Andy Warhol: Brillo Box

Article excerpt

Considerations of modesty, fortified by counsels of prudence, must caution philosophers against inviting comparisons between their own work and that of Immanuel Kant. These wise recommendations notwithstanding, I have irresistibly thought of Andy Warhol as having played in the evolution of my thought the role that Kant assigned Hume in the evolution of his own. Hume, Kant wrote, "interrupted my dogmatic slumber, and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a quite new direction." It was Warhol who awoke me from mine, and made plain to me that the philosophy of art must move on. This was what Brillo Box meant to me the moment I saw it, in an East 74th Street one-man show widely if inconclusively discussed at the time: 1964.

"Hume!" one can hear Kant's colleagues saying, with the same strained incredulity I have encountered when arguing that Warhol had the greatest philosophical acuity of any modern artist. "It is positively painful," Kant wrote, "to see how utterly [Hume's] opponents missed the point." A painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds portrays one of these opponents, the blissfully forgotten James Beattie, holding the book of his that allegedly demolished Hume's arguments, and accompanied by a winged spirit shown vanquishing three enemies of truth: Hume, Gibbon, and Voltaire. To the same extent that Hume was condemned for destroying the foundations of faith and morality (until Beattie restored them), Warhol was seen as a contemporary destroyer of spiritual and esthetic values. ("You're a killer of art, you're a killer of beauty," de Kooning told him.) For what it's worth, Warhol and Hume even looked alike, or would have if Hume had had access to diet pills. Both had that flat, expressionless, almost stupid sort of face that made it possible to see Warhol as one of the "pin-headed, gum-chewing" delinquents Max Kozloff felt were invading the art galleries in 1962, and made it all but impossible to see Hume as the shrewdest philosophical wit of his age: "His Face was broad and fat, his Mouth wide, and without any other Expression than that of Imbecility," a contemporary wrote, obsrving that "the Powers of Physiognomy were baffled by his Countenance."

In 1964, the Kantian question was: how was Brillo Box possible? Its impossibility was assured by virtually every esthetic precept it flaunted, at the same time that the mere fact of its existence as art demonstrated that all those precepts lacked necessity. Yet those precepts defined the laws of the art world, and everyone who looked at paintings took them for granted. It was altogether natural to think of painting in New York as attaining a state of purity, just as Clement Greenberg assured us that Modernist art was evrywhere doing. …