order mfj mfj special offer
order MFJ at

Peregrinations of the Avant Garde: The Chelsea Girls Go to Russia

David James

Printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East
The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s
The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s
Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.
    – Andy Warhol, The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol
Of all the exchanges between the United States and Russia since the “Fall of Communism,” among the most incongruous must have been the presentation of two of Andy Warhol’s films, The Chelsea Girls and Outer and Inner Space, in Catherine II’s private theater in the Romanov’s Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. 1 Taking place one week after the anniversary of the Revolution, whatever it lacked in corruption or deviousness, the event more than compensated for in irony. Everything that rises must converge–post-Socialism in Russia no less than post-Democracy in the United States–and the global cultural McVictory brought the prototypical artist of Western postmodernism to the Other Side’s sancta. Warhol, who had predicted that the Second World would be transformed from the First’s nemesis to its twin, would have been delighted. In an interview a couple of years before he completed The Chelsea Girls , he suggested that the cultural standardizations of both laissez-faire capitalism and Soviet Communism were eradicating differences within each of the two societies: “Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more that way.” 2 The comment was not as fatuous then as it now appears to be; at the time, wage differentials in the Soviet Union were smaller than they had ever been (much smaller than in the U.S.) 3 , and in the West the growth of a corporate consumer culture (equal access to which was, for Warhol, the key sign of social parity) was accompanied by social movements aiming to reduce the huge differences in privileges separating Americans from each other. Since then likeness and unlikeness within each country and between them have been governed by a different calculus. Cowboy capitalism has re-introduced massive class distinctions in Russia and unfettered neo-liberalism in the United States, and undone virtually all the social changes envisioned in the 1960s, making each country internally more differentiated, and so more like the other. Now they share the social stratifications of global capital; the fortunate everywhere dine at McDonald’s, while the poor are underfed or starving. And so, in its hegemony, capitalist culture brings Andy Warhol to Russia–along with Coca-Cola, DKNY, and the other brand-names that are becoming as ubiquitous in St. Petersburg as in Los Angeles.

Something of a clue to what could be at stake in these rapprochements in the last months of the millennium may be gleaned from the contexts in which the Warhol films were presented. The screenings occurred at the intersection of two initiatives: on the one hand, a three-city tour of four programs of American avant-garde films (which, in addition to St Petersburg, were screened at the Cinema Museum and the National Film School in Moscow, and in Ekaterinburg); and on the other, the exhibition of a selection of Warhol’s drawings and paintings at the Hermitage Museum, also in the Winter Palace. On one axis, the films are part of the American avant-garde cinema and on the other, the oeuvre of Andy Warhol. Some of the similarities and differences whose play fixes their place in these two matrices have a special resonance in Russia.

The most integral connections between Warhol’s films and Russia run through the former context, the work of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas (including his Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol ), and the younger contemporary artists, continuing in the same tradition, whose works were also screened. This tradition stems from the European avant-gardes of the 1920s, including the Soviet, and so its stylistics and its understanding of the social meaning of cinema are fundamentally opposed to the capitalist commodity film industry that has transformed culture into entertainment. In 1959 Deren, herself born in Kiev in the year of the Russian Revolution, defined the antipathy between the two modes of film production in categorical terms as a matter of “Amateur Versus Professional.” Invoking the Latin etymology of the word “amateur,” she argued that the amateur filmmaker is “one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity,” 4 and celebrated the amateur’s autonomy from the industry as the source of all the freedoms that facilitated the complete practice of the art.

