Representing Valerie Solanas: Productions of Gender and Sexuality in The Factory

Representing Valerie Solanas:  Productions of Gender and Sexuality in The Factory

Sayo Yamagata
City University of New York

Abstract:

This essay explores the musical and artistic reactions to Valerie Solanas’s shooting of Andy Warhol in order to demonstrate how acts of violence, artistic representation, and constructions of gender not only inform, but also enforce one another.  The present analysis also intends to understand how attempts to represent Solanas within the context of her violent act, as a political tool for radical feminist or anti-feminist ends, can become the occasion for additional violence.  Pivotal examples that activate the discussion of gender construction in Warhol’s Factory scene include Lou Reed’s and John Cale’s song “I believe” as well as Solanas’s writings on violence, gender and sex in her SCUM Manifesto.

In Althusseur’s notion of interpellation, it is the police who initiate the call or address by which a subject becomes socially constituted […] The reprimand does not merely repress or control the subject, but forms a crucial part of the juridical and social formation of the subject.  The call is formative, if not performative, precisely because it initiates the individual into the subjected status of the subject.

—Judith Butler1

Writer and bit-part actor Valerie Solanas has endured a lasting reputation that confers little credit to her thespian or literary merits.  Instead, it was the bullets fired at celebrity artist Andy Warhol—in her attempted assassination of the “prince of pop” one June afternoon in 1968—that propelled her from relative obscurity to an international prominence comparable to Warholian superstardom.  In recent years, Solanas has garnered more cultural significance not only for her extreme symbolic gesture of feminist resistance, but also for her wholesale refusal of normative social constructions of gender, detailed at length in her SCUM Manifesto.  Subsequently, Warhol’s gift to Solanas in light of the shooting was her fifteen minutes of fame, during which her legacy was inscribed upon the history of American feminism through her embodiment of radical feminist ideals emergent in the late-sixties.  Yet, as it happened, her fame was not without consequences.  While the shooting at once established her popularity within extreme feminist circles (in which her SCUM Manifesto became a staple work of literature), it simultaneously linked the purported merits of Solanas’s actions to the man who she claimed “had too much control over [her] life” (Solanas 2006:53).

During a decade in which the distinction between art and non-art was “largely considered to be no longer viable,” (Harding 2001:147) Solanas exposed many of the contradictions existent within the prevailing avant-garde standards employed by Warhol and his entourage—most of whom accused Solanas of exploiting him in a sordid attempt to obtain personal fame.  Despite the argument that has been made about Solanas’s shooting as a powerful work of performance art that was subversive even by the avant-garde standards of the time,2 the present project in no way justifies such an act of destruction.  Although the shooting succeeds in illustrating Solanas’s aggressive rupture with the patriarchal social order for which she bore a lifelong resentment, I would more strongly argue that it can never be considered outside the context of its irresponsibility – not as a metaphoric gesture that hides behind some veil of artistic integrity (or intentionality, for that matter), but rather as a polarizing act of brutality that begs to be re-appropriated by both radical feminists and anti-feminists.

What initially prompted the present discussion of Solanas was an intriguing video recording of Lou Reed and John Cale performing their song, “I believe” in 1989 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in a presentation that combines their musical account of the shooting with the visual narrative of a projected strobe-like montage of some of the most strikingly violent images taken from Warhol’s own collection of paintings.  Interestingly, Reed’s demonization and incrimination of Solanas not only backfires by sensationalizing her and by, in a sense, confirming her legendary status, but also places him in a vertiginously questionable position of his own in reconstructing a narrative of misogyny that is all too familiar to the heritage of rock-and-roll music.  As it relates to the context of the shooting, this performance is a continuation of the rock-and-roll tradition of male-centric “exscription” of women that reflects many of the contradictory gender dynamics and constructions of sexuality within Warhol’s Factory scene (out of which Reed and Cale, former members of the infamous Velvet Underground, developed their band’s “avant-garde” identity).

