December 8, 2010
Andy Warhol and ‘The End of Art’

Andy Warhol–who played with dolls as a child–started obsessively drawing shoes at an early age. They were still a favorite subject of his early in his career. Looking at his shoe portraits at IMA’s exhibit (Andy Warhol Enterprises, which runs until Jan. 2), I am reminded of a friend about whom we used to say, “She likes boots more than people.” She’d been working at the Bluebird the previous year as a bartender, making several hundred dollars a night, and had, by her own admission, spent most of that money on a banquet of designer boots that now overflowed her closet. We’ll call her ‘A.’ for the purposes of our present exercise.

Her footwear fetish is not the only aspect of A. that I associate, ineffably, with the aesthetic that I tend to see as a originating with Andy Warhol and his milieu. Also: her eloquent nihilism, consciously resisting coherence. And then, too: her improbably attenuated, elfin anatomical make-up. People forget that Andy Warhol designed that aesthetic, too: the rare and slightly inhuman Edie Sedgwick, with her lifelong struggles with anorexia, became a prototype for haute couture. And then again: A.’s perchant for dark Brooklyn/London art-rock. Re: Patti Smith and Velvet Underground through PJ Harvey, Interpol, Antony & The Johnsons, etc. The summer and autumn when I knew her best, would have been just after the White Chalk LP came out. As you will recall, Andy Warhol sponsored the Velvet Underground & Nico, hosted the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and thus may be partially credited as cultivator, curator and demimonde of that sound…/aesthetic/lifestyle. For ‘lifestyle’ RE: ‘sunglasses’ at night,’ use of painkillers in alternation with stimulants drowned in booze. See also: ‘Heroin’ ( 7:12) the first track on the B-Side of Velvet Underground & Nico’s self-titled LP etc.

I think of General Suharto’s wife, Imelda Marcos and her 3,000 pairs of shoes. Also: the thousands of tenantless shoes on displayed at the Holocaust Museum. And of all the other occasions where human beings have been viewed by various pscyho-socio-economic machineries as unnecessary accessories to their wardrobes.

The shoes are to your right as you enter the exhibit. The first thing you see, front and center, as you walk in, is one of Warhol’s primeval pieces: the 1957 Bonwit Teller Window Display. This was essentially an advertisement for Miss Dior’s Eau de Toilette when it was created, although it takes on a different kind of aura in retrospect. Appropos Warhol, what you see here is a replica. Miss Dior is cartoonishly depicted with a sagittal view of her brain laid-open, the cortexes composed of scissors, sewing machines, and pin-cushions against a red background populated with Dior’s signet inside a perimeter of measuring tape. At the top of the area delimited by the measuring tape, two stockings–or disembodied legs?–spread like wings crowning the crest of some kind of postmodern aristocracy.

1957 is at least five years before Warhol hits his stride. Elsewhere in the exhibit, in a glass case there is an issue of Scene magazine from April 1963, where an unknown author heralds this moment.

His intro paragraph reads like so: “A new school of art has erupted onto the American scene. It is called new realism, or pop art, or as one of its practitioners dubbed it OK Art. The subject matter is the American landscape in its most vulgar and materialistic aspects. The…image[s]…reflect the industrialized, denatured landscape of today. Mr. Warhol is fascinated by the image–human or manufactured–that is repeated, ad infinitum, across the land. His sensitive eye imbues a stack of Coke bottles or a panel of 2 dollar bills with satiric poetry or, when he deals with a human, tragedy. A Marilyn Monroe, for example, is transformed in this era of mass market into a property. She is gaudily painted and sold like a can of beans.”

That summer monks would be immolating themselves on the streets of Saigon. Twenty years later, Arthur C. Danto would write an essay talking about that era in the ‘New York Scene’ as ‘The End of Art.’

Here is an excerpt from a latter-day essay by Danto on the subject: “In any case, the end of art, as I am thinking about it…was not a dramatic event, like the falling walls that marked the end of communism in the West. It was, like many events of overture and closure, largely invisible to those who lived through it. There were, in 1964, no front-age articles in the New York Times, no just in bulletins on the evening news. I certainly noticed the events themselves, but did not perceive them as marking the end of art…until 1984. But that is typical of historical perception. The really important descriptions of events are often, even typically, unavailable to those who see those events happen. Who, knowing that Petrarch was ascending Mount Ventoux, with a copy of Saint Augustine in his hand, could have known that with that event the Rennaisance had begun? Who, visiting the Stable Gallery on East 74th Street in Manhattan to see the Warhols, could have known that art had come to an end?”

Danto spends a lot of time qualifying his language. How could there be art after the end of art? Well, there was art before the beginning of art, too, he explains. “The era of art begins in about A.D. 1400…and though the images made before then are ‘art,’ they were not conceived of as such…images were venerated but not admired aesthetically [in a technical sense]…” (29). “They were not even thought of as art in the elementary sense of having been produced by artists–human beings putting marks on surfaces–but were regarded as having miraculous provenance, like the imprinting of Jesus’s image on Veronica’s veil”(3).

His historical perspective is fascinating, and he makes a number of valid and compelling points that we’re not going to go into in detail. Basically, for the sake of brevity, we should modify his terminology and say that with Andy Warhol what we’re seeing is the beginning of the commodification of art–’commodification’ in an absolute sense, as art had always been a ‘commodity’ of sorts–and also a kind of radical democritization of art.

To get a grip on this concept: consider that Andy Warhol named his studio, “The Factory.” Consider then that much of what he produced there, mimed or parodied industrial processes: the Campbell’s Soup Can prints, the Brillo Boxes, etc. (The IMA has some of the Brillo Boxes at the exhibit by the way, and at least one of the Campbell Soup prints.) He was in no sense an autonomous, solitary creative demiurge. He bought the idea for the Campbell’s soup cans from a gallery owner for $50, and for the most part his protegés or ‘superstars’ dealt with the physical production of his work. Warhol has no interest in solitary genius or in authenticity. He is, in a sense, the first ‘artist as businessman,’ interested less in the object and more in economies, and amplitudes of production and, tangentially, in how the human subject becomes subordinate and contingent to these processes.

Previously, artists and their works had functioned as a kind of externalized subconscious, recording the evolution of human perception in each successive phase of history. As Walter Benjamin writes, “Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized—the medium in which it occurs—is conditioned not only by nature but by history”(23).

The canonical artist can be seen as a kind of litmus test for the psychological ambience of an era. “For the…historian concerned with works of art, these works integrate their fore-history as well as their after-history; and it is by virtue of their after-history that their fore-history is recognizable as involved in a continuous process of change”(118).

But with Andy Warhol we begin to see a flattening of aesthetic hierarchies. Warhol does not produce this change, his body of work merely records it. After a certain point in the early 1960’s, as Danto writes,“Nothing is more true as art than anything else, nothing [no art being produced in contemporary times] is essentially more historically false than anything else…There can now be no historically mandated form of art…” (Danto 26, 27)

As I’ve mentioned, we can see this partially as a kind of democritization of aesthetics. With the technical bar lowered, and the materials and leisure to produce art available to almost anyone in the First World, it is impossible to determine a sample of artists who are ‘representative of their era’ of the culturally unique mood of, say, 1995. There are just too many things going on. This is partly due to the globalization and the vastly improved mediums of communication that have catalyzed it. RE: just for example, Youtube. You’ve heard the expression before: “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Now that it’s come true, does anybody even remember who said that?

This post was written by Thomas Swanson. Thomas works as a content manager and SEO consultant at SmallBox Web Design. His blog is gospel of john at http://g0spel0fj0hn.com.

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