Deren’s vision of aesthetically-sophisticated, personally-expressive film and of its unqualified superiority over the capitalist cinema is one of the most crucial formulations of emancipatory cultural practice in the twentieth century. Though it championed an aggressively subjective and individualistic art, it was rooted in the Communist populism she had championed as a Trotskyite labor organizer in the 1930s, and in her critique of the administered state into which the Revolution had degenerated. When a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, Deren was known for her extreme left position on the “Russian question,” and had argued that the economy, ruling class, and the Soviet state of the 1930s more resembled feudalism even than capitalism; since there could be no question of its then being a workers’ state, she looked forward to a coming democratic, socialist revolution there. 5 Ten years later, when the Cold War and the American Inquisition had driven such sentiments underground, they re-appeared internalized as crises in individual subjectivity in the art form that most crucially opposed capitalist culture–American avant-garde film–through which both the utopianism and the montage method of the Soviet avant-garde runs strong and clear. If the Deren and Brakhage screenings appeared to introduce Russians to a cinema they had never known, it also returned to them a cinema that was in some sense always theirs, an offspring of their own that had been orphaned by Zhdanovism and the Cold War. 6

By the time Warhol engaged it, this tradition was one of the most powerful and radical cultural movements of its time, and had received an appropriate name: Underground Film. Initially indebted to it, he too began filmmaking as a home-movie maker (and most of the differences between his work and Deren’s and Brakhage’s follow from their very different homes), but Warhol quickly turned it in a diametrically contrary direction. His fixed camera long-takes were categorically antithetical to montage composition, and rather than shunning Hollywood, he aspired to join it and to make commercial narrative films. For Deren and her acolytes, cinema was a means of discovering an authentic self; for Warhol, it was also a means of parlaying the role-playing of people from the bohemian and petty-criminal subcultures into social and financial viability.

But there’s another difference: although for a time American avant-garde film was aesthetically and socially consequential, neo-liberal cultural retrenchment since the 1970s has eroded the social alternatives it represented. Its formal innovations have been assimilated into the culture industries (most notably in advertising and music videos), and as their visionariness is eroded, the films themselves become dilapidated. Existing outside the financial system of capitalist cinema, the avant garde has limited access to funds for new prints, let alone restoration and preservation. Virtually the only Underground films that are available in mint condition are Warhol’s, beautifully restored by the Museum of Modern Art. Only they come with the imprimatur of the highest cultural authority; and only they are internationally promoted by the institutions of the corporate state–not because of their intrinsic qualities or because they are in popular demand, but because of their position in the other context: they are part of the Warhol oeuvre.
order mfj mfj special offer
order MFJ at

The contours of this context–what Warhol’s art has come to mean and the functions it now subtends–were sketched in an accompanying symposium featuring both American and Russian art historians. Opening it, Ivan Chechot, Head of the Department of History and Theory of Art and Architecture at the Russian Institute of Art History, set the tone. Noting that the conference was taking place on the eve of a medieval religious holiday, All Saints’ Day, he suggested that Warhol could be included in the pantheon of modern saints, adding that he hoped the participants would not just celebrate this role, but discover aspects that would both problematize it and be critical of it. The latter hope proved vain, as hagiography ruled the remarks of subsequent commentators, Russian and American alike. In their celebration of Warhol, the Russians had the advantage of being able to contrast the present approval of him from the disapproval of the Soviet period. The terms of this apostasy were perhaps most clear in art-historian Ekaterina Degot’s account of how, after the collapse of Communism, Warhol has been rehabilitated as a great artist, and one who is especially important for Russia. According to Degot (at least as far as her talk was transmitted by the translators), Warhol has become a symbol of America, specifically of the success an individual can achieve through his own industriousness. This emphasis on individual success accords with contemporary Russian culture, in which “abstract categories” have collapsed in a present now putatively oriented only to individuals, so much so that Warhol is not even seen as a Pop artist, but completely sui generis, representing only himself. This acclaim marks a shift from the Soviet period, when official art history recognized some of the complexity of Warhol’s work, even sometimes seeing a critique of the West in it, but overall understanding him in class terms: Warhol, it was then argued, relied on a particular class, and the thoughtless consumerism his work inculcated was an expression of petty bourgeois ideology in the interests of the big bourgeoisie.

