Andy Was Right

The stars of Web 2.0 are descendants of Warhol. But there's not much family resemblance

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PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION; WARHOL BY RICHARD SCHULMAN / GETTY

Nostradamus looked into the future and saw plagues, earthquakes, wars, floods and droughts. In the prediction game, this is known as covering your ass. In 1968 Andy Warhol was more precise. He squinted ahead and declared that "in the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes." Warhol nailed it. Not only has his prophecy eclipsed his fame, but as a cultural observation, 15 minutes has had its 15 minutes.

We forget that it took a man at the nexus of art and self-promotion to figure out that as cameras shrank and screens multiplied, the barriers to fame would someday be eradicated. Call it Warhol's Theorem. Anyone who has uploaded a video to YouTube or posted a MySpace profile might be considered a child of Warhol--except that Warhol's vision of fame was very different from how he actually lived. "Oh, he was impossible," says Dr. Robert B. Millman, a psychiatrist and Warhol acquaintance who, not coincidentally, invented the term acquired situational narcissism. "When you were with him, you'd feel as if he didn't have the slightest interest in knowing you. All he wanted to know was what you thought of him--or that you thought of him."

From the son of an immigrant Czech coal miner in Pittsburgh, Pa., to the bleached dandy at the center of Studio 54's human carnival, Warhol willed himself into a celebrated object of others' imaginings--a blank slate on which culture writers, semioticians and hipsters projected themselves. It's not an accident that the Velvet Underground recorded I'll Be Your Mirror while he was their manager, or that his most famous self-portrait is of him putting his finger to his lips. As the art critic Harold Rosenberg put it, He was "the figure of the artist as nobody, though a nobody with a resounding signature."

There's something admirable and uniquely American in the act of self-creation--but it helps if you actually create something. In a conceptual artist, cultivating emptiness falls within the acceptable bounds of shtick. (Even Warhol's originals were reproductions.) But Warhol also put his blankness behind a series of conspicuous velvet ropes, turning a democratic notion--we're all stars, or at least we all could be--into something slightly toxic.

YouTube and MySpace and all the other Web 2.0 tools out there haven't eliminated exclusivity or narcissism. You've still got to think you're pretty damned interesting to post a video of yourself talking to a computer screen in your bedroom. But they have changed the way the fame game is played. A blank slate is not enough. To get fame--in the form of page views, comments and friend tags--you have to put yourself out there in a way that allows others to relate. "[YouTube] is narcissistic to the extent that you're thinking about yourself," says Millman. "But to get ahead, you need some empathy. It's weird, but it's a lot better to be famous this way than to covet the fame of others by reading Us magazine."

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