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When Pop Turned The Art World Upside Down
Andy Warhol and friends oversaw the death of a centuries-old tradition and the birth of the postmodern.
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
He was cut off by Ashton, who said, “What do you need, a magnifying glass?” That brought down the house.
But Geldzahler kept on. “You don’t need a magnifying glass, Dore. All you need is a pair of eyes, and an open, willing spirit, and a soul, and a—” It was no use; he was drowned out by laughter one last time, and, after a brief remark from Kramer, SeIz moved in to signal the discussion over. A question-and-answer period ensued, during which an audience member said, “A lot of us came here tonight to find out from the experts if pop is art or nonart. So I was just wondering, when does the voting begin?”
“It’s over,” said Kramer. “You just weren’t paying attention.” And the crowd went home.
Pop was routed that night, but its adversaries’ victory was hollow. Pop had won the war. Still, its strongest opponents were unswayed. The urgent leitmotif of their criticism was that pop failed to imaginatively transform its subjects. Was this true?
The art’s lack of transformation, its “poverty of visual invention,” as one critic put it, was of course an aesthetic choice, part of pop’s effort to close the gap between art and life. “There is something very beautiful in putting art back into the present world....” Oldenburg said. “This process of humbling [art] is a testing of the definition of art. You reduce everything to the same level and then see what you get.” Pop was a stunt pilot flying as close to life as he could without crashing. Moreover, it did transform its subjects, although not in the way traditional critics had in mind. “Transpose” may be a better word, following the philosopher Umberto Eco’s analysis of how pop put its subjects through any of several alterations—in context, size, number, physical composition—in order to render the familiar striking.
Consider a sculpture by Lichtenstein, eight feet high by five feet wide. Made of four concentrically stacked, irregularly shaped steel sheets brightly painted in red, yellow, black and white, it looks like a striking abstract design. Suddenly its identity declares itself: It’s an immense, three-dimensional rendering of the explosions you’ve seen hundreds of times in old fighterpilot comics— Explosion No. 1 (1965). Lichtenstein’s transformations of his “original,” the generic comic-book explosion, are twofold. He has removed it from its familiar comic-book context (in which it was barely noticed), and he has given it a three-dimensional shape and a size that make it look strange and new, demanding contemplation. Cancelling our automatic reactions to a staple of comic-book imagery, Lichtenstein prompts us to appreciate its formal beauty and the creativity of its originators.
When Warhol displayed hundreds of near-perfect replicas of Brillo soap-pad cartons in the spring of 1964, he made only one alteration to his banal subjects aside from painting on plywood instead of cardboard: a change of context from a supermarket to a classy New York art gallery. What the boxes provoked, aside from endless jokes and scowls, was the question, What makes these art, but their look-alikes plain old cardboard boxes? The answer: Nothing. No merely visual criterion can distinguish art from non-art, as Warhol demonstrated with his Brillo boxes. This revelation, simple but inspired enough for the critic Arthur Danto to call Warhol “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced,” was the last in an 80-year series of self-diminutions by Western art. First, art had declared it didn’t have to be beautiful, then that it didn’t have to be realistic, then that it didn’t need a pictorial subject, and on down to the logical conclusion reached by Warhol: Art doesn’t have to be anything .
Conversely, anything can be art. For Danto, Warhol’s Brillo boxes meant the end of art, not in the sense that art could no longer be made but in the sense that it had exploded all of its presumably necessary conditions. Warhol himself expressed this in 1963: “How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract-Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something.” Indeed, the swarm of genres and styles that exists in today’s art world, none with any apparent necessity, is the result of Warhol’s remorseless logic.
With the insight that everyday things were works of art, pop changed American culture, undermining elitism and awakening serious art to the vernacular resources—from comic strips to movies to rock ’n’ roll—that now enliven it. But that basic insight remains problematic. “Pop Art is liking things,” said Warhol, and the remark points up the acquiescence, even collusion, as some critics have said, at the genre’s core. Happily adrift in a sea of products, pop was unable to look beneath their gleaming surfaces to ask where they came from, how they were produced, and whose interests they served. Despite the vast stylistic difference between the illustrations of his advertising years and his work after 1960, there was no break in Andy Warhol’s career. Even after he left advertising, he was still pushing products.