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Warhol: The Revolution that Failed

A review of the Andy Warhol -- From A to B and Back Again exhibition at The Whitney Museum.

The recent reappearance of Andy Warhol’s paintings, films, sculptures, and silkscreens at The Whitney in New York City reminded me of the writings of Arthur C. Danto (1924-2013), a professor of philosophy at Columbia University as well as art critic for The Nation from 1984 to 2009. Like many philosophers of his generation, he sought to align his analytic training with currents in continental European philosophy, writing insightful yet controversial accounts of Nietzsche and Sartre. But Danto’s reflective talents were best displayed in aesthetic theory, which he married to the grittier practical duties of reviewing individual artists and artworks. In what is perhaps his most important work, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Danto claimed that the standard definitions of an artwork — Platonic imitation, Romantic expression, Humean taste, Kantian aesthetic formalism — were rendered inadequate in part by a revolution in art that occurred in the 1960s. The harbingers of that revolution included surrealists like Marcel Duchamp, and its foot soldiers included “Pop” artists like Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg. But its iconic and indispensable leader was Andy Warhol.

For Danto, Warhol spearheaded this revolution by turning art in on itself, making art itself a philosophical problem. Warhol’s silkscreened Brillo Boxes and Campbell’s soup cans were indistinguishable from “real” Brillo Boxes and soup cans, except for the fact that they were designed, produced, and displayed as artworks in an institutional setting: galleries and museums. The “Pop” aura that surrounded Warhol’s work obscured the strength and depth of his challenge to the very idea of “art” as something opposed to “real things,” non-art, or commodities. This precipitated, for Danto, a genuine rupture with art’s history, something no other artist, however transgressive, had accomplished.

For example, one might look at, say, Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” like a urinal turned upside-down and titled “Fountain,” and wonder whether these surrealist antics were “serious” art or just a put-on. But since they were enlisted in Duchamp’s explicit surrealist program their status as artworks, as things other than “mere” things was never in doubt. But Warhol’s work, especially the Brillo Boxes, does put the things/artworks distinction in question. Warhol, trained as a commercial artist and quite successful at his craft, applied commercial techniques to produce non-commercial artifacts that, in all relevant respects, are indistinguishable from the commercial artifacts that they did not so much imitate as duplicate. For Danto this swallowed up “art,” as a distinct human endeavor operating within its own internal constraints and displaying a single if complex history, into philosophy. After Warhol, “anything goes” in art.

When Danto proclaimed “the End of Art” post-Warhol, he was not saying that art could no longer be made, or that artworks could not be judged good or bad because “what art is” no longer has a clear, univocal meaning. Like Hegel on History or Richard Rorty on Philosophy, what is “ending” is a certain way of making artworks or doing art, an un-self-conscious way that follows the grooves set down by artistic tradition, keeping them straight or swerving them off into new directions.

The Warhol retrospective at the Whitney Museum, on view through March 31st, simultaneously confirms Danto’s estimate of him as a “post-art artist” and undermines it. For the exhibit clearly shows how Warhol’s idea of what he was doing morphed and changed over time and eventually challenged his earlier “post-art” sensibilities. Warhol was not just about turning the practice of art on its ear. That he was a revolutionary is beyond dispute. But viewing the show I got the distinct feeling that this revolution, this “philosophical disenfranchisement of art,” as Danto once put it, was not all it was cracked up to be, and that in a sense it devoured itself. And moreover, Warhol knew it.

In his monograph Andy Warhol, Danto observed that Europeans’ assessment of Warhol’s talent was very different from that of Americans. Europe, the birthplace of high modernism, interpreted Warhol’s work as cultural critique, the ironic display of the commercial shallowness and venality that infused American culture and its standard of taste. Viewed thus, Warhol was an embittered satirist, cut from the same cloth as German expressionists like George Grosz and John Heartfield. In America, however, Warhol’s achievement was to have transcended the high culture/low culture dichotomy by supplanting abstract expressionism, America’s contribution to the endgame of high modernist seriousness. While one could argue that abstract expressionists like Rothko and Still were not pure modernists (i.e., not just about formal aesthetic quality and personal expression but about disclosing spirit and nature, respectively), it is clear that the sensibilities of Warhol and his Pop, Minimalist, and conceptualist colleagues, were decisively postmodern — playful, distrustful of “seriousness,” and above all ironic.

Some works in the Whitney’s exhibit seem to confirm Danto’s estimate of the European point of view: a grotesque silkscreen photo of Richard Nixon, his face covered in a sickly green, with the handwritten legend “Vote McGovern”; or bleak maps, drawn in a 1950s style, of Soviet missile sites near the Chinese border, among other works that display overt criticism. But most of what is shown in the exhibit confirms the American view of Warhol: he is not really a serious satirical critic because his postmodern ironic distance undermines serious critique at every point. Which precisely is the point of the Brillo boxes, the Campbell’s soup cans, the day-glo silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong. They are ironic displays of “real things” and real people.

Is Warhol’s work, then, a celebration or a mockery of commercial vulgarity and fame-worship? Both. And neither. It is a sideways glance at its subject matter, as if to say “here’s the thing itself, which is charming and fun and stupid and awful in equal measure. Lighten up and just dig it.” Or, make of it what you will . . .

