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Questioning Camelot
November 22, 1963: Image, Memory, Myth

Where were you when Kennedy was shot?
Forty years later, that's still a relevant question. If you were old enough to remember anything before November 22, 1963, you're simply expected to have an answer. It's a definitive cultural marker: either you shared the experience, or you missed out on one of the most important events in history.
With its latest exhibition, November 22, 1963: Image, Memory, Myth, The Andy Warhol Museum looks at this event and explores how its images and interpretations have been indelibly marked on the collective memory.

Looking Back
Without the shock and massive grief caused by President John F. Kennedy's assassination, a lot of events might not have occurred—or might have had very different outcomes.

Consider the evidence. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, we experienced post-war prosperity; relaxing of a rigid social structure; the birth of rock ‘n’ roll; the dawn of the media age; the space race; the Cold War; and the growth of the civil rights movement.

Kennedy had eased the Russian threat somewhat; he had hoped to address civil rights in his second term. And he wanted to get us out of Vietnam.
We had yet to view the TV-news horror of that “conflict,” which prompted protests by draft-fearing youth who, for the first time, challenged authority and the status quo.“Hell no, we won’t go” morphed into a huge generation gap fueled by the notions of free love, rock ‘n’ roll and the credo, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
But during Kennedy’s reign, we still accepted the presidency as a sacrosanct position and respected those who held it. “When the American government told you something was right, you believed it,” says Dr. Cyril Wecht, Allegheny County coroner and nationally acclaimed forensic science expert. That was before Lyndon Johnson’s policies produced revelations that not all wars are justified and presidents do lie; before Richard Nixon irrevocably turned us into cynics and caused the rise of investigative journalism.

On the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, we find ourselves looking back to examine why and how that event had such a monumental effect.

The Kennedys
To those who believe in the forces of Good and Evil, the idea of a curse sitting on the heads of Joseph P. Kennedy’s male descendants is totally believable.
Consider the evidence. Each one of the patriarch’s sons suffered a cruel fate: His namesake was killed in World War II; both John and Bobby were felled by assassins’ bullets; Teddy nearly died in a 1964 plane crash, then was involved in a scandal that kept him from the White House. Some of their progeny have met equally gruesome fates, including the last Kennedy presidential prospect, John F. Kennedy Jr., who piloted his plane to a watery grave. President Kennedy’s second son, Patrick, died two days after his birth—just a few months before his father was buried.

Popular culture helps to perpetuate the Kennedy Curse. For example, a song by New Zealand singer Shona Laing zeroes in on the Kennedy family’s suffering with a sharpshooter’s accuracy. In (Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy, the chorus repeats: “Wearing the fame like a loaded gun/Tied up with a rosary/I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy.”

“Wearing the fame like a loaded gun.” That was the concept Andy Warhol sought to convey when he began his artistic obsession with JFK’s stoic widow, who not only represented the pinnacle of beauty and fame, but who also knew how to manipulate the media. Warhol craved similar fame and control, and may have turned to her for lessons.

Yet even when Warhol achieved notoriety himself, he still remained awed by Jackie and what he regarded as her skill at manipulating the public’s perception of her. Though it is legitimate to question whether Jackie was still performing a role years after the assassination, there is no doubt that Warhol reveled in playing one himself—and in his ability to cultivate his own persona.

“He was a creation from head to toe,” says The Andy Warhol Museum Director Thomas Sokolowski. “He was an artwork. She didn’t go that far.”

Creating Camelot
Already larger than life in the eyes of many adoring Americans, Jack Kennedy became a superhero as soon as he died. His wife became a grieving Madonna figure, a dignified, yet heartrending symbol of America's loss—of both its president and its innocence. The public willingly accepted the idea that her husband's 1,000 days in office took place in an idyllic time that “for one brief shining moment … was known as Camelot.”

Jackie introduced the notion of Camelot in a post-assassination interview she gave to friend Theodore H. White for Life magazine. White ran with it, and unwittingly helped spin the fairytale he later came to regard as exactly that.
Warhol ran with it, too, despite his expressed disdain for the inescapable coverage of the events surrounding Kennedy’s death. While Warhol hated the idea that the first major news event played out on TV came with the implication that everyone should have media-directed feelings of sadness and grief, his assassination silkscreens make it clear that he did experience those emotions—and actually helped perpetuate them.

“Warhol was always push-pull,” says Sokolowski. “There were often dichotomies between what he said and what he did.”

With his trademark use of repeated images, Warhol immortalized several frozen-in-time moments from before and after the assassination in Jackie (the Week that Was), and Sixteen Jackies. First she is shown with a smile and her cocked pillbox hat, then she’s a stunned wife, and finally, a set-lipped mourner. Warhol also turned those images into separate pieces, and created his now-familiar portrait of Jackie as a lovely-looking first lady. A few years later, he produced his powerful Flash, a series of silkscreens depicting a grinning president, his glamorous wife, a presidential seal with bullet holes through it, an ad for an Italian carbine rifle, and other symbolic representations of that tragedy.
Ruth Ann Rugg, director of interpretation at Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, a collaborator with The Andy Warhol Museum on the exhibition, notes: “Warhol of all people was fascinated with publicity, with public attention. … He was, I think, really aware of how much this one event had captured the attention of the whole nation.”

The constant replay of assassination footage also reinforced Warhol’s own use of repetition. And in keeping with Warhol’s catholic background, Rugg says, “He more or less did elevate Jackie to the status of a saint.”
As Sokolowski notes: “Had (Kennedy) not been killed, she would only have been the pretty first lady.”

The Mystery
At first, the public believed what it was told: that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. But once the distrust set in, people started questioning the validity of that explanation.

Stephen Fagin, oral history coordinator at the Dealey Plaza museum, suggests, “After Watergate, people thought, ‘If they lied to us about this, did they lie to us about the Kennedy assassination?’

“It just becomes this big question mark,” Fagin says. “The mystery endures because it is a mystery.”

Wecht, who discovered the lack of forensic record-keeping in the Kennedy case says we’re also still saddened by the loss of a young, dashing, Pulitzer Prize-winning, World War II hero with all that unfulfilled promise. Combined with our disbelief in our government and continuing questions about the evidence he says, “You have a case that will not die.”

Wecht, a proponent of the conspiracy theory, also served as a consultant on Oliver Stone’s 1991 feature film, JFK, which exposed a new generation of Americans to the events surrounding Kennedy’s life and assassination. After the movie was released, says Fagin, “From that point on, the assassination was a current event.”

Every day, Fagin says, people come to the plaza, “And they mill around and look, as if somewhere, out there, the answer is still there.”

As if he were quoting a script from The X-Files, Fagin adds, “The more you look, the more confusing it becomes.” n

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