PRINT September 1993

Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box

CONSIDERATIONS OF MODESTY, fortified by counsels of prudence, must caution philosophers against inviting comparisons between their own work and that of Immanuel Kant. These wise recommendations notwithstanding, I have irresistibly thought of Andy Warhol as having played in the evolution of my thought the role that Kant assigned Hume in the evolution of his own. Hume, Kant wrote, “interrupted my dogmatic slumber, and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a quite new direction.” It was Warhol who awoke me from mine, and made plain to me that the philosophy of art must move on. This was what Brillo Box meant to me the moment I saw it, in an East 74th Street one-man show widely if inconclusively discussed at the time: 1964.

“Hume!” one can hear Kant’s colleagues saying, with the same strained incredulity I have encountered when arguing that Warhol had the greatest philosophical acuity of any modern artist. “It is positively painful,” Kant wrote, “to see how utterly [Hume’s] opponents missed the point.” A painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds portrays one of these opponents, the blissfully forgotten James Beattie, holding the book of his that allegedly demolished Hume’s arguments, and accompanied by a winged spirit shown vanquishing three enemies of truth: Hume, Gibbon, and Voltaire. To the same extent that Hume was condemned for destroying the foundations of faith and morality (until Beattie restored them), Warhol was seen as a contemporary destroyer of spiritual and esthetic values. (“You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty,” de Kooning told him.) For what it’s worth, Warhol and Hume even looked alike, or would have if Hume had had access to diet pills. Both had that flat, expressionless, almost stupid sort of face that made it possible to see Warhol as one of the “pin-headed, gum-chewing” delinquents Max Kozloff felt were invading the art galleries in 1962, and made it all but impossible to see Hume as the shrewdest philosophical wit of his age: “His Face was broad and fat, his Mouth wide, and without any other Expression than that of Imbecility,” a contemporary wrote, observing that “the Powers of Physiognomy were baffled by his Countenance.”

In 1964, the Kantian question was: how was Brillo Box possible? Its impossibility was assured by virtually every esthetic precept it flaunted, at the same time that the mere fact of its existence as art demonstrated that all those precepts lacked necessity. Yet those precepts defined the laws of the art world, and everyone who looked at paintings took them for granted. It was altogether natural to think of painting in New York as attaining a state of purity, just as Clement Greenberg assured us that Modernist art was everywhere doing. Greenberg in fact used Kant to his own ends: “I conceive of Kant as the first real modernist,” he wrote, for Kant was “the first to criticize the means itself of criticism.” Similarly, it was the mark of Modernism in painting that painting critiqued itself.

The year 1962, when Artforum began, marked the end of the brief period in American art that Donna di Salvo and Paul Schimmel identify with “handpainted Pop.” The Pop artists then were using paint almost superstitiously to pay tribute to art’s essence, dripping it over effigies of handguns, shoes, and slabs of pie, dribbling, streaking, scraping, splashing paint as if to submerge the objects of the Lebenswelt in art. But what was actually happening was the reverse: objects of almost shrieking banality were pulling themselves out from under all that smothering paint, as if from some primal mud, to announce the philosophical truth that the era of pure painting had gotten badly wrong. The questions of art are not to be answered by seeking something pure in which painting essentially consists, but in asking how art is possible.

Brillo Box, in any of its many exemplars, made the form of that question finally and forever clear: how is it possible for something to be a work of art when something else, which resembles it to whatever degree of exactitude, is merely a thing, or an artifact, but not an artwork? Why is Brillo Box art when the Brillo cartons in the warehouses are merely soap-pad containers? None of the attributes that an art-worlder of the time would have advanced as marking off art from reality could answer this question. Warhol’s marvelous object showed—brilliantly, beautifully, definitively—that everything then thought to define art merely defined a certain, local style of painting. And one realized that the philosophy of art was going to have to be begun all over again, since the question Warhol raised had occurred to not a single philosopher in the canon of esthetics. In working such a philosophy out, “Nothing hitherto accomplished,” as Kant said, “can be of the smallest use.”

In my view, Brillo Box not only made the philosophy of art at last thinkable, it brought an end to a period in which art could be made in ignorance of its philosophical nature. We have entered a period of self-consciousness unparalleled in any earlier time. We may, I think, be envious of simpler times, but we could not will ourselves to live in them, any more than, once awakened from the slumbers of dogma, one could consent to return to the life of the sleepwalker.

Arthur C. Danto