Book Review: Andy Warhol by Arthur Danto
Andy Warhol, Arthur Danto
Paperback published September 28, 2010
Arthur Danto loves Andy Warhol, and his love for Warhol drips from the pages of a multitude of essays and books (and there are many) that he has written over the course of his long and brilliant career. Danto is a straightforward and clear writer who often can convey extremely complex information in a way that makes you feel as though he has pulled you aside in a bar, just to tell you a fascinating story about a guy he once knew. This is rare in a critic, even rarer in a philosopher. It’s disappointing that Danto is primarily known for his “End of Art” theorizing because I’ve found his reviews, his book on Robert Mapplethorpe, and his collected works in general to be ripe with insight as well.
Unfortunately, you won’t find much new in his short Yale Press book simply titled Andy Warhol, but Danto has written a book with an elegiac tone that lends his subject a bit of personal reverence that we’ve long suspected Danto felt for Warhol. In order to achieve this, thankfully, Warhol becomes more human. Danto reveres but doesn’t worship. We find that Warhol was a genius but often needed help, that perhaps some of the most unglamorous facts of his life might have meant the most to his art (for instance, his unattractive appearance), that his philosophical import has almost a spiritual bearing on how we see yet he was probably unaware of his philosophy, and ultimately that his objects basically made certain questions in art religious ones though he is not a religious artist.
Andy Warhol is not an art book, per se. Edited by Mark Crispin Miller, the book is included in Yale’s Icon’s of America Series, a group of book pitched outside of the academy and art world. Warhol, in Yale’s eyes, ranks among Thomas Jefferson, Fred Astaire, Wall Street and the
Danto is correct and just looking over the titles of the Icon’s series one can swiftly see Warhol's genuine love for the American ordinary -- think of his Dance Diagrams for Astaire, his printed money and art as corporation idea for Wall Street, and Empire for the Empire State Building, it is all there. If it was American and wasn’t yet art, Warhol made sure it became art straight away. But the American ordinary is only part of a larger point, that this “transfiguration of the ordinary” gave contemporary art a philosophical position that has never existed before – if two things look the same and one is art, why is one art and not the other?
Hence, religion. It is art often because we believe it to be so and accord it that power from our mechanisms and structures, our histories, our loves. We make it so and nothing guarantees it. This thought is both freeing and horrible.
This insight of Warhol and Danto is extraordinary, and not even remotely examined to the full extent of its potential in art history and contemporary criticism. On one hand, the insight can easily lend itself to cynicism. For instance, if one thing is art and the other isn’t, and it is simply belief that makes it so, then I can choose not to believe, do as I wish, and rely on the silly patrons of illusionary meaning to support any idiocy I put forth (many of the wanton, unanchored proceedings of many young artists fit in this camp). On the other hand, the insight can basically animate everything and give us a power that we perhaps never wished to have, that of having to arbitrate our own meaning and kept a firm grip on it at all times, not choosing the cynical road because that road only leads to despair. This is the sacred road, the road of Frank O’Hara’s lunchtime sandwich and John Cage’s pregnant silence, this is the sacred mystery of the ordinary.
Danto, with an earnestness that will almost make you blush, lovingly finds Warhol in the second, non-cynical camp. Danto loves thinking about (it is almost cheesy to say it) Warhol’s love of the democratic openness of soup and how it was the same for everybody and sustained everyone. To keep it Catholic, which Warhol was, he was “thankful for his daily bread.” Danto describes Warhol love for collaboration, the energy that he got from those in his circle “the crazies,” and his close attunement to the surface makeup of things as that which animated his discoveries. My favorite moment is Warhol’s quest for the unified aura of stockroom, that making Brillo boxes was not enough, that he wanted the whole feeling of the store, its embedded and glowing totality.
Perhaps Danto loves Warhol too much. For instance, I’ve often suspected that Warhol’s elusiveness, his cageyness, his famous wispy personality might have contained a trace of despair due to his knowledge of his artistic reality, that he fully created the artistic reality and nothing guaranteed it. I think it is oversimplified to think of Warhol as a fetishist and a lover without thinking about his cold gamesmanship. The Court Jester’s knowledge of the absurdity of life is never without a price. But ultimately, I am glad Danto didn’t go there. Many have and we can take this in a later day. At the moment, in this book, it is great to witness someone merely loving something as Danto loves Warhol.