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Why is this art? Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans

Video transcript

we're looking at one of the single canvases from a series of canvases of the Campbell's soup cans by Andy Warhol from 1962 at the Museum of Modern Art and one of the really important questions that comes up about especially modern art is well why is this art when you ask me that a bunch of things kind of surface in my brain it does evoke something in me so I'm inclined to say yes but then there's a bunch of other things that say well if I didn't see this in a museum and if I just saw this in the marketing department of Campbell Soup would you be viewing it differently because it's advertising then yes but in the context of the museum or in the context of Andy Warhol studio it's not quite advertising right even if it's the exact same thing yeah and the idea here is by putting it in the museum and saying look at this in a different way well that's right it really does relocate it it does change the meaning it does transform it and that's really one of the central ideas of modern art is that you can take something that's not necessarily based in technical skill because I don't think you would say that this is beautifully rendered right but it relocates it and makes us think about it in a different way and so I guess he would get credit for taking something that was very almost mundane something you see on everyone and everyone's covered and making it a focal point like you should pay attention to this thing I think that's exactly right and I think that he's doing it about a subject that was about as low a subject as one could go I mean cheap advertising art was something that was so far away from fine art from the great masters and then to focus on something as lowly as a can of soup and and cream of chicken no less and a lot of it is if you did it 50 years earlier people thought this guy's a quack and if he did it now they think he's just derivative and right I mean it was really just at that time where people happen to think this was art well I think that that's right in 1962 what Warhol is doing is he's saying what is it about our culture that is really authentic and important and it was about mass production it was about Factory he in a sense said let's not be looking at nature as if we we're still an agrarian culture we're now an industrial culture what is the stuff of our visual world now I think I'm 80% there I remember in college there was a like a little student-run art exhibit and as a prank a student actually put a little podium there and put his lunch tray he put a little placard next to it you know lunch tray on Saturday or something was what he called it so he did as a prank and ever thought it was really funny but to some degree it's kind of sad maybe what he did was art well I think that's why it was funny because it was so close right and to some of you when someone took a lunch tray and gave it the proper lighting and gave it a podium to look at it and wrote a whole description about it I did view the lunch tray in a different way I mean that is it's kind of the same idea something's like such a mundane thing but you use it every day I mean what would you say to that was was that a prank or was that art well I think it is a prank but it's also very close to some important art that had been made earlier in the century he had license to do that because of somebody named Marcel Duchamp in fact Warhol had in a sense the same kind of license to not focus on the making of something not focus on the brushwork not focus on the composition not focus on the color but focus on the refocusing of ideas and and the reason why we talk about Warhol or Duchamp or any of these people is that as you said it's not like they did something technically profound obviously Campbell soup's marketing department had already done something as equally as as profound it's more that they were the people who looked at the world in a slightly different way and and highlighted that well I think that that's right world is also very consciously working towards asking the same questions that the prankster at your school was asking he's saying can this be art and in fact he's really pushing it look at the painting closely for a moment this is one of the last paintings that he's actually painted he's really defined the calligraphy of the Campbell's he's really surrendered the reflection of the tin at the top but then he stopped and he said I don't want to paint the floor Tooley's you see those little little fleur-de-lis is down at the bottom I don't want to paint those so he actually had a little rubber stamp made of them and actually sort of placed them down mechanically what does that mean for an artist then to say I don't even want to bother to paint these I'm just going to find a mechanical process to make this easier Warhol is doing something anything which is important which is reflecting the way that we manufacture the way that we construct our world think about the things that we surround ourselves with almost everything was made in a factory almost nothing is singular in the world anymore it's not a world that we would normally find beautiful I know sometimes I feel and correct me if I'm wrong that a decision was made that Warhol was interesting or great and then people will interpret his stuff to justify his greatness that oh look he used a printer instead of drawing it which shows that he was reflecting the you know industrial or whatever but then if he'd done the other way if he had hand-drawn it or hand-drawn it with his elbow or you know it ends our finger painted it or some people say all isn't this tremendous because we normally would see this thing printed by a machine and now he did it with his hands how much do you think that is the case or or am I just being cynical well I know I think that I think that there's value in a certain degree of cynicism and I think that in some ways what we're really talking about here is what does it mean to be an avant-garde artist what does it mean to sort of change the language of art and to try to find ways that art relates to our historical moment and some really sort of direct and authentic way you know maybe it's easy for me to say this because you know I remember looking at this when I was you know when I took fifth grade art class Andy Warhol and all of that and so now it seems almost not that unique but in 62 what I'm hearing is that Warhol was really noteworthy because he really did push people's thinking I think that Warhol was looking for in 1962 a kind of subject matter that was completely outside of the scope that we could consider fine art one of his contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein was asked what pop art was and he said well we were looking for subject matter it was so despicable that was so low that nobody could possibly believe that it was really art and I think you're right I think now we look at it and it's so much a part of our visual culture yeah that you know we immediately accept it but I think it's really interesting to retrieve just how shocking and radical that was this is fast it seems like there's a lot of potential there that stuff that it's kind of a pseudo art made for other purposes for commercial purposes but if you kind of shine a light on it in the way that a light has been shown on this it does your mind would that cross the barrier into being art well I think that you know you mentioned before that if somebody was doing this now it wouldn't feel really derivative right and I think that that's right I think it underscores just how hard it is to find in our culture now ways of making us see the world in new ways yeah fascinating