There is a place for this sort of ironic detachment in artistic creation: I am not slamming it as a priori superficial or corrupt. Warholian irony is often refreshing and enjoyable. But irony comes in different flavors: Socratic, Platonic, Kierkegaardian, Rortyan, and so on. All of these have the effect of prodding one to a kind of self-reflection, to a realization that what one might take to be necessary is contingent, that the “final vocabularies,” in Rorty’s words, which constitute one’s self could be other than they are and are often far from what they seem to be. These ironies get their charter by being transformative. But as David Foster Wallace pointed out in his much-quoted essay “E Unibus Pluram,” irony can morph into something destructive rather than transformative, a cynical “knowingness” that assumes everything is a fraud, a con, and a cheat, and one might as well indifferently shrug it all off with a smirk or a laugh and enjoy the ride.

Whether Warhol understood or intended his method to be transformative or destructively indifferent is an open question. I suspect he was too ironic a soul to have intended either. But much of what he produced in the early to mid-1960s wound up in the latter category, I think, intentionally or not. This is perhaps clearest in Warhol’s video of himself, slowly eating a Burger King whopper, with a deadpan expression throughout. The film was self-produced documentary footage dripping with Warholian irony — does he think whoppers are cool or lousy? — that was repurposed by the Burger King corporation and shown as an actual commercial during the 2019 Super Bowl. Irony gone “meta;” irony eating its own tail, like an Ouroboros.

But the interesting thing about Warhol — From A to B and Back Again is that, as you wind your way from 1950s and 1960s Warhol through 1970s and 1980s Warhol, you notice that his irony thins out, and that some non-ironic, even earnest light shines through. It provides some evidence, inconclusive but present, that Danto’s thesis about Warhol precipitating “the End of Art” revolution might hold for Warhol’s early and mid-career only. His later work marks something of a nod to the sensibilities of expressionist painters, abstract or otherwise, and a return to some of the grand themes of the tradition Danto takes him to have overthrown.

As you go from gallery to gallery, you notice the change in climate. A series of photos of transwomen and drag queens, silkscreened and brush-stroked in vivid blues, yellows, greens, and reds, convey a loving tenderness toward their subject matter. Four prints of skulls, silkscreened in red, blue, gray, and black, are a grim memento mori that contrasts viscerally with Warhol’s Interview covers displayed one gallery over. Two large canvases titled Rorschach depict the archetypal blots, one in drippy black and the other in metallic gold, in a manner more reminiscent of Helen Frankenthaler or Morris Louis than Jasper Johns or James Rosenquist. Most striking of all, there are several giant canvases — a diptych of Leonardo’s Last Supper overlaid in camouflage, another Last Supper covered in streaky whitewash, and finally an abstract painting encrusted in copper flake chemically oxidized by urine — that seem to indicate Warhol was throwing in his ironic towel and gravitating back to the unapologetically earnest New York School whose hegemony he overthrew two decades prior.

It is hard to discern what is going on inside another mind, especially when the mind is as hermetically sealed as Warhol’s was. But his later work — mostly rejected by critics and art dealers who couldn’t align it with what they expected from Warhol — might be a testament to his disillusionment with the “End of Art” revolution he precipitated, and Danto documented.

Revolutionaries need to trim their disaffectedness in order to succeed, which in turn suggests that revolution is often not a simple refusal of historical tradition but its transformation. For example: Marx’s revolutionary praxis could be understood as a means of recovering a traditional sense of humanity, our Gattungswesen or species-being, lost by the alienating capitalist hurly-burly of modernity where “all that is solid melts into air.” Or: Rothko’s radically innovative color field paintings herald a recovery of the spiritual or religious as a proper subject matter for art while remaining faithful to the non-representationalist modernist canon — an iconography of the absolute without icons.

One way of confirming this thesis might be to compare the heirs of early and mid-Warhol’s ironic “Pop” persona with later Warhol’s fellow-travelers. A good example of the latter is Anselm Kiefer, who studied under the conceptual artist Joseph Beuys and who evolved into a neo-expressionist, whose quasi-abstractions evoke the horrors of war and holocaust. The paradigm case of the former must be Jeff Koons, who is best known for his giant balloon animals and a kitschy, Hummel-esque porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles. The distance, aesthetic and broadly cultural, between Kiefer and Koons is galactic.

Koons’ work fits Foster Wallace’s condemnation of ironic “knowingness” to a tee. In effect it says, of the schlocky porcelain statuettes and Jackson’s commercialized celebrity, “you know, this stuff sucks and is silly, but then again everything is, so what the hell . . .” The irony de-fangs the critique — if the critique was ever there to begin with. Koons’ work is art well suited to the new gilded age of neoliberalism and the faux-populist neofascism of Trump, because it really challenges nothing, only lets us laugh at stuff we perhaps despise — or secretly like. As such, to hell with it: we need this dopey, inconsequential tripe like a hole in the head. Kiefer’s art, on the other hand, reintroduces us to a world that is ugly but not beyond redemption. It does so without being propaganda or fluff. Warhol’s later work points in this direction but does not quite make it to the promised land. His revolution may have been necessary, and it has its moments, but it remains a failure, if a glorious one.

Michael Quirk is a philosopher who specializes in the intersection between Analytic and Continental thought. He works as an Educational Software Analyst.

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