I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Andy Warhol is a Scream: Vinyl and Flesh

by Sakunthala Panditharatne
Feb. 7, 2014
Andy Warhol might be better known for his social circles than his art. “Everything has its beauty,” he once said, quoting Confucius, “but not everyone sees it.”  He picked his friends from both New York’s high life and low life: criminals, models, rock stars, transvestites, socialites and homeless people. They were Warhol’s ‘superstars’, and by the mid-sixties they began to appear in films, just like their Hollywood counterparts. Andy Warhol’s Factory, his silver painted studio in midtown Manhattan, was in a constant, amphetamine-fuelled state of production.

Vinyl is a typical Warhol film. It was filmed in one day, it’s very experimental, and it starred one of Warhol’s favourites, Edie Sedgewick. Six years before Kubrick, Andy Warhol made the very first interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, admittedly a very loose one. Warhol couldn’t get the film rights to A Clockwork Orange, so he just decided to make a film vaguely inspired by one chapter. It was so common for the police to shut down Warhol’s films for obscenity that Warhol even suspected any particularly explicit screenplay to be a NYPD trap. The violent, homoerotic content of Vinyl meant it was never released. However, the film was used a backdrop in a performance by the influential band The Velvet Underground, also a group of Warhol superstars.

In the sixties, bars, speakeasies, and Warhol’s Factory were among the few places gays and lesbians could gather in public. During the McCarthy era, there was a link between homosexuality and Communism in the public mind. “You can't hardly separate homosexuals from subversives...mind you, I don’t say every homosexual is a subversive, and I don’t say every subversive is a homosexual. But [people] of low morality are a menace in the government...” said 1950s politician Kenneth Wherry. It was common for the police to raid gay bars, claiming to be enforcing alcohol laws. The clientele would have to hide in corners or escape through the back doors.

Flesh (1968) was filmed by Paul Morrissey while Andy Warhol was in hospital after his attempted murder. Although Warhol never actually attended any of the filming, he was the producer, and his coterie starred in the film. One of the few Warhol films to achieve some mainstream popularity, Flesh follows a day in the life of a New York hustler, played by Joe Dallesandro. Joe’s character was one of the first male sex symbols to appear on film, immortalized in Lou Reed’s jazz hit “Walk on the Wild Side”:

Little Joe never once gave it away
Everybody had to pay and pay
A hussle here and a hussle there
New York City's the place
Where they said, "Hey, babe
Take a walk on the wild side"
I said, "Hey, Joe
Take a walk on the wild side"

Andy Warhol was probably gay, though as far as we can tell, he never had a relationship with a man, and according to those who knew him, being hugged or touched made him uncomfortable. In interviews, he was evasive. However, Warhol's work featured drag queens, cowboys and other icons of gay culture. The first works he submitted to a gallery were drawings of nude males, which were rejected for being too openly gay. However, Warhol was a Catholic, and his family deny he was ever a homosexual. One scene in Flesh shows the young, attractive Joe being picked up by an older gentleman who just wants him to model for a painting. When Joe tells him he wants to earn 100 bucks, he says “one hundred dollars!, you'll have to take off all your clothes for that.” In the film, the man hides his homosexuality behind the fact he is an artist. It’s unclear how much this mirrors Warhol’s position.

Flesh was released in 1968, and the Stonewall riots began in 1969. After a raid on a New York gay bar, the first protests against the persecution of gays and lesbians erupted in Greenwich village. Most of the Warhol superstars were at least indirectly involved with the riots. Although not the start of the gay liberation movement, Stonewall was a tipping point. After the riots, gay activist groups formed not only in New York, but all over the North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Warhol’s films were made just as gay culture was fighting for acceptance, yet his characters seem totally carefree and uninhibited. One slogan from the May ‘68 strike in France said “A cop sleeps inside each one of us. We must kill him. Drive the cop out of your head.” Maybe Warhol was aiming to do just that.

Sakunthala Panditharatne is a maths student and pseudo-Bohemian loser. She spends maybe 80-90% of her time programming, writing and starting awesome projects, like her tumblr, theimaginaryhackathon.tumblr.com . The rest of the time she spends watching Malcolm in the Middle. She likes long, complicated novels and believes in the power of self-organization. Dave Eggers used to be her hero, but she’s kind of past that phase now.