“An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”
— Andy Warhol
Today marks the 26th anniversary of the death of famed pop artist (and fellow Pittsburgh native) Andy Warhol. I first came across that quote of his on a paper coaster at a downtown bar named, appropriately enough, Andy’s (located in a building with some really nicely done canopies).At first, I didn’t think much of that coaster — at the time, I was probably more concerned with the drink perched lovingly on top of it — but had enough presence of mind to pick it up before leaving. I found that coaster in my jacket pocket a few weeks later, and the value of Andy’s words hit home to me — this is one of the problems faced by our profession. There is little perceived value to our services. We are seen as a commodity for the elite. We produce art, that people don’t need to have.
With all due respect to Mr. Warhol, we need to aspire to more than this.
A pioneer of the pop art movement, Warhol was fascinated with the somewhat disposable nature of consumerism in our society. Aside from being one of the 20th century’s most well-known artists, Warhol is also known for coining the phrase “fifteen minutes of fame,” the fleeting notoriety that each of us will experience at least once in our lifetime. In terms of recognition, the architectural profession very closely resembles the acting world — only a very small percentage of those working in both professions find widespread fame through their success. (Editor’s Note: this thought is not original to me, but in all the reading and skimming I’ve done in the past year or so, I can’t tell you where I came across it. Suffice it to say, it stuck with me, so kudos to the original thinker.) And just as there are thousands of highly competent actors toiling away, night after night, in relative obscurity, there are equally as many highly-skilled architects who will never see their work on the cover of a magazine. It’s a concept that Andy Warhol would understand — everyone’s interested in the next big thing, before its bubble bursts. Permanence doesn’t sell.
Interestingly enough, the flip side of that coaster bears a quote by Pittsburgh’s other famous Andy — Andrew Carnegie, a man who built himself an empire of steel out of near-poverty, becoming one of the 19th century’s richest men and one of our nation’s greatest philanthropists. His contributions to our city included a world-class museum and a renowned system of libraries. He produced things that people need to have, and still rely upon, even to this day. How much can we learn from Mr. Carnegie’s efforts? How much applies to what we do?
I don’t have the answers, but I’d love to debate it with you. Maybe we can talk about it over a drink. I know a nice place…