Friday, April 22, 2011

Arthur C. Danto," Andy Warhol"

Arthur C. Danto's Andy Warhol (Yale, 2009) is a philosophical biography of the most famous representative of American pop art. A biography is more than appropriate for the pop artist who was himself an  icon, because, as Danto notes, 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" (47-48). Nevertheless, Danto avoids the temptation of filling the book with lurid prose, focusing on Warhol's philosophy of art.

Perhaps it has something to do with Danto's own intellectual/biographical trajectory, but Warhol stands out for him as the artist who reconfigured the central questions of the philosophy of art. In brief, Danto's account goes like this: the long-standing and traditional question of the philosophy of art was "what is art?" The question, and more importantly, the solution (art has something to do with beauty) had been largely unchallenged until modernism and the avant-gardes, and more specifically the anti-aestheticism of Dadaism. Modernism turned the question into an aesthetic self-interrogation,  and Dada used their art to ridicule the decadence of the ruling classes who had led Europe into the first world war.

Modernism and Dada, according to Danto, only challenged the solution to the question 'what is art?', while Warhol transformed the question:
The new form of the ancient question was this: 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 (62)?
Enter the Brillo Boxes, and drumroll, please:
Andy's various challenges to what philosophers and others have said that art is pale in comparison with the grocery boxes. Since he has found an example of a real object and a work of art, why can't anything have a counterpart that is a work of art, so that ultimately anything can be a work of art? That means at the very least a new of era of art in which artworks cannot be discerned from real things, at least in principle--what I have called The End of Art (65-66).
Danto immediately answers the obvious challenge that Marcel Duchamp's readymades caused this kind of havoc for art by arguing that the "one thing that has to be said about the Brillo Boxes is that they are beautiful" (66). The irony, though, is that choosing Warhol over Duchamp gives us a new question, but the old answer: the line might not be drawn in principle, but the work of art still has something to do with beauty.

That, however, might not be as important as the politics that Danto derives from Warhol's work. Warhol, he says, "celebrated ordinary American life" in his work (of course, one would have to exclude much of the underground film work, but I digress). Warhol the painter, celebrates "what every American knows." His genius, in Danto's view, rested in his ability to pick potent images that reflected what was on the American mind:
He represented the world that Americans lived in by holding a mirror up to it, so that they could see themselves in its reflection. It was a world that was largely predictable through its repetitions, one day like another, but that orderliness could be dashed to pieces by crashes and outbreaks that are our nightmares [...] It is a world of little people--us--with the imperfections that gnaw at us and explain why we are not loved the way we would like to be, but imperfections that afflict even the stars and celebrities who take their own lives, even though we envy them for their beauty, their success, their supposed success (126-127).
From what I can gather, Warhol represents a world that Danto felt at home in, and, for all its self-obsessed pathos, more than likely the world that he feels nostalgia for. Warhol or not, that's not a world I want to glorify, let alone live in.


santi said...

As an artist of modest skill I can say that Marcel Duchamp is an artists artist. He revolutionized everything he touched. Warhol converted art into the movement known as graphic design. I will not argue the difference between the two, but Duchamp is an artist you learn to copy as a way of learning to paint, to create and to innovate(the irony of copying to innovate is not lost on me but it is a necessary part of the student process). Warhol is somebody you learn to copy if you wish to go into advertising, for essentially thats what he was, an advertiser for the rich and famous. Duchamp's urinal was his way of making fun of the road that "art" was taking. That road led to Warhol.

Devin Z. Shaw said...

Reading Danto reminded me why I think Duchamp is more important than Warhol. Let's remember, though, that some of Warhol's films do not rest along that road to graphic design that you are describing.

larosa said...

I agree. I recognize Warhol may have taken the question of art up a notch. Also no one can deny the talent he had of perceiving with an acute eye the postmodern tendencies that were taking place. It is the idea of beauty in most of his art and the blunt reflection of reality that I don't like. At least, I prefer to see the ideal of beauty of an artist and I certainly don't want to praise ordinary, inanimate and superficial things, things that clearly have turned the american society for the worse.