Degot’s own position on this older model of Warhol may have been equivocal, but given the new establishment’s denigration of every Soviet ideological position, the implication was that we should think the critique ridiculous. But to me, it came like a blast of fresh arctic air, cutting through the worshipful haze that enmeshed the other commentators, whose papers–entirely inadvertently–seemed to prove the pertinence of the discredited Communist class-analysis. Warhol Museum archivist John W. Smith, for example, reported that Warhol had considered the Time Capsules in which he collected his everyday detritus as “commodities for the art market” and thought of selling them for $4,000 a piece, while Neil Printz (co-editor of the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné) told of Warhol’s making a special soup-can painting to appease a Campbells’ executive. Along with other instances of Warhol’s shameless pandering to capitalist culture–selling himself and his works to the advertising industry, the celebrity portraits of his last decade, and so on–anecdotes of this kind make it clear that his stated aspiration of be a Business Artist and his belief that “good business is the best art” 7 were not merely publicity flak, but the expression of a life-long satisfaction with the U.S. cultural system and a desire to profit within it rather than to change it.

The degree to which the immanent properties of his art are constrained by his business projects was, during the first quarter century of his reputation, at least a matter of dispute. One of the first monographs on him proposed a Brechtian Warhol whose “work forces us to look critically at every form of visual communication–the class-dependent and exclusive easel painting as well as the communications media designed for mass distribution and consumption.” 8 More commonly, left critics have found his painting to be, at best, politically indeterminate. Peter Bürger observed that “the painting of 100 Campbell soup cans contains resistance to the commodity society only for the person who wants to see it there. . . . The Neo-avant-garde, which stages for a second time the avant-gardiste break with tradition, becomes a manifestation that is void of sense and that permits the positing of any meaning whatever,” and supported his argument with a quotation from Theodor Adorno: “No general judgment can be made whether someone who does away with all expression is the mouthpiece of reified consciousness or the speechless, expressionless expression that denounces that consciousness.” 9 Whatever their objective status, arguments proposing political contradictions in Warhol’s work–that it contains dialectically-linked patterns of compromise and resistance and that at its best it might even dramatize the relationship between them and so articulate the terms under which significant art can come into being under capital–have evaporated in the West, and they appear to have also been lost to Russian art historiography. And the loss occurred precisely in the period when the “Collapse of Communism” in the Soviet Union, along with the coterminous rise of Capitalism and the return to class society in China–not to say the massive social re-structuring of the right in the U.S. and even in the liberal democracies of western Europe–removed the political grounds on which some alternative to capitalism might have been envisaged.

This then is the context in which Warhol’s films today appear. Yet whenever they are screened, they re-assert all those old contradictions. Even now, they remain deeply disturbing, and about them we can say almost nothing with any certainty.

Probably only two people have seen all 4000 reels, all 290 hours, and of these two, Callie Angell, the curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project, probably has a more comprehensive knowledge of them than Andy himself did (and indeed, film history has no parallel to her singular authority over the work of a major artist). The rest of us–and people who live in Los Angeles are hardly more privileged than those who live in St. Petersburg–must make do with half a dozen, seen rarely, about which we hazard a few suggestions, and–at conferences like this–wait for Callie’s approval or correction. This remoteness of Warhol’s film work, its absence from popular culture so different from the ubiquitous currency of his paintings, is incidental to neither Warhol’s own sense of their significance nor to popular experience of them. Withdrawing them from circulation in the mid-1970s, he rejected them like bastard children, and for fifteen years kept them hidden, even from scholars. Only the intercession of the Whitney Museum curators persuaded him to allow restoration work to begin, and even when the possibility of a retrospective at the Museum was bruited, he denied being excited about the event because, he asserted, the films were “better talked about than seen.” 10

The films’ subsequent fate suggests he may well have been right. Restoration work has proceeded apace, the films are occasionally screened in museums and classrooms, and some have met with a degree of renewed art-world interest. But as the idea of “totally boring Andy Warhol movies” has become part of popular lore,11 the films themselves remain as recalcitrant and obdurate as the most profound modernism. They have never achieved anything like a popular audience and continue to present great difficulty for both spectators and the machinery of the Warhol industry. And, if no other evidence were available, the screening of The Chelsea Girls in the Winter Palace offered a reminder.

