Instantly recognizable and consummately powerful, Mickey Mouse is a distinctive canvas that embodies Andy Warhol's understanding of the relationship between celebrity and consumer culture in American society. In Warhol's closely cropped, deadpan representation of Mickey Mouse, the image of carefree play and childhood innocence is conferred with media's power to create identity and desire. As a Warhol portrait, Mickey Mouse has become more than a celluloid mouse: the canvas has entered the Warhol celebrity pantheon and has been featured in numerous international exhibitions as an important element of Warhol's oeuvre.
As Greg Metcalf has written, "What is the difference between Marilyn Monroe, a Campbell's Soup Can, Uncle Sam, Golda Meir, O. J. Simpson, and Mickey Mouse? Nothing, say the portraits of Andy Warhol. They are all icons of America's modern mythology of celebrity. Icons that sell...To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, mythology is the organization of metaphorical figures that connote a state of mind, that transcend their specific place or time... To paraphrase Andy Warhol's portraits, the mythology of America is celebrity, the gods and demigods are those who can sell through their mass-produced images, and the course of action we, as a culture, are called to is to consume. These portraits record an American culture transformed from hero- to celebrity-worship and the role of cultural icon as celebrity, a commodity, and a piece of commercial art that sells. Through these portraits, Warhol both documented and encouraged the collapse of separation between individual, logo and myth. The celebrity is no longer an individual, but a brand name, a logo.'' (Greg Metcalf, "Heroes, Myth, and Cultural Icons,'' in Exh. Cat., College Park, The Art Gallery of the University of Maryland, Reframing Andy Warhol: Constructing American Myths, Heroes and Cultural Icons, 1998, p. 6).
Mickey Mouse is part of a series of ten icons Warhol chose to group under the banner of Myths. Santa Claus, Superman, Uncle Sam, Howdy Doody, Greta Garbo and Andy Warhol himself (as the character The Shadow) are among the other figures from this series. Metcalf has identified some of the common threads among the Myth subjects: "While these mythic figures carry a range of important cultural attributes, their shared celebrity stature arises from their being heroes of commercial art. Each of these cultural icons is also a commercial icon, a 'logo,' the symbol of a corporate identity. Each is also an artistic creation from which the artist has been erased." (Ibid, p. 7). Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse is one of the most graphically and commercially powerful examples among the Myths to represent this combination of icon, logo and corporate identity symbol.
Warhol's interest in cartoon characters is manifest in his early work, as well as in the work of other Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein. In an early rendering of Superman from 1960, Warhol used an appropriated comic strip as the source for his painting in the manner of a Duchampian readymade (Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art [and traveling], Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, 1989, p. 66). Mickey Mouse 1981 is the mature incarnation of a cartoon image's power as developed by Warhol. Unlike Warhol's earlier comic strip works, the Mickey Mouse composition is closely cropped and the possibility of narrative is banished in favor of focusing on the central image. The Mickey figure needs little refinement by the artist, as Mickey's physiognomy is inherently built out of simple geometry. Thus, Warhol's Mickey Mouse is viewed as an icon, ripe for contemplation, channeling a cultural fetish of celebrity, as in Warhol's portraits of Marilyn and Liz. Like these stars of the silver screen, Mickey is part of America's entertainment legacy; his identity was born of and will forever be associated with the Disney name.
Andy Warhol idolized Walt Disney as the consummate entrepreneur who created a successful commercial art empire. In this context it is interesting to consider how Warhol's Factory is similar to an animation studio, with many assistants mechanically producing silkscreened images of art that is not drawn by their own hand but is in concert with a larger cultural product. The mechanical qualities of animation that produce uniformly recognizable results are aligned with Warhol's silk-screened canvas production. Warhol famously said, "The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine." (Ibid, p. 457).
Walt Disney was himself an illustrator, and Mickey Mouse was one of the first characters created for what would become the Walt Disney media empire as it is known today. In early Mickey Mouse shorts, Disney provided the voice and personality for the animated character. Animation historian Charles Solomon has recorded the reflections of older Disney animators who felt that "Walt gave [Mickey] his soul." ("Mickey Mouse and the Disney Repertory Players," an essay by Charles Solomon from the CD-ROM, Walt Disney - An Intimate History of the Man and His Magic). This intermingling of fantasy and reality at the foundation of one of America's most well-known cultural icons is the perfect subject for Warhol's composition. Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse are so intimately intertwined that by silk-screening the simple geometric forms the world recognizes as Mickey Mouse, the man behind the mouse looms large along with everything that his empire has come to mean in America. The result is that both positive feelings and more trying associations emerge from Warhol's Mickey Mouse: entrepreneurial success, cutting-edge innovation, the production of popular American culture, and nostalgia for the more homegrown varieties of entertainment that cannot compete. This mixture of emotions also reflects aspects of the American transition from the prosperity of the early1960s to the challenging economic and political events of the next few decades. Warhol understood that within this emerging cultural milieu, mythologies were developed in the media to be collected and cultivated by the masses: "Everybody has their dream America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can't see. ... And you live in your dream America that you've custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in the real one." (Exh Cat. Museum of Modern Art, 1989, p. 458). The components of this "dream America" are not found in the halls of any museum but provided courtesy of Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Walt Disney among others.
As Carter Ratcliff has pointed out, Warhol does not reference the historic myths that preoccupy other artists of the 20th century. Instead, "Warhol's Myths reside in the funny papers, in movies and ads. And in the mirror. Warhol nurtures the nonlife, the un-death of glamour." (Carter Ratcliff, Andy Warhol, New York, 1983, p. 101). Mickey Mouse is continually fresh, unblemished by age, and un-burdened by the baggage of Western History. Thus, Mickey Mouse stands symbolically with Warhol's film beauties, Coca-Cola Bottles, and Dollar Bills. Each of these commodities has been experienced and enjoyed by millions of individuals. As images and ideas, their consumption is pervasive in American culture, which fascinated Warhol: "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see a Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liza Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too. ...All the Cokes are the same." (Exh. Cat., Museum of Modern Art, 1989, p. 458).
Yet this prosaic litany of consumer, commodity and commercialism was recognized by Warhol as a deeper indicator within our culture of a mythic quality we bestow on our celebrities and our strong connection to them. Warhol's Myths series recognizes the manufactured quality of public images and serves to "remind us that anyone (living or not, human or mouse) can be a cultural icon that sells, a celebrity. When celebrity is seen through its ability to sell, then being packaged to sell makes one a celebrity." (Metcalf, p. 9). Warhol had a profound understanding of this principle, evinced by the cultivation of his own celebrity image as the iconoclastic artist who claimed no deep meaning for his art. In fact, in this series he gave us a profound comment on the nature of our society when our myths spring from popular culture and our heroes are fictional, intertwined with celebrity and commercialization.
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