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Editor’s note: In the November 1, 2009, issue of Booklist, Adult Books Associate Editor Donna Seaman spoke with influential art critic Arthur C. Danto to get the Story behind the Story on his latest book, Andy Warhol. We are pleased to offer a lightly edited transcript of their talk, which ranged from art and philosophy to Brillo boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans to the end of art and the renaissance of craft.
BKL: Andy Warhol is an unusual book for you, your first to focus on a single artist.
DANTO: The Warhol book was a wonderful opportunity for me to bring everything together. It was practically like writing my autobiography because I really began to think seriously about art from the minute I saw that Warhol show in 1964 at the Stable Gallery, the exhibit of what they call grocery boxes.
BKL: Was the show an epiphany for you?
DANTO: It was. My field is philosophy and at Columbia University, they put a great deal of stress on the history of philosophy. So I’d read the canon, particularly on aesthetics, and it had absolutely nothing to do with what was happening in the galleries at that time. I never thought that reading Kant or Hegel or Nietzsche shed any light at all on the abstract expressionist paintings that enthralled everyone I knew. When Warhol’s show went up, I really felt that Warhol and art itself, because he exemplified a key moment, made it possible to bring together philosophy and art, so it was a tremendous opening for me.
In those days, I just wrote philosophy, but I immediately wrote a piece about what these boxes meant, and it was published in The Journal of Philosophy, and I knew that not one single reader would know who Andy Warhol was. Not one.
BKL: In your book, you write that Warhol had a philosophical mind. How so?
DANTO: Because of the way he thought, he went for the limits of a concept more than other any artist I know of. And that always seemed to me to be a philosophical way of thinking. That is to say, thinking about examples that nobody would ordinarily think of, and suddenly bringing the whole contour of a concept to consciousness, much like Plato in Socrates’ dialogues, in which subjects were discussed that just wouldn’t occur to most people. Warhol did that with the Brillo boxes, with the Campbell’s Soup cans, and with his movies. Let’s just go with things, all the way, he says, as though he was really trying to clarify an idea for everybody. It was quite daring, I thought.
BKL: Such philosophical daring seems in opposition to his persona. You write that he camouflaged himself behind an “air of stupidity.” Was that an act?
DANTO: It had to be an act at that particular point, and I don’t know why he did it. Ric Burns’ four-hour documentary begins with Warhol sitting there with an intolerable look of blankness on his face. He’s sitting next to Ivan Karp, who was Leo Castelli’s director, and then he starts cracking up. So it’s clear that it’s a pose. I think it was a caricature of a druggie. No feeling, just a monotone. He’s wearing sunglasses, and he drove the woman interviewer crazy. She got angrier and angrier and angrier.
BKL: I always thought that Warhol was trying to act like a machine. He adopted assembly practices for making his silk screens, he loved mass-manufactured commercial objects, and he called his studio the Factory. He carried a tape recorder and camera everywhere, so that he experienced things through machines, through microphones and lenses. What do you make of his obsession with tape recorders?
DANTO: He tried to capture reality. The surveillance camera really appealed to him. His work does seem almost unthinkable without the machines. He also eschewed editing in his movies, and he used unedited transcripts of tape-recorded conversations and daily life to create his novel, A: A Novel, in 1968. I think that’s probably the first time anybody thought to use a recording machine as a literary instrument. To get everything down that everybody said. I think he felt that if you’re interested in reality, that’s the way to see it, unedited, so it puts the whole truth in front of you all at once. So I think that he, more than anybody, opened up the idea of the use of recording instruments as means of creativity.
BKL: Many people have assumed that Warhol’s interest in Campbell’s Soup cans and the Brillo box was ironic.
DANTO: I don’t think there was any irony in his use of the Brillo boxes or Campbell’s Soup cans. I think his attraction to them is part of his feelings about the material side of life, and how crucial that is to our sense of well-being. A well-stocked store, for example; he really loved the idea of seeing a supermarket with all those things piled up, stacked up, neatly arranged. I think that comes from his poverty when he was a child. He grew up on the edge. He felt America was the place that provided goods for people, and that this was America’s great contribution to human happiness. He obviously had a certain kind of irony in his wit, but not in his art. He had internalized a kind of archness. But the art is pretty much dead serious. I mean, what an experiment: let’s aim a camera at the Empire State Building, and just let it run. That film didn’t seem to me to be ironic, it seemed almost heroic.
