Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Used To Make A Livin’, Man: Picking The Banana

For Lou, RIP.

October 20, 2013

What would Warhol say? Predictably unfruitful, nonetheless, this low-hanging hypothetical is tempting as of late.

We do not wonder what he would have said about this or that because he was a “great artist,” nor because he was a man of great insight. His public record: Notably redundant, and never with more than a singular message. Yet this conjecture, WWWS?, surfaces as that message becomes more and more relevant. With his philosophy at the helm, Warhol’s imagery is currently experiencing a second life, with meta-branding and two-headed monsters as the result: His Pellegrino bottles have been sold back to Pellegrino, and Jackie O’s mug–-now truly distorted–-wraps Philip Treacy hats. The perverse nature here dares us to wonder–-and perhaps he is a “great artist” after all because we do–-what would Warhol say? Is making money still art? Is being good in business still the most fascinating kind of art?

The actualizing force behind these products is his estate, the Andy Warhol Foundation, and it is interesting how the issues it is tasked with are exceedingly referential to Warhol’s work. In contrast, when David Smith’s sculptures were tampered with after his death – by nature, negligence, or one man’s hubris, it was dreary - not paradoxical, ironic, or in any way sound with Smith’s contributions to art history. What Warhol’s estate maneuvers– authenticity, copyright, product licensing, branding– could all be drummed up as content within Warhol’s work. As these elements surface, it’s as if Warhol packaged them into his artwork to be revealed in time, as life insurance towards prophecy fulfillment.

We are blessed to mull over the irony. It is not as fun for the suits who have to answer to licensing decisions, draw a hard line on authenticity when Warhol produced by means of a factory–when his “signature” was often inked with a rubber stamp.

In 1967, when the Velvet Underground released their debut album–-the one with the banana on the cover, designed by Andy Warhol–-the notion of band branding was essentially nonexistent. The Who were the first rock group to have a logo per se; in 1964, their name atop a roundel appeared organically–born of fan attempts to associate the group with the mod scene. The most iconic logo representative of a band, the Rolling Stones tongue, wasn’t established until 1970.

Regardless of the banana not being a secured trademark, the way Warhol had designed it triggered the benefits of one. And while 

The Velvet Underground, Plaintiff, against The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., Defendant did not go as far to say that the banana design was meant to be a trademark of the band, it did ask that it be excused it as such - explicitly and without filing the proper paperwork. The Velvet Underground argued that the “iconic banana” had come to serve as the VU logo, and in this reality, the Andy Warhol Foundation had no right to exercise its copyright in the artwork and license the banana to Apple and Incase for iPod and laptop cases. Lou Reed has gone on record saying that Warhol would not have approved.

I disagree.

Warhol aimed to cinch the space that existed between his art and pop culture. After his death, and with his totemic blessing, the Andy Warhol Foundation has driven this concept to the finishing line through product licensing. The endowment is used to establish grants and, in turn, feed starving artists. What Warhol would have thought about his estate licensing imagery to third parties to make this happen? We almost positively need not guess.

Exhibit A:

“I’ll endorse with my name any of the following: clothing, AC-DC, cigarettes, small tapes, sound equipment, ROCK ‘N ROLL RECORDS, anything, film, and film equipment, Food, Helium, Whips, MONEY!! love and kisses ANDY WARHOL.” - Village Voice Classified, 1966.

The premise of the Velvet Underground’s argument was that you associate the “iconic banana” with the Velvet Underground. Therefore, the AWF should not be authorized to license it, as it allows AWF and its licensees to “receive the benefit of VU’s goodwill, which VU has established at great labor and expense…not based on (the foundation and its licensees) own qualities, but on the reputation, investment, hard work and goodwill of The Velvet Underground.”

The rhetoric of their official complaint does all it can to paint the AWF as a greedy materialist corporation, robbing a group of authentic underground artists of their hard earned rights to exclusive reproduction and income. Short of any direct evidence of this, and careful not to appear hypocritical – VU’s proprietary needs are material as well, they are left to hang weighty anecdotes to VU’s influence on the be-speckled argument. Not only is this not relevant in a court of law, VU don’t stand up against the very principles they are weighing in their favor. The whole thing subverts the significance and influence that the Velvet Underground has every right to call their very own.

“There may have been only 100 people that saw the Velvet Underground live, but everyone went home and formed a band.”

I’m not sure who said this: Brian Eno? Lester Bangs? Erma Bombeck? But I know it’s about the Velvet Underground, that it’s most flattering, for all intents and purposes true, and unique to them. A concession: Keep this in your pocket and move on. For what it is worth, you’re still inspiring teenagers. You’re responsible for “Venus in Furs” for goodness sake. But you know things have changed when Metallica’s damage control following a disastrous collaboration with Lou Reed is a corporate sponsored festival in which they host bands such as Best Coast.

To call the VU anything other than rock and roll (such as “art-rock”) is inaccurately specific. Only a mother term (rock and roll) could inspire all the genres and subgenres of underground rock that followed in their ‘quake. The last great rock band was the Ramones (because Joe Carducci said so, that’s why) and I can think of no better logo to bookend that goddamn banana and the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The artist who created the Ramones logo, Arturo Vega, died on June 8th of this year. He was considered the 5th member of the Ramones. He survived all but one of them.

I distinctly remember my band mate showing up for practice 8 years ago in a VG ++ Ramones t-shirt: soft-worn, classic logo, and it actually fit! Finding out it was a $15 Hot Topic purchase and not “from that thrift store on Cleveland Ave.” or “my girlfriend. eBay” offered a blunt moment of clarity: My drummer was a guy who knew more about music than anyone I knew – apparently, he was a fan of VU by the age of 12 (older brother). It was then, in 2004, the stigma of buying mass-produced, reissued apparel at the mall was for me, repealed. Ready-to-wear Ramones t-shirts are made for everybody! And Warhol threaded the needle.

–Elizabeth Murphy