Warhol endures, but Kato's time is up

April 25, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

Hey, Kato, your 15 minutes are up. We haven't exactly been keeping count, but it seems like forever already -- television cameos, talk shows and extensive coverage in Entertainment Weekly. Be gone, and take Gennifer Flowers with you.

Andy Warhol was kidding, but he was right. If he were alive today, he'd feel like some Pop Art Nostradamus. Picture him sitting at his television: the white hair, the stick figure sheathed in black leather, amused to see his prophecy about fame quoted once again, most recently as part of David Letterman's Top Ten List.

The category: Surprises in Kato Kaelin's Book, including "a second-by-second account of his entire 15 minutes of fame."

There's Warhol's prediction, misquoted as usual, trotted out as it has been thousands of times since Warhol first published it 27 years and a million fleeting names ago. Tonya and Jeff, Leona, Ivana, Joey, Fabio . . .

And Kato. Warhol would have loved Kato -- his nickname lifted from the comic books that Warhol liked so much as a kid, his fame made of nothing but image and accident and a backdrop of horrifying violence. Warhol would have enjoyed Lorena Bobbitt and Fawn Hall and Donna Rice and Jessica Hahn. And Eugene Hasenfus. Does anyone remember Eugene Hasenfus? Or Admiral James Stockdale?

The list goes on, more names than Warhol ever could have imagined when he first uttered the line in 1968, years before we had People magazine or Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Court TV, CNN or ESPN. Years before there were so many national spotlights in which to stand for but a moment.

The phrase is truer now than it was then, before it was ensconced as part of American language, albeit rearranged in shorthand. What Warhol originally said was: "In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes."

The quote first appeared in a catalog of a retrospective exhibition held at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, in February and March 1968. One of several quotes published in bold, oversized type on the first 14 pages of the catalog, the line appears by itself on a page. No context, no explanation.

Lately the line appears everywhere, usually corrupted as "15 minutes of fame." A computer search finds that since 1991, the expression has appeared 142 times in the Los Angeles Times, 89 times in the Washington Post, 80 times in The Sun and 73 times in the New York Times. The phrase "famous for 15 minutes" appeared only in The Sun and only thrice.

Just the other day, Scott Peck of White Marsh told a reporter he had resisted with his "All American Boy" memoir the pressure from publishers to write an "Amy Fisheresque, let's-capitalize-on-our-15-minutes-of-fame book."

Does anyone remember Amy Fisher? Are her 15 minutes up? Did Scott Peck get more than, say, eight minutes? Is anyone confusing him with M. Scott Peck, who has had light years of fame?

It's the number, the specificity that gives the quote zip. Warhol might have said, "everybody will be famous for a short time." But that would be like Capt. Louis Renault at the climax of "Casablanca" saying "Major Strasser's been shot. Round up those same people we did the last time . . ."

Without "fifteen minutes," the line would probably have passed into obscurity like the other quotes in the exhibition catalog. Those quotes, like so much of Warhol's stuff, walk the line between the ironic and the insipid, between Lyle Lovett and Hallmark Cards. No one remembers, "Machines have less problems. I'd like to be a machine, wouldn't you?" Or, "My philosophy is: everyday's a new day." Or, "I like boring things."

David Barnhart, who edits and publishes the Barnhart Dictionary Companion, a quarterly journal devoted to updating dictionaries, says he's never included "famous for 15 minutes" or "15 minutes of fame" in his publication. He says he's inclined to consider it now, though, as it apparently has become a recognized shorthand for a specific contemporary phenomenon.

The expression "fills a void," says Mr. Barnhart, of Cold Spring, N.Y., whose late father, Clarence L. Barnhart, edited the "Thorndike-Barnhart Dictionary" series. "There's no word that does that neatly with that kind of pizazz."

Allan Metcalf, who edits the journal American Speech in Jacksonville, Ill., says he thinks "it's more the idea than the phrase that has caught on. . . . It attests to Warhol's originality."

Not that fame is fleeting -- people have been saying that at least since Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in the second century. Warhol suggested fame would be something common, another consumer product in an age of mass production. Think about those rows and rows of Jackies and Marilyns lined up like so many Campbell Soupcans or bottles of Coca-Cola.

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