In Defense of Valerie

If art is so violent, why is it that hooligans use Stanley knives…and not paint-brushes?

(Grant Morrison, Kill Your Boyfriend)

Valerie Solanas. A name that still causes ripples today. And the name of not only one of the most misunderstood (by many of her defenders as much as those who condemn her), but also one of the greatest artists of the last century.

Far too many people fail to understand that the SCUM Manifesto was never supposed to be taken literally. It was an intellectual provocation. A piece of anti-art cultural terrorism. The true legacy of Dada. It was meant to stimulate debate. It’s a piece of satirical literature, not a political manifesto.

So, why do so many who mention Valerie fail to understand this simple fact? Part of it is pure ignorance. They’ve not even bothered to find out what Valerie herself said about the SCUM Manifesto. And, of course, the other factor that has led to this muddying of the waters is Valerie’s shooting of Andy Warhol. Which leads us to the question of why she did this.

The establishment line is that it happened because she hated men and Warhol was a man. But, as is so often the case, the establishment line is not supported by the evidence. Those who cling to this explanation, as a drowning man clings to driftwood, fail to explain away the fact that Valerie associated with the ‘street gang with analysis’, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. Which was mostly made up of men. Even more specifically, she was personally close to one of the Motherfuckers’ founders, one Ben Morea. Those with at least a basic grounding in the SCUM manifesto might try to claim that Morea was obviously one of the weak passive men called for in the manifesto. That provides a superficial explanation at least. Assuming you know nothing about Morea and/or the Motherfuckers. Among other things, Morea was involved in instigating brawls with Maoist groups. In occuping a building at Columbia University. In forcing his way into the Pentagon. Whatever you may say about Morea, these are not the actions of a “passive” man.

So what are some possible reasons for this shooting, taking into account that nobody can truly speak for Valerie but herself and she is no longer with us?

I’d say it is fair to suggest that at least some of the motivation was personal. It looks likely that, at least in part, this was done to achieve a certain level of notority. Notority of course being the celebrity of the outsider. As well, all evidence points to the fact that Warhol was manipulative and actively unpleasant to many of those who were in his social circle. He played off people against each other, allowing people to fall in and out of favour, much like a medieval monarch. And sometimes actions have consequences…

As well as that, much can be explained if you understand the Motherfuckers milieu. Valerie’s action did not exist in a vacuum. Previously to this, the Motherfuckers had already taken a militant anti art stance. Their propaganda called for attacks on art galleries. When they were still known as Black Mask, they’d given out flyers attracting the homeless to establishment art shows to drink the free alcohol provided. They dumped uncollected rubbish (from a strike of garbage collectors) into the fountain at a bourgeois cultural event. Most significantly, they’d already carried out a spoof assassination of the poet Kenneth Koch (using blanks). Seen in this context, we can see that Valerie’s act was the culmination of this activism, not something that existed in isolation. Certainly, she took it one step too far. Much like Duchamp. Or Socrates. Or Jesus.

Finally, yes, she was almost certainly mentally unstable. Unlike such bastions of sanity as Van Gogh or Byron. So the establishment line has managed to get this one right. Even if they fail to prove why it is in any way relevant.

Besides, I’ll shed no tears for Warhol. He was one of the most prominent shock troops of those who see the purpose of art as being to titillate the status quo. Of those who would reduce creativty to consumerism. Of art as cultural production for the elite. Of ‘daring’ pieces on boardroom walls. He was a soldier in the ongoing war of art. He was no innocent bystander.

But, actually, none of that is why I love Valerie so much. It’s far more simple. In that one simple act of glorious nihilism, that statement of beautiful madness, she said something more profound about our culture’s worship of celebrity than Quentin Tarinteno could even dream of. And her actions still genuinely outrage and shock the borgeouise today. It reminds them that “art” is not their personal property. It belongs to the people. And that one action is a more significant piece of art than the entire output of the faux controversialists of the YBAers.

Art, real art, shocks and challenges and outrages and is still talked about decades later. And Valerie Solonas is one of the few truly important artists of the last century.

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  1. What did you think of the film I Shot Andy Warhol, and of its representation of the (unnamed in the film) Motherfuckers?

  2. I’ve not actualy seen it. Would you recommend doing so?

  3. Yes. Lili Taylor is brilliant as Valerie, and I think she gets Valerie’s make-up and politics more or less right.

    Watch the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsMJlhF-tPs

    The portrayal of the Motherfuckers, however, is silly and cartoonish.

    I spoke to Ben Morea about it and he was happy enough with the film.

    • Jenny
    • December 31st, 2010

    Admittedly though, it seemed that Valarie was in it for attention too:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valerie_Solanas

  4. I have to agree that I Shot Andy Warhol gives a very sympathetic portrayal of Solanas. Maybe I need some heavy cognitive dissonance to count myself as a fan of both Warhol and Anti-Art, but I figure that if Ben Moreno himself thought the film was good enough, then it’s fine all around.

    I will say, though, just for clarification, that the MotherFuckers have a very small role in the film, which probably helps that part of Solanas’ associations seem cartoonish — it’s hard to get that much characterisation in when the part is afforded maybe five minutes of screen time, tops. It may also be a little too friendly to the Warhol set for your tastes, even though it portrays everybody but Warhol himself as incredibly bitchy, and the part of Andy tends to come off as kind of wishy-washy — unsure of how to tell Valerie that he lost the play, and preferring to avoid any confrontation with Valerie himself after a certain point. You may also feel it concentrates too much on Solanas’ mental illness as a motivator — but again, if it meets the approval of one of Valerie’s closest friends, then I’d say it did something right, in that regard.

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