If you know nothing else about Andy Warhol, the legendary pop artist, you have probably heard the oft-quoted wisecrack that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” No one knew it better than Warhol himself. As the late Arthur Danto says in his 2009 book titled after the legendary artist, “he became an icon. He became part of the culture to be celebrated.” It is clear that this is no less true for Danto, who approaches this book as a love letter of sorts. Not to Warhol, who died in 1987, nor to the nostalgia of Danto first discovering Warhol’s famous Brillo Box. While these are both present, Andy Warhol is more a tribute to the philosophical and cultural shifts the world underwent throughout the 60s, changes that make “Warhol so fascinating an artist from a philosophical perspective,” in Danto’s words. Directed at a less specialist audience, the book is far less rigorous than his now-iconic philosophical works—he references both The Transfiguration of the Commonplace and “The Artworld,” but there are plenty of others. Insomuch as it is enjoyable pop-philosophy by a master, it is a good thing; but as this pop character reveals how dated his tone can seem a decade later, it is not.
Prior to Andy Warhol, Danto explains, philosophy of art focused on the question “What is art?” While competing theories were proposed – Transfiguration focuses on Plato’s theory of mimesis, or imitation—all fit under this larger heading of defining art. Once Andy Warhol appeared, the question exploded, becoming, instead: “Given two objects that look exactly alike,” as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes visual duplicates of household Brillo boxes, “how is it possible for one of them to be a work of art and the other just an ordinary object?” Those familiar with art history may recognize this problem in Marcel Duchamp’s infamous readymade urinal sculpture. Except that Duchamp was “antiretinal” and “interested in intellectual art” and Warhol was “political” and focused on “a celebration as art of what every American knows,” Danto does not satisfyingly address what differentiates them and how the view of art changed. But that he does not answer these questions is fine, since Andy Warhol is, again, a love letter. “For that I must direct the reader to my collected writings,” he notes. Ending his philosophical treatment is the story of American art critic Peter Schjeldahl who, seeing Warhol’s work while in France, “realized … he was in the wrong country, and immediately made plans to return to America, where art was real.”
And while Danto’s philosophy of art has its critics, it is in this mutual “celebration as art of what every American knows” that Andy Warhol makes the most discomforting postures. Several times he refers to how Warhol loved that “no matter who you are, you cannot get a better can of soup than the next person.” Decades after the postwar boom, in a time of startling economic inequality, this sounds like a parody of Anatole France’s “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike … to steal bread.” This is not helped by the fact that in our time, when Keurig boycotts Fox and Fox viewers counter-boycott Keurig, the idea that someone “as a business artist … did not let politics get in the way” is unsettling. Nonetheless, it is impossible to disagree with Danto when he says that Warhol “did for American society what Norman Rockwell had done.” His work did not only beam the American art television-like into every home across the globe, but the qualities above that have aged Danto’s euphoria are the very qualities which, he notes, Warhol depicted with equivalent euphoria:
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 car crashes and outbreaks that are our nightmares: accidents and unforeseen dangers that make the evening news and then, except for those immediately affected by them, get replaced by other horrors that the newspapers are glad to illustrate.
It is hard not to laugh when he transitions from this ambivalent posture to seeing this perspective as “a world of little people—us—with the imperfections that gnaw at us … imperfections that afflict even the stars and celebrities … even though we envy them,” returning us to the ill-fitting paean that is much of reading Andy Warhol in 2019.
It is difficult to imagine Danto would be overly upset by this. In his essay “The Artworld” he explains how “to see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.” This logic could naturally extend to the world outside art. Just as Duchamp could not have seen Brillo Boxes as art because the atmosphere was not conducive to see it as such, it might be said that the atmosphere was not there in 2009 to see the problems inherent in a post-Warhol world. Ironically though, there also remains a ray of American optimism, the light of the “world of little people—us.” “Not everything is possible at all times,” Danto says in Andy Warhol, abbreviating his theory from “The Artworld.” “The history of art opens up new possibilities all the time.” And yet there is also a universal uplift, an under-explored but vital religious thread. Advertising mimics religion’s “vision of human beings as deficient and as needy” with its assumptions of “suffering and its radical relief.” Warhol’s art, advertising in subject and substance, was, therefore, a vision of suffering and its radical relief. “The message of saviors…translated into the universal language of cheap American advertisements.” Whether this is the historical Warhol or Danto’s Song of Songs is left to the reader to decide.