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Kelly Cresap, Ph.D. — speaker, coach, storyteller, humorist

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Author Interview
Q and A with Kelly Cresap, Ph.D., author of
Pop Trickster Fool: Warhol Performs Naivete
(Fall 2004, University of Illinois Press)

Q: There's a lot already written about Andy Warhol. What's new about your book?

A: For starters, it's bright pink!
As for the content, I haven't seen anyone really delve into the fool and trickster aspect of Andy's career before. To me this is incredibly fertile material, rich with implications, not just about him but about our responses to him as well. I'm offering new ways of looking at his sexuality, his intelligence, and also what it means to "perform" naivete — something that all of us do, but Andy raised to an art form.

Q: What are some examples of his playing the fool?

A: He made art that looked to many as if it required no I.Q. and no imagination, either to create or to experience. Then there are his silent movie projects — his filming a man sleeping, or the Empire State Building just taking up space. He did interviews where all he said was "yes" or "I don't know." Even his physical appearance seemed to communicate "no-brainer," but he did it cleverly enough to make him instantly recognizable across the country.


Q: Why did he need such an elaborate get-up — the wigs, the makeup, the dumb act? Couldn't he just be himself?

A: He was an unattractive working-class homosexual, born into an immigrant ghetto a year before the crash of '29. To make his mark, he needed an extreme makeover. Looking back on it now, the makeover itself greatly added to his intrigue. It was like a rescue operation that uncovered a gold mine.

Q: With his makeover, was he trying to pass for someone who wasn't gay?

A: He was both out and not out. He managed to persuade people that he was asexual, which is funny, considering how outrageous his movies were. He carried on as if he were clueless, which created a buffer between him and all the eroticism and scandal going on around him.

Q: In one section of Pop Trickster Fool you present the debate over Warhol as if it were a single event, like a town-hall meeting. What inspired the Open Forum?

A: Warhol has baffled and polarized people to no end. I became fascinated by how all the contradictory views on Andy related to each other. Almost everything that's been said about him is refuted somewhere else. One critic sets him up as a great philosopher, another knocks him down. Someone calls him the ultimate social climber, another says no, people climbed him. He's a sell-out, an iconoclast, a saint, a devil, brilliant, decadent, and so on. People say he lost his edge after 1968, but then come the revisionists. Postmodernists fashion him into a poster boy for their cause, and then queer theorists come along to tear down the poster.

I began hearing people's positions on Warhol as fragments of a great public exchange spanning four decades. I went about piecing the fragments together, like it was a big 3D puzzle. By the end I had 200 entries, most of them directly quoted sources — scholars, film critics, the FBI, former Superstars, friends of Andy, enemies. He's been the referendum on a host of issues we're still trying to work out.

Q: Where did your interest in Warhol start?

A: Going back to my twenties, I resented him. I was supporting myself as an artist in Seattle, selling watercolors and lithographs in the under-$75 range at Pike Place Market. What little I knew about Warhol upset me. I saw him as a gadfly — ripping off other people's designs and labor, charging exorbitant fees, hobnobbing at Studio 54. I would have been incensed if someone told me I'd write a book about him.

When I started English grad school in 1990, his name kept coming up in all the fields I was most interested in: popular culture, postmodernism, gay and lesbian studies. I finally had to confront the grudge I'd nursed about him. The book is a record of how I turned my resentment into other responses — admiration as well as anger and sadness. Warhol has acquired a kind of emeritus status now, but scratch the surface and people still have powerful mixed feelings. They both despise and admire him in ways they can't always articulate.

Q: Early in the book you talk about Warhol in relation to other put-on artists from the sixties — Tommy Smothers, Bob Dylan, the Merry Pranksters, Abbie Hoffman, the yippies. How was Warhol different?

A: With others you could see the liberal position beneath the put-on, how they were against the Vietnam war and the Establishment. But the usual Heads-versus-Feds pattern didn't work with Warhol. He wanted to offend the flower children along with the censor boards.

Q: Beyond its being pink, care to explain the book's cover?

A: Cope Cumpston at U. Illinois Press did a great job. The two images of Andy are based on passport photos taken in the mid-fifties. He retouched the right photo to reflect how he might appear after getting a nose job and a hairpiece. He thought he'd look like a movie star. After going under the knife in 1956, he was bitterly disappointed with the results. Yet he still became hugely famous. The cover is saying "pop," "trickster" and "fool" all at once.
Kelly Cresap, Ph.D.

Kelly says, "Musing and laughter are good for the soul."