Warhol and The Passivity of Whiteness
In 1975, Andy Warhol produced a series of ten screen printed portraits featuring Black and Latinx drag queens and trans-women, titled Ladies and Gentlemen.¹ He carefully selected polaroids he took from photoshoots with his recruits in The Factory and used them to produce screen prints with color blocks details. Warhol insisted on maintaining the anonymity of these subjects and compensated each individual with approximately $50, many of whom never saw the prints the photos were used for. This then begs the question, why would he find it acceptable to elevate these subjects to the position of cultural icons while simultaneously rendering their hardships and personal identities to nothing? Warhol understood the passivity of whiteness, embraced it, and exploited the talents of marginalized people who were inherently incapable of reaching his status due to differences of identity.
In her essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde explains that we cannot begin to fight the oppression from a dominant power structure with the limited tools made available within these very structures.² To maintain control, oppressors must resist change and distract the disadvantaged. They immobilize us with silence and division. Thus, Lorde insists that in order to actualize new ways of being for marginalized peoples, we must come together, understand our differences of existence, and learn to draw strengths from them.
Liberation requires the power of community because it requires that we confront uncharted territories. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. have all manifested at the forefront of society as a tool for a personal profit of the privileged, meaning any and all issues of inequality are inseparable. We cannot overlook the intersectionality of all oppression that connects all marginalized persons. The need to nurture each other becomes imperative because those who are alienated do not survive in this world. There are no real systems of support for the oppressed to receive help because those who have the power and influence to bring about change are self-preserving.
In a different piece titled There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions, Lorde again illustrates the importance of intersectionality by demonstrating how issues of race and homophobia are inseparable in her own life. There are gay people in the Black community which makes homophobia a Black issue and there are Black people in the gay community which makes racism a gay issue.³ If we are to resist oppression, we are to resist all forms of oppression that manifest for all disadvantaged people.
As Taro Nettleton suggests in White-on-White: The Overbearing Whiteness of Warhol Being, Warhol clearly understood the problematic function of his own whiteness, but failed to ever critically engage this issue in his supposedly counter-public spaces.⁴ His eclectic cast of “Superstars” which consisted of a range of personalities still managed to remain almost exclusively white.⁵ Minorities in Warhol’s circles feel tokenized and it is clear that rather than embracing difference, The Factory became a homogenous mixture of predominantly white figures. This serves as the antithesis to the safe spaces Lorde fought to create for Black and queer women in the feminist movement, where Warhol’s “Superstars” are entirely dependent on him alone rather than each other.
While Warhol was pivotal in shaping the landscape the exploration of gender and sexuality in art, his inability to aptly address issues of race is a betrayal of all queer groups and an evasion of responsibility. He consistently exploited his unaddressed privilege as a white man to take advantage of marginalized identities for personal gain. Warhol made a million dollars for the commission of Ladies and Gentlemen, having shared 0.01% of the profit with the sitters who made the project possible.⁶ Warhol’s own identity as an openly gay man becomes irrelevant in this discussion as he knowingly perpetuated the continual oppression of marginalized individuals by assuming a position of control over them and writing away the need to ask for consent with them as well. In attempting to create a revolutionary counterpublic space, Warhol actually established his own master’s house that kept him benefitting from the talents and work of others. Concerned entirely with self preservation, it can almost be understood why his peer Valerie Solanas felt he had too much control over her life and would go as far as to shoot him.⁷ When the master’s tools will not allow for genuine change for the perpetually submissive, it makes sense why Solanas would think maybe a .32 Beretta could.
Warhol’s failure to critically engage in issues of race with his series Ladies and Gentlemen begins to unveil the danger of his consistent passivity and the ways in which he weaponized it. Contrasted with the ideas of Audre Lorde, it becomes evident that Warhol never intended to help liberate oppressed groups and instead was self-serving and self-preserving. He understood the security the color of his skin entitled him to and in taking advantage of it, betrayed all oppressed groups. If we are to fight for true equality, we must take on the difficult challenge of acknowledging any privileges we may have and embracing our differences of existence, for we need to find the strength within each other to dismantle the master’s house.
- “Ladies and Gentlemen Complete Portfolio.” Revolver Gallery, August 31, 2021. https://revolverwarholgallery.com/portfolio/ladies-and-gentlemen-complete-portfolio/.
- Lorde, Audre. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. S.l.: Penguin, 2018.
- Lorde, Audre. “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions.” Essay. In Bulletin: Homophobia and Education. Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1983.
- Nettleton, Taro. “White-on-White: The Overbearing Whiteness of Warhol Being.” Essay. In Art Journal 62, 62:14–23. CAA, 2003.
- “Warhol’s Superstars.” Revolver Gallery, September 17, 2021. https://revolverwarholgallery.com/portfolio/warhols-superstars/.
- “How Warhol Erased the Identity of His Black Trans Sitters.” Contemporary And. Accessed October 9, 2021. https://contemporaryand.com/magazines/how-warhol-erased-the-identity-of-his-black-trans-sitters/.
- Wertheim, Bonnie. “Overlooked No More: Valerie Solanas, Radical Feminist Who Shot Andy Warhol.” The New York Times. The New York Times, June 26, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/26/obituaries/valerie-solanas-overlooked.html.