between fame and popularity these days -- fame for a civilizing and mind-expanding achievement and popularity for being what Boorstin calls a "human pseudo-event?") And without pimples, only pouting red lips made for sucking: suck a celebrity and you too will become suckable, or, to put it with greater propriety (but is there any social propriety left these days?), seductive.

Peyton sucks up to pop culture celebrities (including Napoleon), pandering to adolescents in the best spirit of capitalist sexploitation, that is, imagery in which sex -- or rather its stereotyped illusion -- is used to economically exploit those with little or no critical consciousness let alone experience of society: those unseasoned by life and thus lacking the suspiciousness of society necessary to survive in it. Peyton’s kind of imagery takes emotional advantage of those caught up in the identity crisis that Erik Ericson says is characteristic of adolescence by supplying them with a readymade popular identity, thus making them feel popular, that is, not "left out." After all, why did Oscar Wilde’s adorable baby-faced lover Silver Bosie (1998) agree to be masturbated by him -- they apparently never went "all the way" -- except to feel those famous writing hands on his pristine body?

Peyton’s imagery participates in the cult of celebrity, and identifying with a celebrity is a way of having a self one doesn’t have. It happens to be a false self rather than a true self, to use Winnicott’s famous distinction, that is, an unwittingly compliant self rather than a self rooted in spontaneity and hard-won individuality. Peyton’s social performers -- what else is an artist these days? -- have put the two together: that’s their real "genius." The fake, institutionalized, stylized "spontaneity" of Peyton’s artist-musicians’ performances -- as well-organized and spectacular as Hitler’s rallies, and just as full of "conviction," that is, charged with the theatrical non-conformity of the "instinctive" -- is the standard "avant-garde" manner of successful Pop culture.

Warhol was the first fame-fucker, and Peyton follows in his tracks -- she’s the latest Warhol wanna-be -- down to the fact that her portraits are often based on photographs, like his. And like his, they look like cosmeticized canvases rather than paintings. They’re sort of cheaply romantic, like the slick fan magazine illustrations they’re based on. But unlike Warhol’s images, they lack irony. Warhol tended to show his celebrities at the moment their fame had peaked -- just before their fall from grace into mob popularity. Pushing the limits of popularity, and having nothing more to offer but the novelty of their appearance, they lost hold of their lives and committed suicide (wittingly or unwittingly), as in the case of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Or else they dried up into irrelevance, like Troy Donohue and Elizabeth Taylor, becoming famous for once having been famous. They returned to the everyday meaninglessness they had before Warhol "sanctified" them through his art, giving them an extra touch of fame, however much it also piggy-backed on their fame. He adds to their image, making it more of a pseudo-event than it is by artistically reifying it.

Warhol confirmed the ephemerality of fame, even as he gave it a perverse boost by suggesting that his human subjects were nothing but famous. They had been reduced to their fame -- as they unconsciously knew -- with its paradoxical anonymity. The public mirror declares that one is the most popular image of all, but it says nothing about one’s inner self, which becomes blurred and finally absorbed by the photographic mirror, that is, one’s outer image self. One’s famous image may rescue one from social anonymity, but it doesn’t rescue one from the troubles of life. Fame may be narcissistically gratifying, but the paradoxical lesson of Warhol’s art is that the more one needs it -- like the people who wanted Warhol to make them famous, or else confirm their celebrity by giving it the imprimatur of his own celebrity -- the more one feels like nobody. It is the emotional secret of the famous, and why they try hard to remain famous -- socially celebrated -- because as long as they are famous they don’t have to face the feeling that they are nothing, that is, their inner sense of their own triviality.

Warhol understood that fame is a social fig leaf on personal vacuousness. Peyton thinks it is the fullness of being, showing how shallow her understanding of celebrity is compared to Warhol’s. His awareness that fame dies -- thus the fame of his death imagery -- was his way of debunking it. Peyton blindly embraces it, not knowing it is the kiss of death. Thus she is the victim of fame rather than its master, like Warhol. He made the famous jump through his photographic hoop, like animals in a circus, while Peyton adores and pets them, never realizing, as Warhol did, that they are beasts one doesn’t dare get close to. Peyton cozies up to her human subject matter, while Warhol coolly stares it down, for he knows that it is just another matter of social fact, and he knows its secret vulnerability.

Unlike Peyton, Warhol showed the pimples on the face of fame -- ephemerality is the biggest pimple. It hints of death, a kind of built-in premature death. The pus of death pours out of ephemerality, and the shadow of death falls across the faces in many Warhol’s portraits. The faces of Peyton’s portraits are unshadowed, untouched by time, bright and sparkling, like fake pearls of pleasure -- or like the Portrait of Dorian Gray, for they are full of self-deception, even as they deceive society with their forced preciousness. Despite the calculated naiveté and faux romanticism of Peyton’s works, down to the detail of her pseudo-painterly handling and flashy colors, she is a true believer in the glamour of fame. Her people carry klieg lights around with them, ready to pose for a publicity shot at a passing moment’s notice, as though the fame their photographic image might confer on them could give them the fabulous self they always thought they were entitled to be. Peyton is taken in by the illusion, while Warhol knew fame is only a mirage -- as a publicity photograph invariably is -- and delusion. He knew that those who believe in fame -- who believe that being famous was "really living" and who trust in fame to give them a good life -- were deluded. He knew that fame was a highly contagious psychosocial disease. Did he try to inoculate the famous by giving them an extra dose of fame that would save them from its existential ravages? Yes. But it is their delusion of grandeur that is the inner subject matter of his portraits.

Warhol mocked the cult of celebrity even as he became a celebrity -- thus the odd note of self-defeat in his celebrity portraits -- while Peyton wallows in it, suggesting that she is as permanently immature as the adolescent mind she panders to. Her art is a case of arrested development -- esthetically as well as humanly -- while Warhol’s art is cynically mature, and as such addressed to critical consciousness, despite itself.

"Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton," Oct. 8-Nov. 1, 2008, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 235 Bowery, New York, N.Y. 10002

(1) Frank J. Sulloway, Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 224
(2) Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1964), 45-46

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.