PRINT November 2009


Arthur C. Danto’s Andy Warhol

ARTHUR C. DANTO, who not only seeks but finds, is a luckier man than his namesake, the legendary king who never discovers the Holy Grail, for which he so desperately searches. Indeed, while Danto’s admirers will have previously come across many of the arguments in this slim and elegant volume, things get exciting and, I have to say, a bit surprising in its final chapter, where Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are compared to the Grail. Like the Santo Cáliz, a regular-looking bowl in Valencia, Spain, believed by some to have touched Christ’s lips (Danto considers it plausible), the Brillo Boxes are disguised by their ordinariness. In fact, Danto remarks, this is true also of Jesus himself, who kept his divine powers invisible most of the time and walked on earth like an ordinary man among men. “Imagine that there was a man just his age in Jerusalem,” he writes, “who looked enough like Jesus that the two were often confused for one another.” Not noticing the fundamental difference between a man and God in disguise is, according to Danto, like not being able to tell a mass-produced cardboard box in a supermarket from a significant work of art.

Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, which were first displayed in 1964, demonstrate that two things can look outwardly the same and yet be momentously different. This is a discovery that many art historians would attribute to Marcel Duchamp, inventor of the readymade, but Danto has tirelessly argued for Warhol as the true transformer of art, someone in whose work we recognize how the very notion of art has been radically altered in a way that forces us beyond the primacy of the visual. Of course, Duchamp also famously challenged the hegemony of the “retinal.” But according to Danto, he was operating subversively and at the margins of culture, poking fun at traditional values through Dadaist gestures, whereas Warhol must be seen as the key artist of the second part of the twentieth century, who more than anyone else celebrated the values embraced by ordinary people and society at large. The moment of Warhol’s transition from a successful commercial artist producing “playfully erotic advertisements for upscale ladies’ footwear” to the defining visual artist of his era thus marks a sea change in the world of art and in society itself.

Danto singles out Warhol’s Before and After, 1960, as a pivotal work encapsulating the “visual and cultural revolution” without which the artist’s Pop imagery would not have been accepted as serious art. In the American context, this bigger shift is perfectly demonstrated by Pop art’s challenge to Abstract Expressionism: The creative impulse is no longer seen as emanating from the mysterious depths of the artist’s unconscious; instead, everything is out there in the open, visible, and (in Warhol’s favorite parlance) on the surface of the things and people that make up the world around us. In a European context, a similar critique of the exaggerated faith in the creative capacity of the artist took place, around the same time, in the writings of Roland Barthes and others. Warhol was not a reader of French critical theory, but in Danto’s view he had “by nature, a philosophical mind” and was “doing philosophy” with his art. That Danto refers to heavy thinkers such as Hegel and Wittgenstein is not surprising; odder is the fact that he expects Warhol to elucidate their thinking rather than vice versa. For instance, Danto speculates that the Factory’s repetitive mode of production might offer an interesting way to consider anew Wittgenstein’s description of simplified linguistic situations. (Danto eventually abandons the point, admitting that the puzzling notion of a language game doesn’t become any clearer when seen through the prism of Warhol’s art.) He further claims—and this is tougher for me to accept—that Warhol’s art is not only philosophical but also religious.

Danto is old enough to remember not wanting to accept Pop as art at all, but now, having lived for many years with a beautiful Brillo Box in his home, he found his intellectual life drawn into what he refers to as “the most mysterious transformation in the history of artistic creativity”: Warhol’s own “before and after,” which came about through the artist’s use of repetition. This short book, disguised by the ordinariness of American academic publishing, is actually the Gospel according to Arthur, in which Warhol—who himself died twice (the second time “to the surprise of everyone”)—promises us redemption through repetition. Normally seen as an operation that effectively questions the idea of an original and of uniqueness, for Danto repetition is primarily “a sign of significance.” The Santo Cáliz matters because it is one of a kind; there can only be one true Grail. The Brillo Boxes, on the other hand, matter precisely because there are many of them—even if, after the scandal of a hundred-odd fakes found to have been produced years after Warhol’s death, most people would say: far too many.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.


Arthur C. Danto, Andy Warhol (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 162 pages.