Writing about 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, actor and producer Keith Jensen wrote that, “”What Orwell failed to predict was that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody was watching.”
Despite the election of Donald Trump and the erosion of freedom in many parts of the world, our fear of insignificance is greater than our fear of tyranny. The problem we face is how to be significant when the world is full of noise, a relentless clamour for attention that knows no end. This is Andy Warhol’s world where everyone “will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. But is 15 minutes enough? And how do you get famous when there’s so much noise? In the last two years more data was created than in the entire span of human history. We sing, we dance, we create but it never seems enough. Beneath the surface of our civilisation we are drowning in a collective howl, a hunger for attention and significance that can never be satisfied.
Sir Michael Caine described Lincoln Townley as “the next Andy Warhol” but Townley’s reworking of a lost photograph of Andy Warhol shows the darkness behind our hunger for more and the story of how this painting came about is remarkable.
A new portrait of Andy Warhol is going on show tomorrow – 30 years after the pioneering pop artist’s death aged 58. Painter Lincoln Townley’s work is inspired by a series of photographs of Warhol by Karen Bystedt, who was a teenager when she called him and asked to take his picture.
When Karen Bystedt, a photographer, who took 10 photographs of Andy Warhol in 1982, heard of Michael Caine’s appreciation of Townley’s work, she asked Townley to put his own distinctive style on one of the photographs to mark the 30th anniversary of Warhol’s death. The finished portrait shows Warhol as he has never been seen before. Gone is the comfortable symmetry of a familiar face and in its place is a howling Warhol, overwhelmed by the world into which Townley has transported him.
Townley, who is Artist-in-Residence at BAFTA LA, has painted many of the world’s biggest stars and is under no illusion about the hunger for fame: “Everyone wants a piece of our cultural and artistic Icons and social media has made this vicarious celebrity more accessible than ever before. I’ve always admired Warhol and when I was given this extraordinary opportunity to paint him, I knew how I had to do it. I like to think if he saw this portrait he would understand why 15 minutes can never be enough and we’ll go on shouting and screaming until we’re consumed by our own appetites. The world may be darker than the one Warhol envisaged but it’s the world we live in and that is the world I paint.”
There is almost a palpable nostalgia for the Orwellian certainties of the Cold War where boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ were reassuringly solid and the spectre of Big Brother was our greatest fear. Now we are witnessing the disintegration of all boundaries. There may be cameras everywhere and surveillance is the norm but things are more turbulent than either Orwell or Andy Warhol could have imagined. In a world where everyone is screaming, no-one gets heard and that’s the deepest nightmare of our species: to crave attention and to be ignored.
We have unleashed an orgy of consumption where, in a bizarre reversal of Orwellian logic, everyone risks losing themselves in a relentless craving to be seen.
The first of the ten portraits will be presented at The Financial Times building in April 2017.