“Art,” Andy Warhol once observed, “is what you can get away with.” Was he right? Much that happens in the art world—which is not necessarily coterminous with what happens in the world of art—would seem to suggest that Warhol was on to something. Certainly, he dedicated his own career to proving the proposition. And since Warhol’s death in 1987, dealers and a credulous art-buying public have been assiduous about getting away with more than anyone might have thought possible. Just this fall, as James Panero reports later in this issue, a silkscreen by Warhol—a silkscreen—fetched nearly $44 million at auction. The dollar may be suffering on the currency exchange, but still …
For the last eight seasons, we have included a special section on art in our December issue. We continue the tradition this year with a cornucopia of reviews and essays on various aspects of the art world—and on the world of art. The distinction we have in mind is between the cynical operation described and consummately practiced by Andy Warhol and activities of the sort that (for example) Marco Grassi describes below in his essay on early Italian painting. Seen from one perspective, the difference is between an essentially sociological phenomenon that uses and abuses rhetoric traditionally associated with art and a phenomenon whose essence lies in the realm of the aesthetic. The philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto once said, with Warholian puckishness, that Andy Warhol was the closest thing to a philosophical genius in the history of art. What so impressed Professor Danto was one of the things Warhol managed to get away with: offering a Brillo Box as Brillo Box, i.e., offering an ordinary object as a work of art. We had always thought that these sorts of things here—paintings, sculptures, bas-reliefs, etcetera—were works of art, while those sorts of things over there, such as chairs, boxes, and so on, were just ordinary objects. Warhol’s “genius,” if that is the correct term, was shared by Humpty Dumpty:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Who is right, Alice or the egg?
Warhol’s gambit was not novel. All the essential gestures had been performed decades before by Marcel Duchamp. You go to your local hardware store and purchase a snow shovel. You place the snow shovel in an art gallery and tell people it’s called In Advance of a Broken Arm. Voilà: “art,” “genius,” general acclamation. Duchamp’s aim, it is worth noting, differed in an important respect from Warhol’s. Duchamp wanted to explode the category of what he dispargingly called “retinal art” as well as the whole grinding machinery of the art world. Warhol wanted to exploit it. Duchamp retired from the art world in disgust and devoted himself to chess. Andy Warhol—quite apart from the auction results, the critical hosannas, the celebrity—has an entire museum in Pittsburgh devoted to celebrating the many things he got away with.
There was also the difference of historical contexts. To alter Samuel Goldwyn, the art world had passed a lot of water under the bridge between Duchamp’s heyday and the early 1960s when Andy Warhol burst upon the scene. Duchamp the artist flourished circa 1915. In the succeeding decades, so many novel things had been proposed, and accepted, as works of art by the art world that by the early 1960s both reviewers and the public had been thoroughly softened up. They were weary and punch drunk. Above all, they were pliable. Here’s a huge stylized blowup of a comic strip. What do you think? A short intake of breath. A furtive look around. Then some brazen soul raises his hand and ventures: “A work of genius?” The chorus soon trumpeted its affirmation, “A work of genius!” General merriment, exeunt omnes.
And so it went. Perhaps it seemed like good fun at first. Clever, not to say cynical, folk soon realized that it could be profitable fun, and not just financially profitable. There was also the less definite, but no less coveted, currency of social prestige. Exactly where this train is heading is difficult to say. Notwithstanding recent auction results, there are little notes of—not desperation, not yet—but of anxiety. Some of them have the brave face that comes with bravura. We think, for example, of the recent career of Damien Hirst, the chap who (for example) bisects animals, suspends them in tanks of formaldehyde, and affixes a pretentious title to the ensemble before releasing them to an art gallery for sale. Mr. Hirst has recently tired of splitting his profits with an art dealer and has opened a series of emporia in London called Other Criteria. (The wares, and the rhetoric, are also available online at othercriteria.com.) Many of Mr. Hirst’s works are priced beyond the reach of hoi polloi. A diamond-encrusted skull sold for many millions of pounds at auction. But with Other Criteria Mr. Hirst is bringing his wares to the masses. For £12,500 you can have a large Damien Hirst poster, signed by the artist, replete with a red heart-shaped emblem and images of butterflies, a Hirst motif. The Damien Hirst T-shirts start at £15.
Canny business move or sign of weakness? Both, possibly. As is Mr. Hirst’s other recent innovation: paying £250,000 to the venerable Wallace Collection to recover the walls of two galleries with opulent blue silk coverings upon which are hung twenty-five new paintings by the Master himself. “No Love Lost” is a series of canvases covered with midnight-blue paint, upon which are inscribed one or more ghost-white skulls and assorted paraphernalia—dots, ashtrays, cigarettes, a lemon. The fact that Mr. Hirst actually painted the pictures himself, with his own two hands, is made much of. Charity prevents us from commenting on these objects as works of art. But stepping back and considering Mr. Hirst’s presence in the Wallace Collection as a sociological phenomenon, we feel confident in suggesting that a whole new level of capitulation has been achieved. The Wallace Collection—home to many Rembrandts, Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time, countless paintings by Fragonard, Rubens, Reynolds, not to mention acres of armor—is sometimes described as a staid museum. In fact, it has been a notably responsible one, caring for and exhibiting its cultural treasures with an eye to their value in the vast panoply of civilizational achievement. Its recent prostitution—two rooms and a gift shop devoted to Damien Hirst for a couple of months in exchange for £250,000—is less shocking in its mercenary ambitions than in its misplaced social-climbing.
The shade of Andy Warhol may be smiling: people have managed to get away with so much more since he showed the way! But we suspect the Hirst-Wallace Collection scandal—for scandal it is—marks one of those turning points in cultural life that Charles Mackay described in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. For some time, the price of tulip bulbs had been bid up. A single bulb might be worth—that is, might change hands—for the price of a small estate. “At last, however, the more prudent began to see that this folly could not last for ever… . As this conviction spread, prices fell, and never rose again. Confidence was destroyed, and a universal panic seized the dealers.” Does the $44 million for that Warhol silkscreen gainsay the observation, or only tell us that the dénouement is right around the corner?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 4, on page 1
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