Written circa 2010, final year of my BFA – from a really enjoyable American Visual Culture Unit. To add this to my blog I typed it up from hard copy so no footnotes, check references – featured image Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962)
A Discussion of Simulacra in American Pop Art and Culture
The definition of simulacra varies from source to source; the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a simulacrum as being either an “image of something”, or the more daunting “shadowy likeness; a deceptive substitute” or “mere pretence”. These definitions do not describe simulacra in the great depth that is necessary to not only understand the concept, but also to identify the examples of simulacra surrounding us in everyday life. This essay will discuss the concept of the simulacrum as proposed by Jean Baudrillard in his Simulations, and its relation to examples of American Pop Art and Culture – specifically, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962) and to a lesser extent, Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) herself.
Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra implies a certain degree of absence, in that to simulate is to “feign what one doesn’t have” (as opposed to dissimulation, described as merely pretending). Simulacra are linked with notions of reality and truth – to expand on the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of being an “image of something”, a simulacrum is an image which holds as much if not greater power than its subject. Baudrillard uses this inequality of value to demonstrate the difference between mere representation (as is suggested in the Dictionary’s definition), and a true simulacrum – in that a representation (the image, or “sign”) of a subject holds equal value as the subject itself (“the real”), while simulacra involve the inequality between the two, and do not interpret or acknowledge the simulation as being a false representation, instead enveloping “the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum”. Baudrillard gives an example of the transition of the image into the simulacrum: Initially, the image is purely a reflection of a reality, before it eventually disguises and “denatures” the reality. Thirdly, and importantly, the image disguises the absence of the reality – before eventually having no relation to the reality it initially reflected: “its own pure simulacrum”. In America, Baudrillard describes all Americans as being simulacra themselves – that by living in America’s hyperreality, they are themselves “simulation in its most developed state”. He also suggests that Americans, as simulacra, possess no language to describe their existence as an participation in this simulation. While this may be the theoretical case with some Americans, examples may be foudn of those who not only see America for what Baudrillard claims to be, but have indeed developed a language with which to discuss the national simulacrum.
When discussing Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) Liz no. 2 (1962), Piper describes Warhol as being obsessed with “the glamour of fame and media”, even if somewhat ironically. American pop culture in the 60s and today is overflowing with images. While one may criticise the superficiality of these images and their subjects, it is this lack of depth, the surface, which fascinated Warhol. “I’m sure I’m goign to look in the mirror and see nothing. People are always calling me a mirror and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?” – Warhol seemed conscious of his own existence as a simulacra – one gets a sense of his belief (whether genuine or not) that his own truth is fluid, and that his fame has made this so: “When someone writes a really mean article, I always just let it go by because who are you to say it isn’t the truth? People used to say that I tried to ‘put on’ the media when i would give one autobiography to one newspaper and another autobiography to another newspaper. I used to like to give different information to different magazines because it was like putting a tracer on where people get their information. That way I could always tell when I met people what newspapers and magazines they were reading by the things they would tell me I had said. Sometimes funny pieces of information come back to you years and years later when an interviewer says, ‘You once said that Lefrak City was the most beautiful place in the world’, and then you know that they’ve read what you once told Architectural Forum.” Baudrillard described fame as having been “vulgarized” in America and quotes Warhol: “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” (a prediction which came true with the advent of Reality TV, the name of which really deserves its own Baudrillardian Thesis), and perhaps it was this vulgarity, and inability to look beyond the surface that Warhol kept in mind when producing work such as Marilyn Diptych.
Marilyn Diptych consists of 50 reproductions of a Marilyn Monroe head shot, some in colour, some in black and white. Apart from minor differences in colour and contrast, they are all the same – a bombardment of images of a screen icon, an American sweetheart. If we replace God with Marilyn Monroe, Baudrillard’s description of Iconoclasm and its links to simulacra can be manipulated to describe the power of this American icon – “What becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra?” – does Andy Warhol’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe affect her reality? To a certain extent, yes, because the iconic Marilyn Diptych (and the many other images of Marilyn that Warhol produced) has affected our experience of Marilyn Monroe – elevating her status as icon – it feeds America’s “passion for images”. Baudrillard suggests it is not Marilyn Monroe we desire and admire, but her iconic image – it is her image and its instant accessibility that we crave. She is not, to us, a real person to be admired, but a symbol of cinema’s movement into the streets, into society – “a violently realised ideal”. This world of fame and pop culture and images has been manipulated by our own passion for images, and the attempt by simulators (the media?) to “make the real…coincide with their models of simulation” (evident even today in the manipulation of the nostalgic memory of Marilyn Monroe and even Andy Warhol). What then, of the real Marilyn Monroe? For one, there is none. There was once Norma Jeane, born 1926, and married at 16, but her reality was lost, to some extent, through the thousands of images and representations of her, and the character she played throughout her public life. Everything about Marilyn Monroe was and still is for mass consumption – her image, its availability, its constant reproduction and elevation, her bubbly personality, even her name, are constructions of material imagery and desirability which have more significance than the reality (of which the vast majority of us have no experience).
Simulacra can be found in many if not all aspects of our everyday lives, from the television we watch, to the fashions we follow, the religious we follow, the celebrities we idolise and the works of art we appreciate historically and aesthetically. Our world is filled with images whose subjects have been drained of value, representations which hold no relation to what it is they symbolise. Where does this leave our reality? For those not conscious of the theory of simulacra, it may not be affected at all, but we might also begin to view our world, our reality, in a different way. Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum is clear in the cult of Marilyn Monroe – whose image has for many years grown to hold no relation to the reality it once reflected. Even Marilyn Diptych holds no relation to its own reality – “if someone faked my art, I couldn’t identify it” said Warhol. In the end, Baudrillard’s theory leaves us no escape from the constant simulation of almost everything in our lives – because everything is destined to somehow reappear as a simulation.
Baudrillard, J., Astral America, from America, trans. Chris Turner, Verso, London, 1988
Baudrillard, J., The Precession of Simulacra, from Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Phillip Beitchman, Semiotext(e), New York, 1994
Dalton, D., America the Beautiful, from Andy Warhol | Giant size, Phaidon Press, London, 2009
Moore, B., Ed, The Australian Concise Dictionary of Current English, 3rd Ed, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1999
Piper, D., The Illustrated History of Art, Bounty Books, London, 2004
Sullivan, R., Ed, Remembering Marilyn, LIFE Books, New York, 2009
Warhol, A., From A to B and Back Again | The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Picador, London, 1976