Art & Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics

By Paul Mattick | Go to book overview
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It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Andy Warhol himself once explained, in words close to Wilde's, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." 1 This remark, whether taken as all too true or as coyly misleading, is itself generally judged in a superficial way. Wilde's aphorism may help us remember that it is a mode of shallowness to be unable or unwilling to explore the structure and content of appearances. From this point of view, much of the consideration critics, art theorists, and philosophers have given Warhol's work is superficial. Finding that work's surfaces insufficient, such thinkers either condemn it as evidence of cultural decline or seek to give it significance by setting it within a framework of theory that possesses depths invisible in the work itself.

This essay examines accounts of Warhol's work, by a philosopher and three art historians, that seek significance for it in this way. I will argue that despite their differences and their many interesting features, they are all flawed in being critically shallow-I mean, shallow as criticism. I will suggest that we can do better, in some respects at least, by paying close attention to Warhol's surfaces.

To begin with an eminent example, the issue of the relation between surface and deep meaning lies at the heart of the lesson the critic-philosopher Arthur Danto drew from Brillo Boxes, which Warhol exhibited at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964. Twenty-five years later, reviewing Warhol's postmortem retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Danto called him "the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced." This is because

1 Gretchen Berg, "Andy: my true story," Los Angeles Free Press (March 17, 1967), p. 3.


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Art & Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics


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