Back in 2003, in a post titled “Mao And The Godfather“, we had some thoughts on, and a photo of, the Andy Warhol print of Mao Zedong that hung above the mantelpiece in Francis Ford Coppola’s dining room at the height of his power as a film director in the mid-1970s.
A reader of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism blog quotes from an article by Jed Perl that suggests that Warhol didn’t choose Mao as a subject randomly:
Mao is Marilyn, only more so. The terms “icon” and “global icon” are nowadays tossed around with slapdash glee, so it is important to make a basic distinction. It was the moviegoing public that made Marilyn Monroe an icon, because they responded to her beauty, her charm, her wit. The people who hang posters of Marilyn on their walls do so because they like her. It’s that simple. But the omnipresence of Mao’s image has an altogether different origin. While Leftists in the United States in the late 1960s may have gladly chosen to hang Mao’s portrait on their walls, among the billion Chinese who were sure to have his portrait in their homes and in their workplaces, it was understood that they would have endangered their own safety if they did not put his portrait where Mao wanted it to be. There is a world of difference between an icon freely chosen and an icon imposed from above, and the difference has more than a little to do with the difference between a liberal society and an authoritarian society. Warhol’s way of blurring this distinction leads straight to the political pornography that characterizes so much of the new Chinese art.
The distinction was not lost on Warhol. According to one of the umpteen books on him that has appeared in recent years, Warhol “often stated that his goal was to obtain the patronage of a dictator, who would then mandate that Warhol’s portrait be placed in every governmental office, school, and so on, ensuring the artist unlimited financial opportunities.” Was Warhol kidding when he fantasized about being a dictator’s court painter? To some degree, of course, he must have been. But then again the fascination of Warhol’s work was based on a confusion or conflation of a number of different kinds of power, beginning with the power of celebrity and the power of advertising and the power of art. In the early 1970s he added to that incendiary but still somewhat benign mix another element: the power of communist propaganda. That was the point at which his work turned foul. Warhol’s Maos