I watched the recent PBS
special on the artist, Andy Warhol and I still can’t figure out something. He was very famous. Everybody knew who Andy
Warhol was-even people in nursing homes and kids in elementary school. One commentator called him America’s
most important 20th century artist. Warhol, who died in 1987, once said of fame, “In the future everyone
will be famous for 15 minutes.” But why was Warhol famous?
He was a talented graphic
artist in the 1950’s, but so were many others. He was an avant-garde homosexual living and working in New York’s Lower East side, but that wasn’t unusual. He was friend of the rich and famous- which didn’t hurt. And his artistic legacy? Today he is associated
with graphic illustrations of Campbell’s soup cans,
and images of Marilyn Monroe. I can’t think of anybody who has achieved so much fame without a clear reason why. Except
for one other person.
There is Madonna, whose claim
to fame is nebulous. I can already hear the protests of my students in defense
of Madonna. “You don’t understand…Madonna is a cultural icon!” OK,
she’s a cultural icon, like Andy Warhol. But let’s see. What has she actually done?
She had a couple of hit records in the early 80’s, “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin.” And
a campy, hyped book of pornographic pictures of herself in 1992, titled, appropriately enough, ”Sex,” which some
say cut new ground in the sexual revolution. (That’s funny, I thought all the available ground had already been cut.
Is there more?) She played Evita in a turgid, overblown musical. Her record albums
have sold well world-wide, but I have never met anyone who can tell me the names of more than two of her songs. Princeton,
Harvard, Rutgers and UCLA have offered credit courses that analyze Madonna as a postmodern
myth. I wonder if the instructors can tell me- in 50 words or less- why she’s famous.
Speaking of cultural myths,
October 9 is Columbus Day. It is my least favorite holiday. To enjoy this day, you have to lower your consciousness and have
an unnatural capacity for myopia and self-deception. My encyclopedia calls it “a day commemorating Christopher Columbus’
discovery of America.” That’s
the official story, of course. Innocent primary school children who haven’t yet internalized the contradictions of the
adult world will be asking their parents and teachers how Columbus “discovered”
America if there were already people here.
The answer of course, if parents and teachers value truth, is that the people who were already here “didn’t count”
as real people. Which automatically generates the next question: why not?
Columbus Day is a time of
celebration, especially for Italian-Americans. Some would argue that a day to feel pride in one’s heritage does no harm,
and I agree. But is Columbus an appropriate exemplar of the magnificence of Italy- the home of the Renaissance? Historian Samuel Eliot
Morrison wrote, "The policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was responsible
began the depopulation of the terrestrial paradise that was Hispaniola in 1492…one
third were killed off between 1494 and 1496." That one third amounted to about 5 million people, which is a Holocaust. With
so many other Italians worthy of veneration, why do we celebrate the psychopathic Columbus?
Because we always have. And that’s a lousy reason. For me, it’s like celebrating Al Capone or Albert Desalvo,
the Boston Strangler. As long as we call it Columbus Day and not Michaelangelo Day or Galileo Day or Rennaisance Day, it should
be a day of mourning and prayer in memory of the millions of innocents who were murdered, tortured and enslaved by his hand.
September 27, 2006