That 1964 show was one that everybody interested in art had to see. People stood in line. To see grocery boxes. It didn’t make sense to people, after these extraordinary exciting exhibitions of abstract expressionist canvases, with de Kooning reinventing women’s bodies and faces, and Jackson Pollock was so very dramatic, and then suddenly there’s this. What is that about? But as I say, it excited me.
A friend of mine told me years later, “You know what I wrote in the guest book? It was one word, an expletive, written right across the page.” And I said, “I wrote ‘the transfiguration of the commonplace,’” which became my main book on the philosophy of art. There was so much to think about in that show. And I think to myself now, I’ve been thinking for 40 years about the Brillo boxes? There’s not another work in the entire corpus of fine art that has obsessed me quite to the degree that Warhol’s Brillo box did. I began to think that it was like the Rosetta stone, which opens up so many questions. You just keep turning it, and you keep finding things.
I mean, Warhol is making grocery boxes, but he says that cardboard boxes won’t do the trick. They don’t have the lines, the straightness that he wants, so he has the boxes fabricated out of wood. So that the sharp corners and sharp edges of the boxes contribute to the vision he had of a highly modernistic wall made out of these containers. He thought very deeply about the visual effect it would have.
BKL: You are often identified as the critic who declared the end of art.
DANTO: The first time I think anybody talked about the end of art was Hegel in 1828 in his lectures on fine art in Berlin, but he had a very different interpretation of the end of art. It came to me, that when you’ve got something like the Brillo box, which looks just like an object in ordinary life, then the distinction between art and real things has collapsed, and the difference has got to invisible. And I thought that’s really the end of art. If anything can be a work of art, then that is the end of the narrative of art. If you can’t see the difference between art and ordinary things by looking at them, then where does meaning come into it? In some sense, our narrative is finished, namely, that we expect works of art to look sublime and be venerated and looked at with awe.
So it was quite an extraordinary feeling at that time, particularly with pop art and in the 1970s, with people like Josef Beuys saying that anything can be a work of art, anything. Then you say, well, what makes it art, if you make art that looks like something you can pick up at the dime store. At least for me, those were the most interesting questions that had been asked about the philosophy of art, and what was so interesting is that they had been asked by artists, they hadn’t been asked by philosophers at all.
BKL: Curiously, we’re seeing a return to traditional skills and crafts. People are taking up life drawing classes and returning to older media, such as egg tempera.
DANTO: Craft is perhaps enjoying a renaissance. Although when the Museum of American Craft renames itself the Museum of Art and Design, clearly the word craft is seen as pejorative. But so is painting. In the 1980s, painting was demonized. Painting, artists declared, was dead, no longer carrying the banner of advanced art. So traditional works vanished, and now they’re sort of limping back. It seems to me that once you’ve got the pluralism we have now, in which anything can be a work of art, you say, well, if anything can be a work of art, then why not painting? Why not craft?
Warhol said let’s make art that everyone knows all there is to know about. So he makes paintings of soup cans and sculptures of shipping cartons. That seemed to me to be a gesture that we’re reaching a limit, and then bit by bit, seeing if we can find our way back. But then everything has to be reassessed and revalued.
Warhol gets no credit for the Brillo box design; it was created by James Harvey, on his day job as a “part-time package designer.” He was actually an abstract expressionist painter. So how strange it was for him to see Warhol saying Harvey’s cartons are fine art. But it was a wonderful design; it’s a doozy, that Brillo box. James Harvey went to the show, said, “My god, I designed those boxes!” He didn’t tell Warhol. And, of course, Harvey didn’t get a dime. And Harvey didn’t consider it art at all. His idea of art was the big, brushy paintings that had been the cutting edge a few years earlier. There was a photograph in Newsweek of Warhol giving Harvey one of the boxes, but the poor guy died very shortly after that. He was about 27 years old, so no one knows what would have happened to James Harvey had he gone on.
BKL: In the book, you equate what Warhol did with what Norman Rockwell did. That’s an amazing statement.
