Why is Andy Warhol such a big deal?
[Original article by Poppy Burton Far Out Magazine. Art or icon: Why is Andy Warhol such a big deal? (faroutmagazine.co.uk).
“Art is anything you can get away with” is a quote Andy Warhol is often wrongly given credit for, but one that speaks to his work’s ability to conjure up all kinds of conjecture and debate, leaving people asking if it should even be considered art.
At the vanguard of the pop art movement, Warhol’s work made the mundane a total spectacle, sparking massive debate about the value of art in the process. His radical new concepts about what could be considered fine art blurred the lines between advertising and artistic pursuit, putting soup cans and washing powder boxes in front of audiences as if they work exquisite works of creativity.
A former commercial artist, Warhol’s work borrowed heavily from mass media production. Because it was so inherently related to consumerism, it was quintessentially American – money, fame, domesticity, and politics were all embodied in his work – making his paintings and silk-screen prints impactful to this day because they were an enduring snapshot of American life. Social and literal currency were explored with the same level of intrigue in an effort to highlight how 1960s America was swinging towards an even more wildly rampant consumer culture than seen in the post-war age of affluence.
But Warhol’s work was often accused of lacking heart, and thereby any artistic merit, because his approach was so mechanical. Seemingly a direct answer to the Abstract Expressionism movement that came before him, Warhol entirely did away with the expressive gestures of Rothko and Pollock but retained a vivid colour palette of predominantly primary colours.
Aside from the bright colours, Warhol replaced the spontaneity of their work completely, introducing a machine-like precision when recreating his prints, as he most famously did with Marilyn Diptych and Campbell’s Soup Cans. For Warhol, an artist’s technique and painstaking brush strokes were far less important than exploring the technologies of reproduction.
Warhol once professed to art critic Gene Swenson that “everybody should be like a machine”, insisting he was entirely in favour of mechanical art. We see this in his use of screen printing as a medium, which totally removed the need for an artistic hand with its automatic ability to recreate an image.
This was done most effectively when he exhibited Cambell’s Soup Cans in one of the art world’s most famous appropriations of consumer culture. When he first unveiled it, all 32 canvases adorned with every Campell’s soup flavour were slumped on shelves, just like products lining shop aisles.
Although all 32 canvases of Campbells Soup were uniform, they were hand-painted down to the fleur de lys pattern he stamped into the rings of each can. Warhol’s push towards mechanisation meant he was meticulous when it came to reproducing the same image over and over, making the only visual difference in their flavour.
Warhol also painted bottles of Coca-Cola, electric chairs, film stars, and dollar bills. They seem like surface-level studies of inanimate objects and people, but there was always a sharp analysis in the selection of what objects he’d paint. “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest,” he once said.
Despite his skewering of consumer culture and its inescapable nature, no matter how rich or poor you were, the assumption was that because his work wasn’t dazzling realism, it was worthless. Critics thought it was vapid, wondering if it was art at all.
The serial representation of an image, whether it’s a soup can or Marilyn Monroe herself, waters down its meaning to virtually none, which is exactly what Warhol was attempting to do. In a culture where instant gratification rules, what is the true value of these images when laid start in a silk-screen print? If we wonder why he needed to reproduce Monroe’s face 50 times, maybe it’s worth considering how many times her face flashed up on newspapers and billboards. But perhaps that’s preferable because billboards are selling something, whereas Warhol was questioning her worth was beyond that.
It’s that wider social commentary that makes him an icon. The ubiquity of stacked shelves and the papers plastered with Monroe’s face lining shops should have been an everyday source of wonder, but American consumers were so well adjusted to a constant parade of products, it meant nothing to them.
If critics thought it wasn’t impressive, what his work really revealed was that they didn’t appreciate the accessibility afforded to them. Warhol had an understanding of American greed that was way ahead of his time. No amount of access to products – or to an extent, access to people – was ever enough, and he understood and interrogated that in an incredibly nuanced way.