Praising Andy Warhol


In 1964 an art gallery exhibited a stack of Brillo boxes Andy Warhol had made. They were not exact replicas of the boxes the manufacturer used (they were, for example, made of plywood, rather than cardboard), but most people looking at them in the gallery couldn’t tell any difference. I’ve seen these boxes occasionally in museums — and often in photos — and have to admit that they do very little for me.

This year is the 25th anniversary of Warhol’s death, observed in particular by a major exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum showing his work alongside that of 60 other major contemporary artists, all influenced by Warhol. The exhibit has been the occasion for effusive praise for his achievement. Peter Schjeldahl, for example, calls Warhol a “genius” and a “great artist” and even says that “the gold standard of Warhol exposes every inflated value in other currencies.” Such comments have sent me back to the Brillo boxes. If Warhol is a great artist and these boxes are among his most important works, what am I missing? (Note that I’m discussing only Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Many of his other works pose similar questions but would require separate treatment.)

Let’s start with two obvious facts. First, Warhol’s Brillo boxes are regarded as great art whereas ordinary Brillo boxes are not. No one would pay a hundred thousand dollars for an ordinary Brillo box. Second, as far as their sheer appearance is concerned, there are no significant differences between the two sorts of boxes. (Arthur Danto even says “they look exactly like” one another.) If there were a supermarket display that included just one of Warhol’s boxes, we could not pick it out from the others. It follows that, if a work of art is great because of the way it looks, then Warhol’s boxes are not great works of art.

We may be inclined to say that a work of art is great precisely because of the way it looks—beautiful, sublime, fascinating — and so conclude that Warhol’s boxes are not great works of art. But perhaps this is a mistake. Appreciations of Warhol’s boxes typically emphasize their effects rather than their appearance. These appreciations take two quite different forms.

Sometimes Warhol’s boxes are praised for subverting the distinction between mundane objects of everyday life and “art” in a museum. As a result, we can enjoy and appreciate the things that make up our everyday life just as much as what we see in museums (and with far less effort). Whereas the joys of traditional art typically require an initiation into an esoteric world of historical information and refined taste, Warhol’s “Pop Art” reveals the joys of what we all readily understand and appreciate. As Danto put it, “Warhol’s intuition was that nothing an artist could do would give us more of what art sought than reality already gave us.”

But, although everyday objects do often have aesthetic qualities, they seldom if ever have them to the degree that traditional “great works” of art do. Nor did we need Warhol’s gesture of displaying ordinary objects in a gallery to give us the thought that such objects could be viewed with enjoyment. In fact, traditional artistic portrayals of ordinary objects, for example in still lifes, themselves alert us to the aesthetic qualities of these objects. We see the world differently after leaving an art museum.

Warhol’s work is also praised for posing a crucial philosophical question about art. As Danto puts it: “Given two objects that look exactly alike, how is it possible for one of them to be a work of art and the other just an ordinary object?” Answering this question requires realizing that there are no perceptual qualities that make something a work of art. This in turn implies that anything, no matter how it looks, can be a work of art. This does not, however, mean that everything is a work of art. According to Danto, whether an object is a work of art depends on its relation to an “art world”: “an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art” that exists at a particular time.

Notice, first, that this explanation of Warhol’s greatness, contrary to the first one, makes art appreciation once again a matter of esoteric knowledge and taste, now focused on subtle philosophical puzzles about the nature of art. Further, Warhol’s work (in the art-world context in which he presented it) no doubt occasioned the philosophical question. But any replica of a commonplace object could have done this; and it was Danto, not Warhol, who provided the intellectual/aesthetic excitement by formulating and developing a brilliant answer to the question. To the extent that the philosophical question had artistic value in the context of the contemporary artworld, Danto was more the artist than Warhol.

It is a mistake to credit to an artwork meanings that primarily arise from our interpretative efforts. There is a fundamental difference between discovering meaning in an object and imposing meaning on it. A great work of art embeds categories of understanding and appreciation that we uncover in experiencing the work. It is quite another thing to use an object as a framework for displaying categories that we bring to it. The difference is between discovering a mine that contains gold and constructing glittering objects from dross.

I agree that Warhol — along with many other artists from the 1950s on — opened up new ways of making art that traditional “high art” had excluded. But new modes of artistic creation — commercial design techniques, performances, installations, conceptual art — do not guarantee a new kind or a higher quality of aesthetic experience. It may well be that, since Warhol, Duchamp and others, anything can be presented as a work of art. But it does not follow that anything can produce a satisfying aesthetic experience. The great works of the tradition do not circumscribe the sorts of things that can be art, but they are exemplars of what we expect a work of art to do to us. (This is the sense in which, according to Kant, originally beautiful works of art are exemplary, yet without providing rules for further such works of art.)

Praise of Andy Warhol often emphasizes the new possibilities of artistic creation his work opened up. That would make his work important in the history of art and for that reason alone of considerable interest. But, as Jerrold Levinson and others have pointed out, a work can be an important artistic achievement without being an important aesthetic achievement. This, I suggest, is how we should think about Warhol’s Brillo boxes.


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I Love Warhol

I Love Warhol