Since Andy Warhol first exhibited his silkscreened plywood Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964, Arthur C. Danto, one of our most provocative thinkers about art, has continued to sound the resonances of the artist’s thinking. In Andy Warhol, his superb new monograph, Danto argues that the Brillo Boxes became not only a definitive stepping stone in Warhol’s development, but that they changed forever the parameters of art, reshaping our shared imagination for what art asks of us as human beings.
Such a claim for the philosophical implications of Warhol’s work is dazzlingly ambitious, yet for decades Danto has shown that art is not a separate, isolated endeavour; it is a means by which human beings grapple with the very nature of being. Art – and, for Danto, Warhol’s work of the 1960s serves as exemplar – becomes an occasion for philosophy, an opportunity for thought to turn toward itself and that which gives rise to the very conditions of thinking, of value and of imagination. To know more about art, the wager goes, is to learn more about the world as we find it.
Andy Warhol, perhaps Danto’s most personal book, makes clear why the Brillo Boxes were so transformative. By 1964, Warhol had already created his Campbell’s Soup paintings and his Coca-Cola bottle silk screens, yet these were always clearly representations that could not be confused with what they represented. The Brillo Boxes, however, as art objects, are in many ways indistinguishable from ‘mere real things’. The more blurred the distinctions between art works and everyday objects become, the more we are required to consider what constitutes those differences. Thus, Danto insists on taking the artist seriously, even when he is at his most playful. Many might be sceptical of such an approach, pointing out Warhol’s irony. While the inclusion of Brillo Boxes in a space defined by a commitment to ‘high art’ is ironic, one wonders how long such irony can endure. Danto argues that the boxes burned through their most obvious ironies, coming to offer us something more profoundly substantive in terms of their implication for what constitutes art. While the book draws upon important biographical aspects of the painter’s life and his milieu in order to particularize Danto’s philosophical arguments, Andy Warhol transcends the attention on market forces and social gossip that so often dominates discussion of Warhol’s work to get at its lasting importance.
Throughout his numerous books on art, Danto substitutes the dreary question ‘But is it art?’ with a more challenging inquiry into how art can accommodate Warhol’s Brillo Boxes as well as, say, Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600). Such a theory would be both pluralistic and self-conscious, with each work of art necessarily commenting on and enacting the possibilities for meaning that they express. Art works thus are what Danto refers to as ‘embodied meanings’.
While an edited collection of Danto’s numerous essays about Warhol would still be a crucial volume, Andy Warhol both distils the philosopher/art critic’s best thinking on the artist and offers searching new insights into the artist’s body of work from the 1960s. Indeed, in the book’s final chapter, Danto reveals what we might call the religious intensity of Warhol’s work in its attempts to call the ordinary to our attention – from soup cans to celebrities – in order to bring forth a ‘dark world with radiant beings, whose presence among us is redemptive, and into whose company Warhol sought to insinuate his own ungainly presence, and to make stars of us all. His mission was to externalize the interiority of our world.’ Danto eloquently reminds us that it is not the cost of Warhol’s paintings, but the possibilities enacted by the work for imagining the world’s charged, articulate surfaces that makes Warhol a resolutely contemporary thinker.