Ultimately, in trying to subvert the prevailing attitudes of male privilege within an avant-garde scene that often made claims to emancipatory sexual politics, Solanas became further entrenched within all of the trappings of this inescapable patriarchal system.  In an ironic turn of events, the shooting not only gave way to her publisher’s portrayal of Solanas as another “man-hating” radical feminist, but in a dizzyingly cyclical manner, it also fueled the media’s sensationalization of her as one more “product” of Andy Warhol.  The following project will explore circumscribed representations of Solanas, or rather her public persona, which heretofore has only been understood within the context of the shooting.  These representations account for her social existence that, as Judith Butler’s above words remind us, forms a subjectivity that commands the “subjected status of the subject.”  Yet with her idea of the “violating sense of subjection,” Butler also acknowledges a second, less disparaging valence of subjectivity: that of the subject’s “enabling” occasion for “resignification against the aims of violation.” (1993:123).  The purpose of this study is therefore twofold.  The first and more substantive task will be to examine how Solanas’s “subjection” within the terms of her “violation” is constituted through her depictions in the media, through a narrative of misogyny in rock-and-roll that both Reed and Cale employ in “I believe,” and, by extension, through the gay and straight male-privilege of Warhol’s Factory community.  The second task will ultimately be my attempt to redeem Solanas’s “enabling” subjectivity – one that is vociferously queer, radically feminist, and anarchic in her SCUM Manifesto – through seriously questioning the aforementioned conditions of her “subjection.”

“You cannot control me anymore”

The song “I believe” comes from a concept album entitled Songs for Drella: A Fiction, which both Reed and Cale wrote in tribute to Warhol, who passed away a year prior to the album’s release.  Songs for Drella, whose title derives from one of Warhol’s nicknames, contains a total of fourteen songs that account for the story of Warhol’s life from his modest origins in Pittsburgh to his death in 1987.  The album exists as the first and last musical collaboration between Cale and Reed (the two founding members of the Velvet Underground) since they parted ways in 1972.  Although in many respects it depicts a marked departure from the style of the Velvet Underground’s most memorable performances, it nonetheless bears a resemblance to their former sentiments of angry, hard-edged recklessness.  In an article from the New Yorker, music critic Peter Blauner contrasts the comparatively more tempered performance of Songs for Drella with an account of what would have been a typical Velvet Underground show from the sixties presented under the supervision of Warhol, in which:

The band played at excruciating volume while Warhol projected his movies on them and Edie Sedgwick danced in front of the stage.  Filmmaker Barbara Rubin rushed up and down the aisles with her lights, screaming, ‘Is your penis big enough?’ at members of the audience, who were too stunned to react.  While [poet Gerard] Malanga offered dramatic interpretations of Reed’s songs with his whip, strobe lights flashed. (Blauner 1989:44)

This fleeting glimpse of a characteristic Velvet Underground performance reveals Warhol’s fascination with the aesthetic possibilities of visual and sonic confrontation whereby the listener receives an assault upon the senses.  What is particularly noteworthy about the immersive spectacle described above is how it embraces a total reversal of conventional moral and aesthetic values consistent with the themes of physical and moral degradation in early Velvet Underground songs.  Reed and Cale’s performance of “I believe” at the BAM, roughly two decades after the heyday of the former Velvet Underground and its collaboration with Warhol, significantly diverges from such visual spectacle.  Yet the song nevertheless preserves a continued rock-and-roll heritage of misogyny through its caricaturing of Valerie Solanas in the lyrics and through its loaded imagery.

“I believe”

Valerie Solanas took the elevator, got off at the 4th floor
Valerie Solanas took the elevator, got off at the 4th floor
She pointed the gun at Andy saying,
“You cannot control me anymore.”

I believe there’s got to be some retribution
I believe an eye for an eye is elemental
I believe that something’s wrong if she’s alive right now

Valerie Solanas took three steps, pointing at the floor
Valerie Solanas waved her gun, pointing at the floor
From inside her idiot madness spoke and bang
Andy fell onto the floor

I believe life’s serious enough for retribution
I believe being sick is no excuse and
I believe I would’ve pulled the switch on her myself

When they got him to the hospital, his pulse was gone
They thought that he was dead
His guts were pouring from his wounds onto the floor
They thought that he was dead
Not until years later would the hospital do to him what she could not
What she could not.

Andy said, “Where were you, you didn’t come to see me?”
Andy said, “I think I died, why didn’t you come to see me?”
Andy said, “It hurt so much, they took blood from my hand.”

I believe there’s got to be some retribution
I believe there’s got to be some retribution
I believe we are all the poorer for it now.

Visit me, visit me
Visit me, visit me
Visit me, why didn’t you visit me?
Visit me, why didn’t you visit me?
Visit me, visit me
Visit me, why didn’t you visit me?

(Lou Reed)

Upon first hearing, “I believe” is a considerable divergence from the chaotic and off-the-cuff quality of the Velvet Underground’s signature sound.  The comparatively cleaned-up appearances of Reed and Cale in the video, furthermore, visually emphasize the more polished properties of the recording itself.  By 1989, the two musicians were well enough established to afford the equipment and resources that perhaps explain the overall streamlined sound quality of the pieces from Songs for Drella.  When heard next to the character of Velvet Underground’s sprawling, “death-ray fuzz guitar” in albums like White Light/White Heat (1968), Reed’s and Cale’s more recent album sounds squeaky clean in its pared down instrumentation and its airtight production quality.  Ultimately, Reed’s overwhelming use of guitar distortion in “I believe” becomes a compensatory move to reassert his masculine rock-and-roll identity that might have otherwise been unrealized.

In the video, when combined with the projected sequence of Warhol’s “Gun” (pictured in Figure 1) and “Electric Chair”3 that flash against the backdrop, Reed’s threat to “pull the switch on” Solanas himself further participates in the familiar strategy of securing his “masculine” control.  He executes this attack through a narrative that both denigrates Solanas at a safe distance and identifies her as a palpable threat to society.

Figure 1: Andy Warhol’s Gun (1981)

Reed’s depiction of the shooting is devoid of the cleverly ironic détournement that is so characteristic of Warhol’s works – instead, what remains is the thick, moralizing residue of male entitlement.  The lyrics to “I believe” portray Solanas as both criminally insane and as an “idiot” who is not only disparaged for her failure to kill Warhol, but is also unconditionally deserving of death.  Here, Solanas’s ulterior presence as an unclassifiable “Other” becomes another common rock-and-roll trope designed to give contour to masculine identity.  Intriguingly, Reed’s deployment of this trope simultaneously undermines masculine power by emphasizing his inability to protect Warhol in the first place.

Both the form and the harmonic structure of “I believe” insist upon a kind of exaggerated simplicity that distinguishes many Velvet Underground pieces.  Like the other tracks in Songs for Drella, Reed and Cale deploy the most basic pop formula in their song about Solanas, which begins with a brief introduction, three verses – each of which is followed by an iteration of the chorus – a guitar solo, and a concluding coda.  The opening measures of the piano section introduce us to the main chordal progression (a cadential I6/4—V2—I in D-major) that Cale sustains throughout the introduction and through all the verses of the piece.  More than anything else, the apparent rigidity of this harmonic progression emphasizes both Reed’s and Cale’s overstated demonstrations of control.

Reed’s dominating presence can be felt also in his increasingly frequent guitar playing. The aforementioned piano progression that Cale plays introduces the first two verses without Reed’s instrumental input.  Both of these verses begin with the words “Valerie Solanas” and provide Reed’s account of the shooting.  The instrumentation of the two choruses that follow features both Cale’s piano and Reed’s guitar, at which he grinds away with an almost comically exaggerated air.  However, at the beginning of the third verse – which occurs after he declares, “I believe I would’ve pulled the switch on her myself” – the guitar unexpectedly builds upon on Cale’s pounding harmonic progression in an interesting turn of events.  Once Reed has narratively silenced, if not executed Solanas, there is an almost disturbingly liberated emergence of this guitar introduction before the third verse.  Reed’s exile of Solanas coupled with the guitar’s forceful intrusion remind us that Reed is in control – that he has the authority to both summon and banish Solanas as freely as he pleases.

When the song arrives at the guitar solo, Reed’s account of the shooting makes a notable emotional shift.  In what may simultaneously seem to be an exceptional performance of musicianship, the solo culminates in a demonstration of the personal enmity that Reed harbors for Solanas in light of her release in 1971.  (At an earlier point in the video, he disapprovingly shakes his head at the idea that “she’s alive right now” (00:39)).  The solo evokes the image of Reed ripping into Solanas as a way of reconfiguring his “fantasies of masculine virtuosity and control,” as Robert Walser would argue (1993:108).  Moreover, Cale’s participation in singing as Reed’s backup in the concluding measures of the song ultimately reinforces a kind of fraternal solidarity in this aggressive resolve for “retribution.”  In turn, the combination of these elements makes “I believe” all the more fascinating as it, in a sense, becomes the very incarnation of the patriarchal privilege and of the long history of misogyny underpinning the avant-garde scene that Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto vehemently attacked.  Thematically, Reed’s preoccupations with self-abandon and destruction have also carried over from the majority of songs by the Velvet Underground, whose narratives frequently involved subjects like drug addiction, violence, sexual perversity, and self-annihilation.  “White Light/White Heat,” for example, provides a depiction of Reed’s experience taking amphetamine pills and also maintains the Velvet Underground’s characteristic attitudes of indifference and ironic disdain.  Reed’s preoccupation with grittier subject matter perhaps lent itself to what he valued as a responsibility to “realness.”  In a 1998 interview about his then most recent album, Perfect Night, Reed linked his affinities for a “minimalistic” style to his purported dedication to authenticity:

I don’t believe in dressing up reality. I don’t believe in using makeup to make things look smoother. How can anybody learn anything from an artwork when the piece of art only reflects the vanity of the artist and not reality?  I think it’s pretentious to create art just for the sake of stroking the artist’s ego.  (Gabriella 1998)

Reed’s peculiar, if not ironic, ideals of artistry are pertinent to the dominant notions of masculinity that forged sixties culture.  The position he takes here is no different from the attitudes of the Italian Western genre that became popularized during the sixties, and that was similarly suspect for its overstated and romantic depictions of “reality.”  Conventionally, Hollywood Westerns pandered to the popular American ideal that valorized men of hardheaded honor and gallantry—gun-toting men of mythic proportions, usually garbed in white, whose responsibility it was to protect the social order from falling into chaos and from faceless forces of villainy.  In contrast, the Italian Western (also called the “Spaghetti” Western), appearing in the mid-sixties, elided the transparent symbolism of white-hat heroism and instead, re-imagined the West in a more “realistic” light as a place spoiled by the brutal inequities of man.  In the process of retrenching the Hollywood Western’s larger than life myths, Spaghettis destabilized American archetypes of “masculine” bravado and valor—favoring a new class of anti-heroes who aligned themselves with their antagonists by sharing the same qualities of greed and reckless brutality—and thereby re-engendered the cinematic genre with elements of gritty “realism.”  Yet these thematic elements were only “real” insofar as they represented a bleaker, more pessimistic view of reality whose characters’ moral imperatives were generally self-interested.  It was a reality in which violence and “innate” human cruelties, especially towards women, existed as the only universal truths.

Like earlier Velvet Underground songs, the repetitive drive of “I believe” preserves a level of intensity in its strident course for destruction—only in this case, Reed’s disparaging sentiments are not turned inward (upon Reed himself) as they are in songs like, “White Light/White Heat,” but instead are aimed at Valerie Solanas.  The blatant misogyny of Reed’s songs that date back to his participation in the Velvet Underground is evident in pieces like “Sally can’t dance,” “She’s my best friend,” “Sister Ray,” or “Femme Fatale,” in which women are portrayed as either dead, mutilated in some way, as sex objects, or simply as emotionally vacant “beauties.”  Reed, moreover, employs the common trope of speaking on behalf of these women (as in “Caroline Says,” “Lisa Says,” “Stephanie Says”) in a ventriloquistic fashioning of the female confessional mode.  In such songs as “Caroline Says II,” in which Reed calls upon his limited understanding of women’s experiences, he occupies the main character’s voice in a manner that becomes very troubling.

Caroline says
As she gets up off the floor
Why is it that you beat me
It isn’t any fun
[…]
What is in her mind
What is in her mind
Caroline says
As she gets up from the floor
You can hit me all you want to
But I don’t love you anymore

(Lou Reed)

Perhaps the most glaring problem arises when Reed’s intentional exscription, suppression, objectification, or dismembering of his female characters becomes acceptable and normalized to the women for which he speaks.  Is the abuse that Caroline experiences from her former lover really acceptable to her, or is this yet another one of Reed’s modes of ventriloquistic trickery?  Does the similar kind of violence that Reed performs upon Solanas play a critical role in erasing the already unvoiced female subject of “I believe”?

Lou Reed as androgyne and women in rock-and-roll

Earlier in his career, Reed’s image was often compared to that of a Bowie-like androgyne that served to reinforce his “masculine” identity. Walser again argues that “Heavy metal androgyny presents, from the point of view of women, a fusion of the signs specific to current notions of femininity with musically and theatrically produced power and freedom that are conventionally male”  (1993:131).  The same could be said on behalf of the glam rock style that Reed adopted in the initial stages of his solo career with albums such as Rock’n’Roll Animal (cover art pictured in Figure 2).

Figure 2: Cover art to Lou Reed’s Rock’n’Roll Animal

Glam rock departed from mainstream gender identities through what rock-and-roll historian Philip Auslander calls “a new and radically fluid model for sexual identity: no longer defined by its permanence, but the multi-colored result of constant change and reinvention” (2006:61).  More importantly, glam rock presented the medium for an alternate form of masculinity—one in which the adoption of conventionally “feminine” characteristics like wearing make up were coded as signs of male progressiveness, sophistication, and autonomy from normative ideals of gender that were not as readily or as frequently practiced among women in rock-and-roll.  Comparatively, the performance of Reed’s and Cale’s “I believe” makes little to no attempt at subverting gender hegemony.

When contemplating the matter of women in the public sphere, a litany of similarly complex issues arises when such performers directly, indirectly or unknowingly enable masculinist gender stereotypes of “femininity” in performance.  To this day, female rock musicians are often caught within a double bind in which they must either conform to standards that objectify them despite their qualifications as talented musicians, or directly contest such gender stereotypes at the risk of being demonized, devalued, and relegated to the most distant outposts of an industry that is notorious for its male-centrism.  In the history of rock-and-roll—which, as musicologist Gillian Gaar mentions, is in fact a history of commercial, rather than artistic, success—we may attribute the relative invisibility of women or their relegation to the status of a “body with a voice” to an industry that fosters a place for the completion and continuation of female stereotypes that undervalue their capabilities (Gaar 1992:xii).

In his formative theories on masculinity in metal music, Walser asserts that rock can never be gender-neutral by virtue of the fact that its intelligibility relies upon historical and discursive contexts—rock can never be “nonsexist,” but it can be “antisexist,” he says (1993:135).  “Sexism,” Walser continues, “is in fact a major ideological constituent of much heavy metal, [moreover] the intensity and variety of modes of sexist discourse must be understood as indices of the urgency and influence of patriarchal ideals” (112).  In his deconstruction of “masculine” identities within metal music, he explains how the imagery in heavy metal videos most prevalently depends upon the “exscription” and the demonization of women.  Despite what is still perceived as a “progressive” agenda set forth by sixties avant-garde rock musicians, bands like the Velvet Underground, and most notably artists like Reed and Cale, share ties with the metal bands Walser describes, since they were raised on the same institutions of sexism in rock-and-roll.

“I believe” is a continuation of this performance of masculinity as the systematic control of women.  In it, Solanas is represented as a demonized emblem of social deviance and revulsion whose crimes in turn validate Reed’s impulse for violence.  In an attempt to continuously reconsider social constructions of “masculinity” and “femininity,” this observation does not implicitly categorize violence as a strictly “masculine” characteristic.  Nevertheless, within the context of the song, it is expressed as a gendered reciprocation of the violent act first instigated by Solanas in her shooting of Warhol two decades prior.

Productions of gender and sexuality in The Factory

Such overtly stated displays of misogyny within the present video at first seem to come into opposition with the noticeably fluid sexual and gender constructs within the Factory scene, out of which Reed and Cale’s original ensemble developed and rose to relative prominence.  We may consider how Warhol always looked for the opportunity to upturn social stereotypes and sexual taboo; he ultimately made a career out of his subversive representation of sex and sexual difference in films like Flesh and Blow Job.4  Above all, Warhol reveled in the superficiality of popular culture, often treating the most controversial issues with an ironic distance in his works.  Despite the fact that he was often quoted as being apolitical, Warhol’s politics were intentionally unstated, silent perhaps, though visually present—all of Warhol’s paintings, for example, flaunt the inevitable intrusion of business and capitalist values into the American art world.  In keeping with his preoccupation with the superficial in commercial culture, Warhol’s relationship with women also mirrored the same seemingly aloof attitude he had towards politics.

POPism, Warhol’s confessional account of his interpersonal relationships in the sixties, gives us insight into the level of detachment he maintained with some of his closest female friends.  In one excerpt, he criticizes Viva, one of his famous “superstars” (originally named Janet Susan Mary Hoffman), for her hypocrisies as a self-admitted feminist: “Viva always seemed to look to men for final approval.  She would talk very liberated, but she seemed to expect men to do little things for her—like support her!” (Warhol and Hacket 1980:180).  He later recounts their subsequent falling out in a story that further elucidates the limited level of agency many of the Factory women—and by extension all the women of Warhol’s generation—were expected to willingly accept:

It was the day that a big “family photograph” of the Factory crowd was being taken for Eye, the new pop magazine that the Hearst Corporation was launching, aimed right at the big youth market.  I went down to the Factory and when I got out of the cab on 16th Street, there was Viva in the pouring rain, pounding at the door to the building and kicking at it, jerking furiously at the handle.  She looked up and saw me—her face had a crazed expression.  She screamed hysterically that she demanded the keys to the Factory, that only the men had the keys: “I don’t get any respect because I’m a woman and you’re all a bunch of fags!” And then, before I could duck, her pocketbook knocked me in the head. (181)

This image of Viva, denied access in the pouring rain, is striking not only for its unsympathetic depiction, but also for foreshadowing the day of Warhol’s shooting, on which Solanas also found herself locked outside (effectively kicked out of the Factory scene altogether) for several hours until his return.

In his work on queer cinema studies, Thomas Waugh recognizes the problematic treatment of the female “superstars” appearing in many of Warhol’s films, in which they often function as objects of gay male fantasies about women and are often parodied as divas or queens (1996:54).   As Waugh mentions, Warhol’s aesthetic of glamour, high fashion, and consumer culture enabled the objectification and commodification of women as things of beauty, or as flat stereotypes.  However, this gross reduction was a practice that was not simply limited to women.  Warhol, who had his roots in commercial art, was often regarded as “the first truly democratic, widely accessible” American artist (Harding 2001:149). Yet he endorsed a pop aesthetic in which both women and men were subjected to the kind of male gaze that John Berger identifies in his Ways of Seeing—only this time, it is not assumed to be a heterosexual male gaze, but a decidedly homosexual one.  Voyeurism was one of the central themes of Warhol’s films and his life that ultimately played a significant role in the dynamics of his personal homosexuality, which he set at odds with his outward front of asexuality.

During the height of his career, Warhol was rarely seen without a camera or a tape recorder in a continuous effort to divert public attention away from his private life.  While Warhol loved to surround himself with an assembly of beautiful, sexualized men and women, he simultaneously took on an air of frivolous detachment when it came to speaking on behalf of his own sexuality, and in turn projected a persona of sexual asceticism.  Despite the accusations several scholars have made about the ostensible “inning” of Warhol’s homosexuality since the beginning of his commercial success around 1962, and despite the “silence” to which he committed himself in interviews, as Gavin Butt argues, Warhol’s queerness was conducted in the face of his “flaming” visibility, which was “readily legible upon his body” (2005:113).  Moreover, when placed within the larger context of the art world, Warhol took on the role of the Wildean dandy in opposition to artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning of the earlier abstract expressionist generation (45-50).

Warhol stood at the brink of an era of postwar America that was fraught with sexual doubts.  General anxieties about political and sexual deviancy were compounded with the influences of McCarthyism and the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s scientific study on male sexuality5 that called for a stronger patrolling of normative masculinity.  Warhol comes into stark contrast with artists like Pollack and de Kooning whose complete disavowal of homosexuality became part of an effort to establish an image of masculine virility, and ultimately fed into the grand mythologies of abstract expressionist artists that solidified such hetero-normative associations.  For Pollack, heterosexual masculinity was something that needed to be proven to ward off the “connotations of an effete elite.” (Butt 2005:48).  It may be said, therefore, that the inscription of masculinity functioned at two associative levels: one that was founded upon a blue-collar ethic and one that was resolute about its heterosexuality.  In “The American Artist in a World of Suspicion,” Gavin Butt draws on Judith Butler’s theories on the performance of normative heterosexuality and the initial recognition of homosexuality as an intrinsic part of their heterosexual identities.  Butler suggests that the total refusal of homosexuality in the perpetuation of heterosexual masculinity is in fact “an identification that one fears to make only because one has already made it” (Butt 2005:48).

Warhol’s working themes of celebrity idolatry welcomed its own mythologies about the status of artistic genius and its link to homosexual masculinities.  The assumed correlation between queerness and artistic creativity has only been reinforced by Warhol’s embrace of this alternative identity of male potency, especially within the realm of the art world.  I would argue that Warhol successfully denaturalizes hegemonic masculinity through his adoption of marginalized interpretations and articulations of masculinity (as Reed attempted to do earlier in his career).  However, I would simultaneously argue for his implicit approval of hegemonic gender when considering his ambiguous relationship to women.  In other words, Warhol resisted social constructions of hetero-normativity through his embrace of dandyism, however, as his treatment of Solanas and Viva demonstrates, this is not necessarily to say that he also defied the same patriarchal institutions that oppressed women.  In Masculinities, R.W. Connell discusses the concept of the patriarchal dividend, which applies to men who profit from the hegemonic project when they do not necessarily embody hegemonic masculinity:

Normative definitions of masculinity, as I have noted, face the problem that not many men actually meet the normative standards.  This point applies to hegemonic masculinity.  The number of the men rigorously practicing the hegemonic pattern in its entirety may be quite small.  Yet the majority of men gain from its hegemony since they benefit from the patriarchal dividend, the advantage men in general gain from the overall subordination of women.  (Connell 2005:79)

Warhol, sanctioned and in turn profited from the inevitable objectification of women, as evidenced by his treatment of Nico (born Christa Päffgen) and by the marginalized role she inevitably played as a member of the Velvet Underground.  Despite Warhol’s insistence, Nico initially was accepted into the band with great reluctance, and ultimately was belittled by Cale and Reed for her inexperience.  Yet she played a valuable part in bringing the Velvet Underground to prominence through their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico.  When Warhol, who managed the band during their emergence, was able to convince Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker to let her join, Reed often demeaned and singled her out for singing “off-key”—when in actuality, Cale admitted that none of them played in tune (Warren 1997:254). On their first album, Reed gave Nico a mere three tracks to sing, and ultimately, whatever amount of creative control she desired over the songwriting and over her role in the band was denied.  In performances, she was consigned to standing at the side of the stage where she either played the tambourine or “stood stock-still” (Harvard 2007:55).  The mannequin-like manner in which she was presented at many of the Velvet Underground shows that were organized by Warhol himself prompted guitarist Sterling Morrison to comment, “we’ve got a statue in the band” (55).  Nico wielded even less artistic agency in the production process, and was relegated to the status of a muse—a mere vehicle for the male artist—when Reed wrote such pieces as “I’ll Be Your Mirror” for her.  As Morrison’s remark aptly suggests, Nico ultimately fulfilled her duty to the band as a marginal or subordinate figure by assuming the passive role of another statuesque Warhol beauty.

SCUM

Despite, or perhaps because of, her celebrity, Valerie Solanas has remained a relatively obscure figure.  Since the publication of her provocative manifesto and since her shooting of Warhol, she has served as a lightning rod for feminists, yet no formal biography has been written about her.  Instead, Solanas’s existence within the public arena has been reduced to that of a mere symbol appropriated by the radical feminists and re-appropriated by anti-feminist opposition.  In other words, the success of her intentions for social change ultimately relied upon the manipulation and mediation of her personage by other people.

In the opening lines of her SCUM Manifesto, Solanas calls to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex” (2006:1).  Her manifesto, founded on the seemingly essentialist argument that all men hate themselves,6 has riveted some feminists, while other feminists have found Solanas’s politics too polemical, polarizing and naïve.  Interestingly, it was her publisher, Maurice Giordias, who arrived at the acronym “Society for Cutting Up Men” from the title of her manifesto, which reinforced the conception that the radical feminist movement was one of angry “man haters” (Hewitt 2004:603).  Nowhere within the publication is the acronym mentioned, and Solanas’s original use of the term “scum” was to critique the debased condition of women, to which she ironically refers as “scum,” within a male-constructed system of social values (Heller 2001:168).  In one of the most trenchant passages in her manifesto on “’Great Art’ and ‘Culture,’” she states:

“Great Art” proves that men are superior to women, that men are women, being labeled “Great Art,” almost all of which, as the anti-feminists are fond of reminding us, was created by men.  We know that “Great Art” is great because male authorities have told us so, and we can’t claim otherwise, as only those with exquisite sensitivities far superior to ours can perceive and appreciate the greatness, the proof of their superior sensitivity being that they appreciate the slop that they appreciate. (Solanas 2006:24)