DANTO: I guess it is. But I do think that Warhol wanted his art to be instantly understood. I think people liked Andy’s work because it was a slap in the face of the establishment, which claimed that art was something you had to spend a lifetime studying. Warhol says, no, look, this is a Brillo box or a Campbell’s Soup can. What is there to say?” And it did seem to me that it was antiestablishment. He wanted an art for the ordinary person, and I think that’s because he was essentially a democratic person. Politically speaking, he was, and one of the things he liked about America was that America invented the idea of everything being the same. Everybody gets the same hot dog whether they’re the Queen of England or the bum on the corner. He really did believe in that.
BKL: Why does Warhol remain so popular? So interesting? Why are we seeing new books and new exhibitions?
DANTO: People really want to know about Warhol. There’s something fascinating about Warhol that I myself don’t really quite understand. He became an icon, which is mysterious in its own right. Why should he have? He did what anybody could do, painting those soup cans. But people said, my God, this is outrageous. Time magazine wrote about him as doing something weird in 1961. Of course, that was the thing about the 1960s—everything was challenged. I believe that when there’s a cultural change that is almost seismographic, you begin to see perturbations in the world of high culture, bit by bit. It begins with gardens and winds up with revolutions. I do feel that the avant-garde in art really is the avant-garde of culture, and what’s going to happen now I don’t know. At the moment, there are four galleries in New York showing pornography, including the James Gallery at City University. Actual pornography in a publicly supported university. There hasn’t been a peep. And the name of the show is “Peeps,” but there hasn’t been a word said. No one seems to feel that it’s worth attacking these shows.
BKL: It’s hard to imagine a living artist today having the sort of iconic presence Warhol retains.
DANTO: I think Jeff Koons is probably pretty close to it. The question is, How many artists are there who people spontaneously hate? Jeff Koons is one. The show that Jeff just had in London consisted mainly of what looks like plastic pool toys. He picked the most banal of them, made molds, cast them in metal, and then painted them to look exactly like plastic. What did it mean? People went crazy. Here’s something visibly the same as what you can buy for $1.98, yet it’s going to cost a lot of money. But look at the craft in that work. If anybody has revived craft, it would be Jeff Koons because he doesn’t know how to do these things, he hires craftspeople. But he does have that gift for driving people up the wall. And considering what we have to deal with on the news every day, it’s not bad that we can be shocked by a bit of high culture.
BKL: You conclude the book with a discussion of the unfinished works left in Warhol’s studio when he died, and you raise the question of religion.
DANTO: Yes, for me that was the most interesting chapter in the book. And I thought when I was writing it that there are tremendous parallels between religious objects and works of art. They both have powers of a certain kind that are difficult to account for. Take the relic. The whole of Europe was involved at the time of the Crusades in going to the Holy Land and bringing back relics. And what is a relic? A thigh bone, a knucklebone. From the perspective of DNA, there’s nothing unique about them, but they’re holy; they belong to a saint, so you expect that there must be powers. And if you have access to those powers, maybe you can get the saint to do some favor for you. Nobody prays to paintings, but there is that same sense of power.
I’m a great fan of Hegel, you might say, although my work in philosophy was analytical and very twentieth-century. Hegel said that are three moments of what he called spirit—you have to use his vocabulary––and that philosophy revealed that religion and art are cognate disciplines. And that only in those disciplines can we really address the deepest questions of human existence. I thought, if that’s true, then I might as well see if I can get any mileage out of looking at religious comparisons. There has been literature on Warhol debating whether he was religious or not, but I thought there was something deeper in his work, having to do with a certain kind of human suffering and the hope there was a solution for it. This is very American, and it harks back to his early painting, Before and After, which was taken from an ad in a tabloid magazine, showing a nose job. It was such a brilliant idea. Almost the whole of what one might call the American philosophy of life is based on the belief that there is a before and an after, and that after is better than before. If you just can find out how to go from before to after, there will be a lot of money in it for you.
BKL: Have you reached a lasting conclusion in your study of Andy Warhol? Is it a definitive interpretation?
DANTO: I think my book represents a certain phase in what one might call Warhol studies, which almost sounds like some kind of joke. But I do think it’s going to go on and on, and probably my book represents a style of thinking that will be outdated at a certain point. But I like to feel that this is a pretty good summation of what’s interesting about Warhol and of how to think about Warhol. Of course, the nice thing is when you think about how much territory he has opened up, it’s difficult to believe that you’ve actually come to the end of it. Surely some smart people are going to see things that I missed entirely.
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