Some artists defy the nature of the here today, gone in thirty seconds nature of pop culture, and especially that of the Internet’s role in that cultural development. “Thinkpieces” is a way to get you, the reader to stop, pause and reflect on moments of not just cultural brilliance, and even more so, cultural significance.
“I would like to turn the world on, just for a moment … just for a moment,” so spoke Andy Warhol’s brightest burning – and arguably quickest dimming – Superstar, the girl on fire, the Poor Little Rich Girl, Edie Sedgwick.
As much as April 20th is the unofficial holiday celebrating the blurred, covert cool, touted taboo identity of this Lost Generation; Edie Sedgwick, born on this very day in 1943, is the unofficial harbinger of the Hipster – “It’s not that I’m rebelling. It’s that I’m just trying to find another way.” Everything about Edie was cool, everything about Edie was “now,” everything about Edie was so beautifully disastrous. Her significance is insignificant, if only because it was so superlative, but so temporally isolated; and if only because of that fact: her obituary is our biography – those dying to live, and forever living under the shadow of that spectacular demise.
Andy Warhol introduced Sedgwick to his factory in 1965, where he shot her first screen test. Four minutes and one reel after turning the lens on Edie, it was clear that Edie turned on the lens and sparked the creative flame propelling Warhol into Pop history.
The iconic enigma embodied the Silver Sixties right down to her silver locks. Sedgwick’s turbulent tale from the psychiatric ward Silver Hill to the underground Manhattan silver screen is that of Pop culture legend. Edie was an heiress to the Sedgwick fortune, American aristocratic royalty. Her ancestors helped found and legislate Massachusetts (during which time they made the earliest application of “all men are created equal” as a legal defense to free slaves, and furthermore sue said slaves’ former masters), invented the elevator, brought the Atlantic Monthly to its prominence, founded the Groton School, and led the first Black regiment to go into combat in the American Civil War – glorious. Edie, though, burned the Sedgwick name into modern American history by leading the trailblazing band of “Youthquakers” in the revolutionary 1960s.
While she said she felt “Andy was throwing America back in its face,” Edie herself became the face of the Pop America Andy helped create. The heiress to traditional American aristocratic royalty became the protagonist dictating the modern American celebrity royalty tale. Sedgwick was unlimited in her beyond-just-pop breadth and depth of impact. To rock legend Patti Smith, “She was such a strong image that I thought, ‘That’s it.’ It represented everything to me, radiating intelligence, speed, being connected with the moment.”
She was the culmination of cultures, new and old, the collision marking creation. Celebrity milliner Stephen Jones signified Sedgwick’s undeniable cultural foothold, “Iconic society women had always been demure and elegant. Sedgwick was downtown not uptown, active not passive, sunglasses not ball gowns. Her look was a mixture of sweet and sour; an angelic face distorted with bleached hair and disfiguring make-up. You could call her the first punk.” Even still, Edie’s metaphysical je ne sais quoi broke through the façade; she attracted, infatuated, and captivated anyone and everyone within her reach – leaving them spellbound.
Her joie de vivre and style influenced contemporaries and followers alike. Godmother to modern “celebutantes” – think Mary Kate, Ashley, Lindsay, and Paris … Casey; colleague and comrade to Salvador Dali, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Kennedy; and muse to Bob Dylan, Betsey Johnson, and Andy Warhol. Edie encapsulates modern American history beyond mere correspondence. She embodies the culture in theory and practice. The original “Queen of the New York Underground” first coined the Warholian “15 minutes” term years before the Pop Art deity himself. Sedgwick lived her art. As the first true performance artist of modern pop culture, life and art did not imitate one another; rather they were one in the same.
The eternal high of life, drugs, and fame fueled Sedgwick through the Sixties at a lightning speed – her rise glorious; her demise beautifully catastrophic. Edie split from the factory in 1966 and ventured off to California in pursuit of Hollywood fame, but never again rose to her Warholian prominence. Even still, Sedgwick never regretted a moment. Even without the cameras she continued to live her masterpiece, actualizing the conception that it is the vibrant dark colors which give depth to the light.
Living every day as if it was the last, the night before her death in November of 1971 Edie had a palm reader analyze her lines. The reader looked up from Sedgwick’s broken lifeline, mouth agape, to which Edie serenely replied, “It’s okay – I know.” Her palm destined that she would not live past 30. At 28, Edie passed away in her sleep due to an acute barbiturate overdose. Sedgwick was a notorious insomniac in life; only in death does it appear she ever slowed down to rest. As Vogue impresario Diana Vreeland said, “She was after life and sometimes life doesn’t come fast enough.”
There never will be another Edith Minturn Sedgwick. Though her story is modern folklore, her own 15 minutes have stretched to generations as she continues to inspire fashion designers, culture vultures, historians, artists, and authors alike.
“Edie danced to her own tune, and I imagine this is what inspired Warhol and Dylan as much as it did me. She created her own identity,” designer John Galliano once said; “she may have only had 15 minutes of fame, but her style and image influenced a whole generation,” and beyond.
Forever setting the world on fire, the girl in perpetual motion could not be stopped and her time never stood still. Edie is the iconography of everything we are – period: the tweens with rose-colored-glasses living life on a whim taking everything at face value, the drug-addled club heads finding meaning only in the music – and the moment – as they seemingly dance their nights – and lives – away, the hipsters “shunning conformity” and re-creating the “real” creative class from the comfort of a trust fund, the 15 second YouTube pseudo-stars, the Stefani Germanottas hustling in dollar-store couture just to be heard, the Gagas giving purpose to art beyond – and yet so incredibly dependent upon – artifice.
In a generation full of hypermediated performance artists – by deliberate decision or default – Edie said of herself something that resonates so deeply with this Lost Generation, “if you just listened to what I had to say it was sane, but if you just looked at me you wouldn’t bother to listen. And none of them did. God it was a nightmare.” There isn’t that self-awareness – that realized futility – with us, but the nightmare is quite apparent. Performance artists live their art — completely. The world is their canvas — truly. Where the art succeeds, the artist suffers, but it is for the sake of art — even if only for art’s sake.
A moment is all Edie Sedgwick wanted from the world; a moment to see her and a moment for which she could have the world see itself through her eyes. More than three decades after her death, the world still has yet to do what few in life could, but those who did always remember: look into Edie’s eyes, be turned on for a moment, and have it feel like forever; but while her image may be forgotten – and name hardly known – in this time when the moment is perpetual, her impact on “the moment” is momentous on its own.