Wednesday, 21 March 2012

All That Is Left Is The Art

Andy Warhol
Arthur C. Danto
Yale University Press

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

Andy Warhol

"An artist must be famous to be heard, but as he acquires fame, so his work accumulates "value" and becomes, ipso facto, harmless. As far as today's politics is concerned, most art aspires to the condition of Muzak. It provides the background hum for power. If the Third Reich had lasted until now, the young bloods of the Inner Party would not be interested in old fogeys like Albert Speer or Arno Breker, Hitler's monumental sculptor; they would be queuing up to have their portraits silkscreened by Andy Warhol." (Robert Hughes)

Christopher Hitchens was not the only person to have wondered how someone as erudite an art critic as Robert Hughes could get Andy Warhol "so wrong" (the same could be wondered about Hilton Kramer, but I digress). Those who have seen Hughes' documentary film The Mona Lisa Curse have wondered the same thing. The film comes off as an instance of art critical sour grapes as Hughes attempts to persuade his audience that the commercialisation of the art world does nothing but copy "our money driven, celebrity obsessed, entertainment culture." It makes art as decadent as what it uncritically mirrors.
     Nowhere is the fruit of Hughes' labor more evident than when he interviews contemporary art collector Alberto Mugrabi (whose family owns the largest private collection of Warhol's work in the world). Hughes asks him what he thinks of Warhol. Mugrabi replies: "I think Warhol is probably one of the most visionary artists of our time." To which Hughes replies: "I thought he was one of the stupidest people I have ever met in my life." Mugrabi asks why he thinks so. As deadpan as he is dismissive, Hughes states: "Because he had nothing to say."
     Andy Warhol had something to say because he had something to sell. What he sold, in word and in deed, was a deeply superficial idea: art is what you can get away with. This idea constitutes what David W. Galenson describes as a "conceptual revolution." Rightly so. Warhol was a conceptual artist. His revolution was not about the mere retinal vision of a man who decides to paint and hang thirty-two soup cans on a wall. Rather, his revolution was about the visionary idea of doing so and why it matters. Stephen Koch is correct to point out, therefore, that Warhol's art "always suggests something about life that can be formulated in philosophic terms."
     Arthur C. Danto understands Warhol's existential suggestion more than most philosophers who take an interest in contemporary art. His recent book Andy Warhol succeeds by making iconic sense of the ironic fact that newfangled art collectors like Mugrabi get Warhol, while old fogey art critics like Hughes do not. Fortunately for us, what people like Mugrabi get is concisely formulated in Danto's philosophic book. It rightly finds its place in a series published by Yale University Press on American icons (those individuals, events, objects, and cultural phenomena that have made a major impact on American culture). The reason Warhol is an icon is because his work not only reformulates the ancient question "What is art?", but also answers it in a way that is unique in the history of modern art. The implications of Warhol's answer extend beyond his own artistic milieu.
     Danto describes Andy's reformulation of this ancient question in the following way: "[G]iven 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?" Before Warhol, this possibility consisted in claiming that the work of art (like da Vinci's Mona Lisa) was different from an ordinary object (like a copy of da Vinci's Mona Lisa) because of its essence. A work of art was essentially beautiful in a way that an ordinary object was not. The Mona Lisa somehow possessed and expressed something that cannot be easily quantified: beauty. Art was about timeless aesthetics. After Warhol, art is about timely action.
     Warhol's deeply superficial idea was his answer to this ancient question. It directs our attention away from the notion of the timeless essence of objects, and more toward how we use them to get things done. In this way Andy solves the ancient problem of quantifying the essence of art by rejecting the assumption that generates it: there is such a thing as the necessary essence of an object apart from contingent human use. Rejecting this assumption implies that there is no meaningful distinction between a "work of art" and an "ordinary object." Ergo: there is no meaningful distinction between "fine" and "commercial" art.
     By making commercialism respectable in art (his Brillo Box sculpture is an obvious example here), Warhol "changed the concept of art itself," as Danto writes, "so that his work induced a transformation in art's philosophy so deep that it was no longer possible to think of art in the same way that it had been thought of even a few years before him." To speak of beauty after Warhol is to get away with something in a handy way. In rejecting the notion that art is primarily about objective beauty and subjective pleasure, Warhol widens the scope of art by connecting it with life: "[Warhol] invented, one might say, an entirely new kind of life for an artist to lead, involving music, style, sex, language, film, and drugs, as well as art." Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is in the hand of the doer.
     Andy's conceptual revolution in art made possible the formulation of its own purpose. His art is a tool for doing something which could not have been imagined prior to the development of a certain set of artistic descriptions which pop art produced. Danto helpfully points out that there are hints of this in the work of Warhol's fellow pop artist Jasper Johns. He sought entities that everyone recognised. He was interested in explaining and exploiting the relationship between these recognised entities and their respective representations: "A painted numeral just is a numeral, a painted letter just is a letter. A painted flag is a flag. That it is beautifully painted is neither here nor there." Johns turned reality into art by conflating the distinction between reality and its representation. To give Johns his due: we would not have Campbell Soup without Ballantine Ale.

