Watching Netflix’s “The Andy Warhol Diaries” and “Dave Chappelle: What’s in a Name?” back-to-back reveals a stark contrast between creative giants.
The former is an effort to shed light on the art and life of the late 20th-century artist through his direct thoughts, published after his death in 1987 at the age of 58.
The latter shares Chappelle’s explanation of why he refused to have his name tied to a theater at the school that taught him how to be a comedian, an artist and, most importantly, a man.
The one thing the two men have had in common is that they were both, as is said of Elon Musk (indeed, he has said of himself) “free speech absolutists.” But if you will take the time to watch both programs, you’ll find that such a description is only true of Chappelle (we’ll leave Musk for another day).
Warhol wanted the “artist to become the art,” but none of the assembled talking heads acknowledge that quest was, at best, a disappearing act.
At worst, it was a long, creative suicide.
At one point Warhol confesses that “The NeverEnding Story” made an enduring impression upon him. Warhol, through his own words, identified not with the film’s young lead who questions and defies the monster, but with the monster itself.
Here—then—we see that Warhol was a man who continually acquiesced to forces around him he could not control. Like a kind of Emile Zola “naturalist” or a Theodore Drieser without a “meta” level of satire, Warhol tried to “prove” to the culture whose approbation he craved that he was worthy of the accolades thrust upon him and which he found empty.
Commentators and intimates alike speak to Warhol’s enigmatic relationship with art, with culture and with a celebrity cult he helped create. Fifteen minutes of fame and all that—right before the introduction of the Apple and Commodore computers and the advent of MTV.
Had Warhol lived to see the explosion of the Internet, one wonders what he’d have done with it. Perhaps he’d have been swallowed up by it—just as he was by a culture he did not so much create as epitomize.
Perhaps he saw that culture as a shell—but he never aspired to fill it; he only wanted to validate its emptiness so that it would embrace him. Or create the perfect echo chamber in which he could finally express his rejection of the very thing he needed to find out who, indeed, he was or wanted to be.
His genius was not in creating a new culture; it was in projecting his self-loathing in such a way as to spread it like a virus. The “cool” he shared caused the culture he hated to come to hate itself, too.
Much is made of the relationship between Warhol and Basquiat and the apparent disaster of their collaboration. The press dubbed Basquiat an “art-world mascot.” This soured their relationship and Basquiat seems to have spoken to Warhol thereafter only once after that experience and before Warhol unexpectedly died.
Basquiat passed less than a year later from a drug overdose, and some (in the documentary) take it as the mid-1980s end of a moment in art and culture that can never be repeated.
Chappelle’s speech at his Alma Mater is an apologia not for his own background but for his refusal to allow his name to be attached to the Ellington School’s theater. It’s not because he does not appreciate what he gained from attending the school.
In fact, it is in spite of and perhaps because of it.
He references a visit to the school in which freshman students protested him for saying what he has said about the “alphabet people” (transgender activists) in other stand-up routines. And while he was, as he says, angered by what they said, he knew they weren’t speaking for themselves.
“I’d heard this before,” he says.
He knew they were repeating “talking points” and politically correct bromides regarding what is and is not acceptable politically and culturally.
And he rejects all that. His message to his classmates and to those who follow him at this school for the arts is that the ARTS demand that artists be loyal to the principal not merely of being true to one’s self (which is clearly essential) but of being true to the truth.
Chappelle tells the story of quitting his show for precisely this reason (and he’s told that story in other venues as well). He wasn’t going to submit to letting the artist himself to become a commodity.
And there’s the rub between Warhol and Chappelle.
Warhol allowed himself to be subsumed so completely by the culture whose accolades he so desired, that he not only made himself into a commodity but, in defending his narcissism, attempted to convince the world that any projection of meaning was a feint and a fake. He implied that no expression of so-called “meaning” could be authentic and, because it could not be authentic, only Warhol’s inauthenticism was ironically authentic.
Warhol is the apotheosis of the misunderstanding of Derrida and the full embrace of its philosophic manifestation in Michel Foucault.
Chapelle, on the other hand, is the embodiment of a man who is also an artist, a comedian and a human being who has taken the opposite views regarding fame, success, money, celebrity and authenticity.
And the content of his comedy speaks directly to all of these things. He delivers a message not of hopelessness and loss and giving up—Warhol said life is “getting sick and dying”—but of heroic embrace of situationality; a kind of saying, “So, this is my situation? Okay then—I’ll kill it anyway.”
And Chappelle has killed it over and over again. On his terms.
The contrast between these two is an inflection point for our culture. Watch both documentaries back-to-back. Then ask yourself—which artist is the surfer (the naturalist who believes the universe is a force that must be ridden but who has no control, in the end, of anything except his own death and then not even that) and who is the Rogue (who stands athwart the apparent overwhelming forces of reality and yells “Stop!”)?
Each man is an emblem for the argument that individuals ought to be the architect of their own destiny. But, in the end, Warhol died the victim of his; Chappelle lives as the champion of something quite different.
Then. Ask yourself: Which one are you?