What an extraordinary event it was! What ghosts gathered there to mix with those of the last of the Romanov dynasty, of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children (their remains only recently excavated and reinterred by the post-Communist regime). The ghost of Rasputin, if Alexandra had brought him with her, would have felt immediately at home among the Chelsea girls as they preened and posed and bitched on the screen. He surely would have found a kindred spirit in Ondine and all those for whom he was Pope, “the homosexuals, perverts, criminals of all kinds, the rejected by society.” But as Warhol’s Band of Outsiders mingled with the Imperial Family (as Warhol himself loved to mingle with later royalty), they might also have encountered the ghosts of other interlopers into the Winter Palace, the renegade actors who only the week before had gathered for the anniversary of their assault on its steps for Eisenstein’s October. In this meeting of the avatars of avant-garde film, more professional issues may have been raised: the pros and cons of amateurs as actors perhaps, and–a keen topic still today–the relation between documentary and the avant-garde. But what would the ghosts of the Bolsheviks have said when, in the cruel triumph of his slapping Pepper Davis in the last reel, Ondine exclaimed, “This may have been a historical document.” Let us leave them before they come to blows over that, and turn to the audience for Saint Warhol’s greatest film. Where were they? Only thirty or so people saw it through to Ondine’s triumph. Ekaterina Degot, who had so eloquently extolled the art work earlier in the day, left after fifteen minutes, and none of the American specialists, flown in like fresh McDonald’s for the Czars, even thought it worthwhile to attend. The idea of seeing The Chelsea Girls in Catherine the Great’s private theater a week after the anniversary of the Revolution that finished the Romanovs was not for them a historical event.

The disparity between Warhol’s calculation of the public’s taste in painting and in film at present has no obvious explanation. It may be an art-historical version of those mathematical conundrums that remain unsolved for years, perhaps the “P versus NP” problem that asks why generating a solution to a problem takes far longer than verifying whether a given solution is correct or incorrect. When we ask why the films should be so radically unpopular, all solutions appear obviously incorrect, but what the real explanation is remains obscure. It isn’t that he didn’t like them himself or initially expect others to like them; we know that he did. It isn’t that he was a “bad” filmmaker, or that he didn’t seize on important issues, for almost all the preoccupations of the post 60s avant-gardes run through them. It isn’t that their themes are arcane; Outer and Inner Space is about a beautiful rich girl watching herself on television and, if it’s about anything, The Chelsea Girls is about sexual violence and Christian guilt–all issues that are eminently relevant in countries like the United States and Russia that have abandoned the modernist dream of social justice and a non-exploitative, classless society. And it seems difficult to argue that their unpalatability derives from the overt presence of class issues that are now proscribed in the culture of both countries. Walter Benjamin’s visit to Russia may have persuaded him that “art can venture as much as it likes into the most disreputable back alleys as long as it remains a good girl in politics and does not start dreaming of class warfare. But to no avail: art is always dreaming of this.” 12 And Warhol’s films are peopled by refugees from every social strata–but class warfare is probably the only thing they don’t dream about!

Perhaps the question is wrong, and instead of asking why people don’t like Warhol’s films, we rather should ask of those that do, what they find in them. This was my main concern, what Russians struggling in the throes of a counter-revolution–which, if not as bloody as the revolution, is certainly as traumatic–would see in them. My fantasy was that in Warhol’s work they would find expressed their own contradictory and ambivalent feelings about Americanization, and so during the symposium I asked the audience–mostly young people–what the films meant to them. The answers were startling. One said that he found Warhol’s films “logically unfinished, interrupted,” but that he “expressed his unhappiness” and that he did “not see any logic or end in life.” Another saw the films as being experimental because they were not about known social types. And a third said that the paintings and films were not comparable; she felt that “the paintings were made for the market, and only in the films was Warhol sincere; he made them for himself.” I thanked her and, remembering Maya Deren’s remarks about art made “for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons,” I said that hers was an opinion with which I had much sympathy.

order mfj mfj special offer
order MFJ at

this article was printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East