Photo of one of Warhol's Brillo Boxes

What is art?

In 1963, Pop artist Andy Warhol exhibited "Brillo Box" in a New York gallery.  The sculpture was similar in appearance to the large cardboard container in which little packages of Brillo are shipped to stores (though Warhol's is made of wood, not cardboard).  You can see a version of the sculpture (three cartons rather than one) in the Modern wing of the Philadelphia museum of art.  

Is "Brillo Box" art?  Customs agents said "No."  When the work was shipped across the border to Canada for a show, it was taxed as a commercial product, and denied the special tax status of an art work.  

Art critic Arthur Danto, in Beyond the Brillo Box, sees "Brillo Box" as marking the end of modern western art, or at least of the linear history he thinks art had in the west from the Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century.  From the middle of the nineteenth century, that history was one of increasingly radical challenges to the canons and conventions that were established in the Renaissance.  At that time, the invention of geometrically precise perspective, and many innovations in the use of oil paint, made possible a degree of realism in two dimensional representation of three dimensional reality that had never before been possible.  The painter and art historian Vasari, in his Lives of the Painters, makes it clear that realistic representation of this sort is what painting is about. "Painting", he writes, "is just the imitation of all the living things of nature with their colors and designs just as they are in nature."  "The School of Athens", the famous painting by Raphael found on the home page for this course, is a very detailed example of some of the techniques that made such realism possible (though in other ways it either gives the lie to Vasari's theory, or is a bad painting, since no photograph would ever have captured the symbolically rich and didactic image that Raphael gives us).  

The rennaissance canons persisted into the eighteenth century, though the kind of paintings that were done within them varied greatly. In the nineteenth century, however, they were challenged more and more radically.   Thus, (to pick a few highlights), Delacroix's intense color, sinuous forms, and loose strokes are plainly designed to show what the artist sees and feels rather than to give a precise representation of things "just as they are in nature."  Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters", and his "Third of May, 1808" move even farther away from literal realism, picturing fantasies and distorting exact resemblance in order to convey disturbing horrors more powerfully. Cezanne began using flat areas of color instead of modelling; Van Gogh let the brush strokes show even more, so that viewer looks at the paint instead of past it.  Matisse flattens out the canvas, and gets rid of the illusion of depth that the Renaissance painters had worked so hard to master.  Picasso introduced primitive forms, and broke up forms so that they aren't seen from any one perspective.  Klee, Kandinsky, and Mondrian painted abstractly, including fewer and less recognizable forms.  Jackson Pollack dribbled paint on canvas.  

Danto sees Andy Warhol's work as a kind of final stop for this train. In the case of "Brillo Box", the only difference between art and non-art is the fact that art is displayed in art galleries!  

 See also Wendell Castle.


Boundary Questions: