Andy Warhol & Marshall McLuhan: The Artist & the Visionary


“Art is anything you can get away with” – Marshall McLuhan

Warhol”s genius lay in his understanding of religion and sociology. In particular, the ideas that he intuited — or borrowed — about the changing role of art in a media society were devastatingly right. His grasp of the sociological changes going on around him informed his decisions to choose image over content and to speed up his production of works through mechanical methods.

He assumed — correctly — that more and more people were coming to share his abbreviated idea of what made a good painting, commenting: My idea of a good picture is one that”s in focus and of a famous person.

Warhol deserves credit for his insights, but so does the sociologist [sociologist? he was anything but] and media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) who Warhol once referred to as an Honorary Muse. Studying the two men”s ideas side by side is a fascinating exercise.


Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan: Photomontage by

Warhol and McLuhan barely knew each other, but they certainly did know of each other.

McLuhan”s groundbreaking book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man was published in 1951, a year before Warhol had his first New York exhibition. It is hard to believe that Warhol, who had been working in advertising, hadn”t at least heard of the book, which described in depth how film posters, comic books, advertisements and magazine covers exerted their persuasive powers.

McLuhan was known for his aphorisms, and many of them are dead-ringers in terms of mirroring Warhol”s social and aesthetic observations. Warhol”s famous quip that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame in the future is believed to have been paraphrased from McLuhan. Another famous quote Art is what you can get away with, has been attributed to both men, and there seems to be no agreement about who said it or who said it first.

It is interesting to note that in the mid-60s after Warhol and McLuhan did briefly meet, McLuhan later commented that Warhol was a rube. Do I sense some competitiveness there?

Art historian Gregory Battcock, [erroneously] gives Warhol the edge:

Warhol was, during the sixties, a visual Marshall McLuhan. Though more profound than McLuhan and more a person of his time, Warhol correctly foresaw the end of painting and became its executioner.

So, Battcock views Warhol as predicting the end of painting. What, one has to wonder was killing it? Mass media — movies television and magazines — all played a role, but art”s real usurper, at least in Marshall McLuhan”s view, was advertising.

Advertising declared McLuhan, is the greatest art form of the 20th century. Warhol, of course, began his career as a commercial illustrator, and some of his earliest Pop works are deadpan copies of advertisements. Advertising in the 20th century did what religious art had done in the 13th century: it used its imagery and authority to create images that helped focus mass desires and beliefs. Of course, if you believe as I do that capitalism is a religion, the parallels are clear.

McLuhan who converted to Roman Catholicism, and Warhol, who was raised Catholic, were both very aware that the mass culture of the late 20th century was supplanting religion. In McLuhan”s view, electronic mass media worked against the private and the metaphysical:

Christianity definitely supports the idea of a private, independent metaphysical substance of the self. Where technologies supply no cultural basis for this individual, then Christianity is in for trouble.

Marshall McLuhan: Photomontage by

7 Responses to “Andy Warhol & Marshall McLuhan: The Artist & the Visionary”

  1. 1 Patrick Wilson

    Belief in Christianity at least provides some sense of self and an alternative to the modernism that empties life itself.


  2. One can believe in the basics of Christian morality without buying into the magic realism of the Biblical narrative.


  3. 3 Tom Lund

    I have always felt that McLuhan’s aphorism on art is true, but I’ve come to believe that great art is defined by creativity and originality.


  4. Paul Dirac said when he sees beauty in his equations he knows he’s on the right path to progress while if beauty’s lacking, the math is probably wrong. It’s sensible to ask if this science behind beauty also applies to visual art.

    Art historian Gregory Battcock is not the first to display amazing ignorance when he speaks of “the death of painting”. Painting is visual language, which evolved after spoken language and was followed by writing. No one is expecting speech or literature to die, so Duchamp’s long heralded “death of painting” displays an ignorance of science and the role of images in creating culture. Duchamp and the Dadaists were all about shock, as in “let’s kill painting”, as if… The Viking king Canute ordered the tides to stop and roll back and failed; human beings do not tell nature what to do, and painting, visual language, is an ancestral evolutionary development that does not bend to the whims of silly egotists.


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