Andy Warhol would have loved Sarah Palin. She really is the ultimate soup can. For anyone who never quite understood the point of an art form in which the iconicity of a mass-produced object becomes an end above and beyond its contents–well, welcome to the fame factory.
Warhol is known for having minimized or even disguised his expressive role in the works he produced; yet he re-presented banal commercial images in ways that were playful and captivating despite their erstwhile familiarity. His explorations with the "kitschy," the "cheap" and the "ordinary" involved small cognitive surprises that were at once obvious and subtle: he’d disclose a pattern of layered color or he’d shift scale in a way that upended conventional meaning or he’d reiterate an image so emphatically that "mass" production was revealed as obsessive. What Warhol did with Mao Zedong and Marilyn Monroe is precisely what the Republican Party has done with Sarah Palin.
The morning after Barack Obama’s speech at Invesco Field, I was giddily high on happiness hormones. "Beat that, ridiculously unpopular Bushites," I thought. "Kumbaya, my Lord," I sang, as I checked out of my hotel and hailed a cab to Denver airport.
The first sign that I had entered hell’s handbasket was the grim little smile on the taxi driver’s face. The second thing that hit me was the sound of his radio, which was very, very loud. It was tuned to Rush Limbaugh. Palin had just been presented in a press conference as McCain’s running mate. She was reciting what would soon become a familiar litany: I am your average hockey mom. I worked my way up through the PTA. Here are my children–Trigger, Trapper, Plucky, Pillow and Plum (or that’s how I heard that rat-a-tat blizzard of names the first time around). Most remarkable was the vampiric over-voice of Mr. Dittohead himself: Limbaugh was interjecting wickedly throughout Palin’s speech, delivering the talking points that would become well-burnished clichés by the end of the week. "I want to see Sarah Palin age in office," he said, with a leer in his voice. "Imagine Hillary watching this," he said with naked longing. "Imagine if Hillary had won the nomination. She’d lose against this woman." Limbaugh was having quite a cackle: "I’d love to see Hillary right now…" he said over and over again.
Five days later, Sarah Palin formally accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for vice president of the United States of America. She did so in a speech that echoed, sometimes word for word, Limbaugh’s earlier over-voice. She did so in a speech that, according to Time, had been written by Republican Party planners well before Sarah Palin was even identified as the nominee.
As someone who was trained in advertising, Warhol had mastered many of the tools of expert propagandists. One such device is prosopopeia, a rather literary term for what happens when the Pillsbury Doughboy persuades you to buy a bread product by giggling so charmingly after that poke to his puffy little tummy. Prosopopeia is the personification of an abstraction. As theorist Barbara Johnson says in her book Persons and Things, "A speaking thing can sell itself; if the purchaser responds to the speech of the object, he or she feels uninfluenced by human manipulation and therefore somehow not duped. We are supposed not to notice how absurd it is to be addressed by the Maalox Max bottle, or Mr. Clean, or Mrs. Butterworth."
It is in precisely this sense that Warhol’s portraits are calculated disguises, masks that artfully undermine the specificity of his subjects and render them theatrically populist images. There is, for example, a wonderful Warhol self-portrait, now on exhibit at Ohio State’s Wexner Center for the Arts, in which he wears white face makeup, a woman’s wig, eyeliner and bright red lipstick. He is to Kabuki femininity what Sarah Palin is to Kabuki Republican masculinity: iconic, self-proclaiming, yet concealed. That this is literally the case is underscored by the invisible and advance authorship of "her" acceptance speech. Imagine that speech as it lay waiting for just the right someone to deliver it. Imagine the accents and intonations of the tryouts they must have had: what gun-toting, warmongering, polar-bear extinguishing, creationist, antiabortionist man could have gotten away with it?
How do you sell a box of poison?, they must have wondered. Dress it up in drag, they obviously concluded.
In the few weeks since Sarah Palin has become a household name, she’s often been glibly compared to a Barbie doll–and certainly her lack of knowledge of the Bush doctrine, or her comments about not knowing what the vice president does, make me wish she’d been recalled as fast as that talking Barbie who complained that "Math class is tough." But I think the analogy is more apt when thinking about how Palin has been mass-marketed. As Barbara Johnson says, "The packaging is part of what the consumer buys: not only can Barbie not stand without the box, but in it she is positioned for maximum effect. Some dolls come in boxes that almost function like mirrors: the commodity is surrounded by a gleaming aura that adds glamour to its appeal."
This is the secret, too, of purportedly unscripted reality shows like American Idol and America’s Next Top Model. None of those shows are about enduring talent or fame that lasts more than fifteen minutes. Week after week they crank out the "winners," the "survivors," the soup cans. The consuming public seems oblivious of the degree to which its "idols" are not even uniquely American but manufactured by global franchises with local versions sold in countries all over the world. That kind of commercial manipulation, it seems to me, is exactly the template for Sarah Palin’s pull in this election. That so much of the public is willing to buy it is something I find much more disconcerting than lipstick on a pit bull; to me, it looks frighteningly like Karl Rove in designer glasses and a skirt.