If you visit the CAC's current Andy Warhol show, the institution congratulates itself near the exhibit's entrance with a display case full of memorabilia documenting Warhol's 1960s CAC exhibition and a visit by his Exploding Plastic Inevitable in 1966. That's right -- The Velvet Underground featuring Nico played Cincinnati, specifically the Music Hall Ballroom (the upstairs ballroom, not Springer Hall).
|A recent photo of the ballroom, site of countless charity events,|
high school dances, and...The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
No telling how many people showed up for this event (there were no photos from the actual performance in the display case), but not unlike Iggy Pop throwing the Peanut Butter at Crosley Field in 1970, oddly -- and totally unlike local sports milestones like Pete's Hit or The Freezer Bowl -- nobody who wasn't there claims to have been there. The CAC's security guard would not let me take a photo of the display case, so not unlike the Velvet Underground performance itself, you're going to have to believe me that the invite card and The Enquirer's review clipping physically exist.
Why should you care?
You should care because of the many contradictions in Andy Warhol's sprawling legacy, none is greater than his relationship with the band he "managed" back in 1966.
Where does the contradiction lie?
Lou Reed himself has stated in defense of his songwriting something like "if this was literature, nobody would care, but because it's music these subjects are controversial". Meanwhile, the entire thrust of Andy Warhol's artwork was a total shattering of the comforts of classicism and a replacement of it with a terrifying future. Of course, 50 years earlier, the four tenants of Modernism (Formalism, Naturalism, Primitivism, and Instrumentalism) were a self-conscious break from classical themes, but they all met dead-ends, in some cases because they only cosmetically obscured what were in fact classical pursuits.
What's so important about Andy Warhol and the handful of pop and conceptual artists who were any good is that their artwork anticipated a future in which nobody read serious literature or criticism and the population's impulses were influenced only by the faintest echoes of the pre-industrial period. By critiquing how all that classical stuff strove to never be forgotten (so much creative activity is of course a vain grasp for immortality), Warhol was at once achieving immortality while ignoring rather than attempting to bury the undead.
So by the mid-1960s, Warhol was silently calling for all artists and art lovers to quit doing what they had been doing and start only caring about fame and "liking" (in the way we click a Facebook like these days) things. According to Warhol, anyone who attempted to create anything classically sublime, anyone who did academic analysis of anything, and anyone who ignored him was a sucker. Sure, they might be able to eek out a living on the art world's periphery, but the real game in town, from the advents of movies and TV onward, was going to be something as trivial as the great literature was great -- and you had better embrace it rather than attempt to beat it back.
A near perfect analogy exists in the Orwell/Huxley dichotomy -- pop culture and schools still lazily refer to Orwell (deviously, many who make Orwell references are in fact employing O'Brian's tactics while doing so), when Huxley's prewar vision of the future has proven much more accurate. It was in fact proven accurate almost immediately -- his Brave New World Revisited was published in 1958 while Clement Greenberg, et al., were busy celebrating abstract expressionism.
Fifty years on the world hasn't caught up, though. Sure, tons of people visit Andy Warhol exhibits every year around the world. Many still get upset because it isn't classical art. They still are looking for that singular Mona Lisa masterpiece, or it disguised as something like Guernica. They want a visit to an art museum to still be a reverential thing -- but Warhol's work is generally as mindless as a daytime commercial for Elk & Elk (The cow head & silver pillow installation on exhibit currently at the CAC is so wonderfully mindless that I can't stop thinking about it!).
Which brings us back to the matter of The Velvet Underground.
So Warhol himself created stuff -- tons of it -- that was mindless but has nevertheless achieved immortality. Meanwhile, The Velvet Underground is an immortal group for the exact opposite reason -- because those albums [and their mystique] are so classically good. Sure, the music is superficially "experimental" in that it was a break from the era's blues or folk-based Rock & Roll, but its lyrical themes are decidedly classic.