Fade to grey: Warhol's Marilyn Diptych (1962). Image © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
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Death and dollar signs: Warhol’s memory capsules of 20th-century America

Mark Lawson’s Critic’s Notes.

Because Andy Warhol (1928-87) rarely spoke in public and when he did he mumbled gnomically, it’s difficult to know what he thought. But as his art was obsessed with modernity – frozen moments of his time, from supermarket products to scenes on TV – it seems unlikely that posterity was a central concern, especially as his most quoted line (“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”) addressed the perishability of celebrity. As it turns out, in the present, Warhol has been famous for 50 years and so there’s a particular fascination – in “Transmitting Andy Warhol”, the handsome retrospective at Tate Liverpool – in seeing how his stuff stands up. 

The Tate display puts special emphasis on the artist’s later work in film, which led him more than once to murmur about retiring from painting. And a good case is made that his video pieces mark him as a cultural prophet in the league of George Orwell and Marshall McLuhan. By aiming a camera at the Empire State Building for eight hours or a friend’s sleeping form for five hours and creating a deliberately vacuous TV show of interviews, Warhol foresaw webcams, reality television and the ethos of the internet.

His best works, however, are not the pictures that scarcely move but the ones that remain completely still. Each Warhol retrospective makes it seem even more shocking that the philistines of his time dismissed his paintings, prints and sculptures as easy or empty. The works beside the Mersey confirm the sharpness of his eye: there’s always more going on than a sceptic thinks.

Blue Airmail Stamps (1962), for example, may reproduce the same image 44 and a half times but, by choosing a stamp with a jet on it, Warhol creates a blanket-bombing raid in a year that the US tripled its troop levels in Vietnam. Because of his tactical or actual inarticulacy, the extent to which Warhol was consciously a political artist remains unverifiable. Yet the show demonstrates that, one way or another, he perfectly selected the items for a memory capsule of late-20th-century America: the Tate curators pointedly place in close proximity depictions of a gun, a dollar sign, an electric chair and the murders of the Kennedy brothers. The latter canvases are further darkened by Warhol having himself survived an assassination attempt by the writer Valerie Solanas – suffering serious gunshot wounds – days before RFK was killed.

The only weakness is that, as Warhol shows usually do, this one underplays the extent to which his lifelong Catholicism informs his most iconic creations. This is the art of a child who gazed up at images of horrifically murdered men and women who had achieved saintliness by rejecting sex. Marilyn overlaps with another “MM” – Mary Magdalene – and is perhaps even transmuted into a non-virgin Mary in works that ape the panelled form of altarpieces.

The Warhol compositions that deal with the decomposition of Monroe are terrifying memento mori. In Marilyn Diptych (1962), from the year of her death, her bright-pink face fades in the second panel to a blackened negative. The palette of rigor mortis is utilised even more frighteningly, five years later, in another set of Marilyn screen prints in which the progressively disintegrating portraits play with the techniques of movie and mortician’s make-up.

Liverpool isn’t a place we connect with this artist, although the Tate dutifully includes his undated portrait of the Beatles. That, though, is perhaps the weakest painting to be seen – there’s nothing going on except reproduction – whereas the rest of the exhibition handsomely confirms that Warhol represents one of those moments when artistic possibility breaks its frames.

Strike up the band

The most familiar dramatic genres are tragedy, comedy, farce, musical, monologue and revue. Yet an article in the programme for Made in Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre in London – a song-and-dance version of the film about a 1968 equal-pay strike at a Ford plant – posits a new artistic subdivision: the industrial dispute musical. It lists eight shows about shop-floor walkouts, including Strike!, a Canadian hit about a 1919 general strike in Winnipeg; The Pajama Game, recently revived in London; and Billy Elliot, which has been turning the 1984 miners’ picket line into a chorus line for almost ten years now.

Whereas Margaret Thatcher appears in that show only in lyrics and as an effigy, Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle, the politicians challenged by the women who stitched the seats for Cortinas, are central characters in Made in Dagenham, with the prime minister delivering a Python­esque silly-walk number about the balance of payments.

Some newspaper reviews have seemed to me astonishingly bilious, the main complaint being that this is a less serious piece than Billy Elliot. But the tone of any drama is largely dictated by its ending and, because the miners lost but the Essex feminists won, the comedic feel of the Ford musical is justified. No originally written musical for years has been this funny and Made in Dagenham deserves a long run before the management locks it out. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.