Ballantine Ale (1960)


     A painted soup can just is a soup can (painted beautifully or not). There is nothing beneath, between, nor behind it. And what is true of the soup is true of the consumer. As Andy once put it in an interview that appeared in the November 1, 1966 issue of the East Village Other: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." Warhol's mute medium is his root message. Given the astounding extent of his artistic output, he obviously had something to say.
     Clement Greenberg understood the challenge that pop art posed to abstract expressionism. Greenberg thought that the pop artist tries to make art just the way the cheapest art looks, but "with a difference and a twist." He states that "people like Lichtenstein and Warhol, they paint nice pictures. All the same its easy stuff. It is. Its minor. And the best of the pop artists don't succeed in being more than minor." Greenberg, like Hughes, is captivated by an idea of art that Warhol rejects. Beautiful painting is neither here nor there. It is not about decoration. It is about deconstruction. Indeed, Hughes thinks that Warhol's work did not have an influence on the "art of painting" (as he puts it), precisely because he thinks his painting is "dry and repetitious." Hughes is right, but for the wrong reason. Warhol's painting is dry and repetitious because life is dry and repetitious. Warhol is America's mirror.
     Critics are not the only people who don't get Warhol. Danto relates an interesting story about an admittedly drunk Willam de Kooning diatribe at a party in 1969. Allegedly de Kooning said to Warhol: “You're a killer of art, you're a killer of beauty, and you're even a killer of laughter. I can't bear your work.” There is an ironic twist to de Kooning’s observation. Andy did kill art, at least a certain conception of art. Andy did kill beauty, at least a certain conception of beauty. And as to whether Andy killed laughter, it is important to point out that it was the conspicuous lack of humor, the lack of laughter, in the work of the abstract expressionists that influenced Andy and the pop artists to reactively "paint nice pictures." Do It Yourself (Landscape) 1962 is a riot.
     At the beginning of Andy Warhol Danto writes: "My theory is that when there is a period of deep cultural change, it shows up first in art." This book is best read as an extended commentary on the truth of this claim, and how Warhol's conceptual revolution contributes toward it. However, Danto's commentary falls short by not extending it far enough. Danto claims that Warhol's post-1968 work lacks philosophical significance. This is incorrect. If art is what you can get away with, then Andy's later period is nothing but a variation on this theme: whether it is his decision in the 1970s to derivatively lampoon himself by mass producing his portraits for the rich and famous (and rightfully making a fortune doing so), or by making a cultural commentary on how art cuts through ethnocentric stereo-types by working so briefly, yet so successfully, with Jean-Michel Basquiat.
     Much can and should be said about this period of Andy's work. Wayne Koestenbaum puts it best when he describes the entirety of Warhol's artistic output as the "maximum redemption of lost material." Such redemption includes "the pleasure of repetition, the pleasure of making one thing and another, and not discarding either one of them." Warhol turns human banality into an art form by putting dry repetition back into human experience. Chogyam Trungpa would call that an instance of "cool boredom." Chairman of the bored indeed.
     Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2008. Just hours after the filing Alberto Mugrabi's father Jose was at Sotheby's headquarters in London for the most extravagant sale in its history. Reflecting upon the commercialisation of the art world at that crucial time in recent financial history, he said: "When the empires fall - Roman, Greek - all that is left is the art." It would not be lost on Jose Mugrabi to claim that when the empires fall all that is left is what you can get away with. It would be lost on Robert Hughes.

Arthur C. Danto. Andy Warhol. Yale University Press, 2009.
Christopher Hitchens. "Unsentimental Education." The Nation. September 07, 2006.
Chogyam Trungpa. The Essential Chogyam Trungpa. Shambhala, 1999.
David Hickey. Andy Warhol: "Giant" Size. Phaidon Press, 2006.
David W. Galenson. Conceptual Revolutions In Twentieth-Century Art. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Eric Konigsberg. "Is Anybody Buying Art These Days?" The New York Times. February 27, 2009.
Hilton Kramer. "The death of Andy Warhol." The New Criterion. May, 1987.
Kim Evans. Andy Warhol. ArtHaus - Art and Design Series, 2009.
Peter Rosen. Who Gets To Call It Art?: A Film About Henry Geldzahler. Arthouse Films, 2005.
Ric Burns. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. PBS, 2006.
Robert Hughes. The Mona Lisa Curse. Oxford Film & Television, Channel 4 Television Corporation, 2008.
Robert Hughes. The Shock Of The New. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.