Solanas’s hyperbolic rhetoric not only takes aim at the established canon of “high” art and its male producers, but also at dominant notions of gender, both of which she perceived as patriarchally determined social constructs that were in fact tacitly consented to and co-opted by the avant-garde.  Reed and Cale less tacitly cultivate such male-driven ideals in their performance of “I believe,” in which Solanas exists as a distorted permutation of the archetypal “femme fatale” figure.  It is worth reiterating that the Velvet Underground formerly prefigured this common rock-and-roll archetype of female “threat” in one of their most famous songs, “Femme Fatale,” that was written upon Warhol’s suggestion, and inspired by Edie Sedgwick, another one of his superstars.  Butler cites the significance of acknowledging the compulsion for a “destructive repetition” wherever the “violating sense of ‘subjection’” becomes understood as trauma or socially damaging (Butler 1993:124).  This acknowledgement is precisely what redeems Solanas’s subjectivity because it produces the occasion for a subversion – versus a repetition – of the very conditions of her violation.  As Butler states, “there is no subject prior to its constructions”  (124).  However, if the subject need not be compliant with those constructions, then “I believe” is a song in which Solanas’s subjectivity becomes disobedient to Reed’s and Cale’s reiterative inculcations of misogyny.

There is something more to be said about Solanas’s treatment in the media as a “product” of Warhol.  The two had widely divergent views on how to express their politics publicly, let alone their sexuality—Solanas flaunted her queer identity, while Warhol maintained a philosophy of “silence” about his.  In the media’s subsequent relegation of Solanas to the status of some Warholian spectacle, it also implicated Warhol as a responsible party in his own shooting.  In an article that appeared in The New York Times less than a week after the shooting, journalist Grace Glueck depicted Warhol’s increasingly lavish life as a “Daytime Serial,” and ultimately lampooned him for welcoming his own shooting: “From the time Warhol first took seriously to films three years ago, his life and art have become even more of a continuum.  The people, parties and drug scenes he saw in real life became material for his movies and the films, in turn, have fed back into Andy’s milieu” (Glueck 1968:E6).  Ultimately portrayals of Solanas and Warhol in the mainstream media were indicative of a larger theme at work throughout the sixties and seventies, often recognized as one of America’s watershed epochs for civil liberties that inevitably were never fully extended to women, let alone queer communities.  On this final point, I intend for the aforementioned reprisal of Solanas and all of the condemning constructions of her subjectivity to perform an enabling gesture, or at the very least, to widen the present margin of emancipatory possibility.

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1 From Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 121.

2 James Harding, for example, examines the act of Valerie Solanas’s shooting as one of the most fascinating (albeit totally irresponsible) reassertions of revolutionary and avant-garde priorities.  He claims that “Solanas’s was an ugly act exposing an ugly history, and what the shooting of Warhol left in its wake was an aporia in avantgarde history: a moment when the historical narrative was, like Warhol’s body itself, no longer seamless and when, in a conceptual fashion reminiscent of collage aesthetics, the incongruous juxtaposition of irreconcilable trajectories in the avantgarde were exposed.” See James Harding, “The Simplest Surrealist Act: Valerie Solanas and the (Re)Assertion of Avantgarde Priorities,”  TDR (1988-) 45/4 (2001): 155.

3 Warhol’s “Electric Chair” became a part of a series of pieces on “Death” that he exhibited throughout America and Europe.  All of the works from this series were taken from graphically violent photographic images.  Other sources for the images from this series include car wrecks, murders, and dogs during civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.

4 Flesh (1968), directed by Paul Morrissey, is the first film of a trilogy (later followed by Trash and Heat) produced by Warhol that features Joe Dallesandro, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and several other “Warhol superstars.”  The film calls attention to two of the most hotly contested and controversial issues of the time: abortion and prostitution.  The film opens with a scene in which the main character demands her lover to take up hustling in order to help her friend pay for an abortion.  Blow Job (1964) was one of Warhol’s most provocative short films that depicts a man receiving oral sex (yet another one of the most taboo subjects of the period) from an unseen partner off-screen.

5 Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male published in the late 40’s was, “instrumental in distributing many popularly held convictions and assumptions about male identity and sexuality” according to Gavin Butt, Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-1963. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 29-37.

6 Some of the most striking aspects about Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto are often the most frequently misconstrued.  Regularly these misinterpretations include her essentializing reduction of the sexes and her hatred of all men.  To be sure, if Solanas’s condemnation of “man” as the root of these oppressive systems arises from what she initially identifies an oversight of his biological deficiency – in which man’s y-chromosome is the incomplete version of woman’s x-chromosome – Solanas’s critique of “approval-seeking Daddy’s girls” is just as severe.

Sayo Yamagata is currently an Enhanced Chancellor’s Fellow at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Much of her feminist writing is preoccupied with critical points of collision in the 1960s between popular music, avant-garde scenes, and radical political movements.  Presently, she teaches at City College at the City University of New York.

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