Thursday, January 1st, 2009

Proust/Warhol by David Carrier

Andy Warhol "Sarah Bernhardt" from Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century 1980, screenprint, 40 x 32 inches, © 1987 - 2008 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
Andy Warhol "Sarah Bernhardt" from Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century 1980, screenprint, 40 x 32 inches, © 1987 - 2008 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Marcel Proust begins his novel In Search of Lost Time with a famously long passage in which the Narrator describes sleep, or more properly, the antics of his imagination, while semi-conscious. When I read this passage for the first time, the image that most struck me was that of the Narrator sitting in an armchair reading a book. He is day-dreaming and also falling asleep, dreaming that he has entered into the world of medieval France – the subject of his book. He wakes and can’t be sure that what he dreamed wasn’t what he read  or even that he is really awake. Suddenly, I became acutely aware of my own tendency to daydream while reading; I too drifted between Swann’s Way and my own here and now. As I adjusted to a state of prismatic awareness, the momentum of the Narrator’s voice carried me along unresisting. Proust’s ability to align the Narrator’s hypnotic, multiple states of consciousness with those of the reader is one of his most impressive skills.

Andy Warhol treats the theme of sleep more literally in his long film, Sleep. But in this case, an attitude of “nothingness” is proposed. Warhol’s boredom and Proust’s frivolity are superficially accessible qualities in their work, attractive and repellent. But they hint at deeper currents of cultural experience than one might at first suppose.

An enterprising comparison between Marcel Proust and Andy Warhol unfolds as a critical tour-de-force in David Carrier’s slim volume, Proust/Warhol. The juxtaposition of these two artists, both mavericks of 20th century art, is highly suggestive once proposed. Their biographies have obsessed professionals and other enthusiasts as much as the multi-faceted and gargantuan output that each produced.

Accomplished as a philosopher as well as an art historian and critic, Carrier reveals that many threads in his own life and work prompted the undertaking of Proust/Warhol. There was a wish to engage with Warhol’s daunting critical legacy on one hand, and his personal experience of Proust’s “involuntary memory” on the other. The ideas that tumble forth draw upon Carrier’s considerable erudition and cross-disciplinary way of thinking.  Proust/Warholis the ice wine of many seasons’ thought.

Acknowledging huge differences between Proust and Warhol, Carrier asserts that a comparative study puts each of them in a new light. His underlying premise is that both Proust and Warhol “develop comprehensive aesthetic theories.” (p 1) Carrier is most interested in demonstrating that the relationship between art and life posed an aesthetic dilemma that each artist resolved, inventively and on his own terms. One can appreciate the outlines of Carrier’s philosophical analysis, disagree with almost every argument within it, yet feel exhilarated by the book as a whole. Carrier’s best point is that Proust and Warhol show us how to live well, with style and imagination, provided that the boundary between art and life is kept permeable.

Read this book in a library where the Humanities Division is not separate from a specialized Art Division. If one is familiar with the wide range of Carrier’s references, the effect may be breathtaking; if not, chasing through a forest of endnotes can lead to exasperation without satisfying illumination of the argument. (Chapter Two, all of 14 pages, is accompanied by 113 notes.) The extensive Bibliography is a resource in itself, and represents a fascinating trawl through intellectual history. As a practical matter, a copy editor’s hand should have made the reading easier.

David Carrier Proust/Warhol. American University Studies: New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2009. 128 pp. ISBN 978-1-4331-0433-6