Warhol's 32 Campbell's Soup Cans and the Decline of Connoisseurship

mmm.. soup

Above: A 2007 visitor to MoMA in New York City takes in Andy Warhol's 1962 set of 20 by 16 inch canvasses depicting 32 varieties of Campbell's soup.

On June 29th I published a blog titled "Robert Hughes and the Warhol Faultline: Where Do You Stand?" In that blog, I included the following personal observation about Andy Warhol:

"I don't think Warhol was stupid -- I think he was a genius as a social observer and marketeer -- but I also think he did genuine damage to the field of art."

A week later I learned that MOCA Los Angeles will be exhibiting the complete set of Warhol's 32 Campbell's Soup can paintings through September 7th. I'll use the opportunity -- and the soup cans -- to say about more about just what I think the damage was.

Before I get started, I need to offer a disclaimer. What I am about to say comes only from my intuitions, and not from any rigorous or reasonable study of Warhol or his works. I am going to take advantage of the wide latitude available to me as a blogger to let my own biases, personal issues and art world conspiracy theories guide my commentary.

I think of Andy Warhol's soup cans as a statement about the decline and increasing irrelevance of connoisseurship. The word connoisseur comes from the French term conoistre which means roughly "to know" or "to know intimately." The dictionary tells us that a connoisseur is "a person with expert knowledge or training, especially in the fine arts," or "a person of informed and discriminating taste." By bringing a representation of mundane consumer choices into an art context I feel that Warhol was saying "In the future you will be choosing art the same way you shop for groceries."

To choose between Golden Mushroom and Scotch Broth doesn't take much effort, and Campbell's is and was an established brand. Warhol, who became one of the art world's leading brands not long after he exhibited his soup cans, was becoming clear in his mind that if he could become famous collectors wouldn't need to make fine distinctions in choosing his works. Warhol, who had absorbed much of what the sociologist and media theorist Marshall McLuhan had to say, was convinced that fame, and its cousin -- the name brand -- would increasingly subvert our decision-making faculties.

The soup can series stands for the situation of all consumers in a modern, capitalist, industrial society. We get to "choose" from groups of factory produced items whose packaging and labeling attempt to convince us that we are indeed choosing items of quality. I must be a bit Marxist in my views of this, as I do believe that the main goal of modern marketing is to give us the illusion of choices to screen out the mundane origins and the lack of variety in the products that dominate our markets and our lives as consumers.

Warhol correctly prophesied, and perhaps contributed to, the McDonaldization of aesthetic culture. According to sociologist Georger Ritzer, McDonaldization is characterized by culture moving away from the traditional motivations of morality, custom and emotion and becomes more interested in efficiency and rational thought. It is the kind of culture you get in a society consumed by thinking about money, production, marketing and consumption.

Although the soup cans images were not created using photo-silkscreening, as were many of his later works, they were executed in what have been characterized as "semi-mechanical" methods. I call the soup can series "works" because I just can't bear to call them paintings. If anything, they are an open-casket funeral for the traditional of painting. Just as the factory made object wiped out hand work and decoration in the late 19th century, Warhol's aesthetics did away with the connection between the hand and the sensory imagination. Morality -- which other modernists had also tended by bypass -- was totally gone.

The soup cans, seen together, can be seen as a still-life. The tradition of the still life, so full of symbols and moral suggestions comes to a dead end in Warhol. The viewer of a still-life used to be invited to participate by pondering plentitude, gluttony, or vanity. In Warhol, all that is left is for the viewer, if inclined, to reach out, choose a soup and grab the can opener. Choices, in Warhol, are innocent and amoral.

Anyone who has taken a course in modern art has heard all the various proclamations about the moment painting "died," but I think Warhol out-did Malevich and all the others who tried to assassinate painting. The way he drained the sensuality and nuance right out of it, replaced it with a mechanical approach and used appropriated subject matter is devastating. If you think Warhol was great -- and believe me, I know that many, many people do -- I would think that it was his effective attack on painting that you might consider one of his greatest accomplishments. No doubt about it: he changed things.

Honestly, I could make the 2 hour drive to LA to see the soup cans at Warhol, but Warhol's works are among the very least interesting works in terms of being seen in person. They do well in reproduction, which isn't surprising since Warhol's key works tend to be reproductions.

The things about the tradition of painting that I so love are the human elements: touch, the connection between the hand and the mind, discovery, spontaneity, surprise, difference, eccentricity, transcendence, nuance, these are the things that Warhol felt he could do without. They, and a billion other things that there are no words for, are the qualities that Warhol's rubber-stamp approach were meant to expunge. These tangible and intangible qualities also represent much of what connoisseurs, critics, afficianados and experts have traditionally done the work of trying to discern and discuss.

If you were to argue that Warhols work does have the qualities above, I would tell you that his work tends to quote or even parody those qualities. In his aesthetic the mechanical and the dispassionate were elevated, while the human and the passionate were extinguished. As a result, the set of faculties that a person uses in appreciating a Warhol is remarkably sparse. Warhol designed his works for a very, very broad demographic: everyone.

Believe me, I am not saying that Warhol didn't leave some things to be written about. Case in point: I am writing about him now. Art dealer Irving Blum, who first showed the soup cans in his Los Angeles gallery has stated that spending time with the works convinced them that they are "complicated" and I agree with that. However, I think the complications are intellectual, sociological and philosophical. Warhol made painfully boring objects, and that is the interesting part, the complicated part.

In an insightful article that appeared in the LA Times on July 10th, critic Christopher Knight argues that the genius of Pop Art was that it provided an "acute critique of high culture's supercilious conceits." I like Knight's thinking, and perhaps my real quarrel with Warhol and his soup cans is that we have a profound disagreement over what matters in artistic culture and who it is meant to address.

If you go to LA, see the Warhol soup cans and find them fascinating, more power to you. I do think that they may have what you could call a "relic" fascination, and by that I mean that they are historic objects and that they can evoke a direct physical connection to an era and a place. Yes, they were made in Andy Warhol's silver factory studio while the beautiful people were around, and you may want to connect with that.

By the way, am I the only super-serious one who thinks that by naming his working studio "The Factory" Warhol in fact mocked the situation of workers in real factories? In retrospect, just how cool was that whole scene?

After you leave MOCA, get on the Pasadena freeway and head up to the Huntington Museum and Gardens, and there you will find a single Warhol soup can: "Small Crushed Campbell's Soup Can (Beef Noodle)" from 1962. You may find it dull, as I did, but hanging on the opposite wall was Richard Diebenkorn's 1954 "Berkeley #24," on loan from the Norton Simon Museum. Compared to the Warhol it looked refreshingly uncertain in its attempts to balance representation and abstraction.

In the age of Wal-Mart, where simply "liking things" seems increasingly sinister, I'm hungry for painting and all of its rich human traces and connections. Maybe we live in a world where "Rembrandt" is a toothpaste, but every educated person should know who Rembrandt was before he was a brand. Warhol is a brand name too, but not one that I will be buying anytime soon. I don't have the cash, or the appetite for what he served up.

Andy Warhol Campbell's Soup Cans
July 9-September 7, 2011
MOCA Los Angeles, Grand Avenuue