If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

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

Steven Zucker and Sal Khan discuss Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Sal Khan.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf green style avatar for user FinallyGoodAtMath
    What are some of the metrics that art experts use to critique art? Technical mastery? Beauty? Novelty? Meaning? How are these weighted?
    (83 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Isabel Kaspriskie
    Isn't art just a message? If you don't see the message of the soup can, you don't think it's art.
    (30 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user pfernandez
      Often it is. At first I didn't know if I agreed with the idea that there was anything symbolic in this piece of art such as symbolizing mass production (time stamp at ) but as I looked at the repetition and precision, I thought differently. At time stamp the question is asked if it was a prank, and they conclude that it was. I would agree with that, and it was part of what made it a fun piece of ~art?
      (8 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    At Sal Khan raises some really good questions about the validation of art. Essentially, and I feel this question went unanswered, we as a society are left asking..."Why does one artist become famous (validated) and another doesn't?"...
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Steven Zucker
      I am not at all sure that question can be answered in a responsible way. Circumstance, talent, huge amounts perseverance, thoughtfulness, a willingness to take risks, an understanding of one's cultural moment, an understanding of the history of visual culture, the right friends and patrons. What I find an even more interesting question is why certain works of art have become more or less important over time and long after the artist's era has ended - potentially correcting for the some of the issues mentioned in the previous sentence.
      (9 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Jess
    I'm trying to make sense of this... half of it just jumbles around in my head... Could someone please explain to me, in words a 7th grader could understand?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Lucien Alexander
      A lot of artists in art history are remembered not just for what they did but simply if they did it first. Warhol did this first. Warhol did this piece in 1962 and used cheap advertising to reflect and question the culture at the time. Coming out of 1950's America this was subversive. Personally this doesn't do anything for me but for its time it showed a degree of prescience.
      (1 vote)
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Keira Jackson
    Art doesnt have to be something that makes sense. an artist takes thier feelings and defines it with any type of object. take "Starry Night" for example the wind with the building... what could it possibly mean or Maybe Andy Warhol, having 12 cats alll named Bob, was a little crazy. maybe the soup is afflicted with his past. it doesn't have to be considered advertising if its reallly just something of a story
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • mr pink red style avatar for user gabrielstephen2000
    Is all of Andy Warhols works changed from a mundane thing to an exhibit in a museum?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • mr pants teal style avatar for user Dheat
      Originally Warhol was a very successful commercial illustrator who made actual ads for people. His ads were apparently very artistic, and skillful, but nothing a museum would take because they were actual paid for by a company ads.

      I always figured Warhol saw that the world's artists were all getting to the same basic level of skill and no piece could stand out based on skill anymore, so the only way to get famous was to take something already known and have your name associated with that. This was a terribly original idea at the time and artists thrive on uniqueness.
      (3 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user pearcesutcliffe
    modern art is a great window for philisophical expression in modern art you convey a feeling or idea.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers tree style avatar for user Kaeden
    Do you think some art is art cause it's in a museum?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user Leahlee
    I don't think this is a art,It doesn't show anything,Why is this so special?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user Shane Grayson
      Go back to @ and review what Sal and Steven touches on. Sal seems to be asking "is this art for art's sake?" And the answer they seem to converge on is that it's not done simply for art's sake, but instead a representation of Warhol's vision of the Modern World. For example, take a look at the picture from afar, all the cans, except one, look identical; but the closer you get to them, you begin to notice they are not identical (e.g. they all have different flavors). And, if you go back to https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-history/introduction-to-art-history/the-basics/a/a-beginners-guide-to-the-history-of-western-culture and read under "Modern after c. 1800" there is quote here that explains what I believe Warhol is trying to prove, "Steam-powered machines and unskilled laborers in factories began to replace skilled artisans."

      All in all, from my perspective, this seems to be Warhol's way of expressing our new found desire for mass production (how all the paintings are the same), and how we have assimilated into the processes (which can are you?), yet at the same time try to maintain some sort of identity (you're "Chick Noodle", while I think of myself as "Broccoli and Cheese").
      (2 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Melissa S.
    At , Sal mentions a quote regarding pop art by Roy Lichtenstein where Roy states; "We were looking for subject matter that was...so low...that no one could possibly think it was art." In 1770, Thomas Gainsborough painted "The Blue Boy" in response to a rival's published comment that real art must only be composed of warm tones- it went on to become Gainsborough's most famous painting. Could part of the reason that works of art like Warhol's soup cans are alluring to us be because we love a rebel, an artist who defies convention in order to capture our attention?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: We're looking at one of the single canvases from a series of canvases of the Campbell 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? Sal: 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's Soup, would you be viewing it differently? Steven: Because it's advertising then. Sal: Yes. Steven: But in the context of the museum or in the context of Andy Warhol's studio, it's not quite advertising, right? Sal: Even if it's the exact same thing. Steven: Yeah. Sal: And the idea here is by putting it in the museum it's saying look at this in a different way. Steven: 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. Sal: Right. Steven: But it relocates it and makes us think about it in a different way. Sal: And so, I guess he would get credit for taking something that was very, almost mundane, something you see in everyone's cupboard, and making it a focal point like you should pay attention to this thing. Steven: 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 cream of chicken no less, right? (laughs) Sal: A lot of it is, if he did it 50 years earlier, people would have thought this guy's a quack and if he did it now they'd think he was just derivative and... It was really just that time where people happened to think this was art. Steven: 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 factories. He in a sense said let's not be looking at nature as if we were still an agrarian culture, we're now an industrial culture. What is the stuff of our visual world now? Sal: I think I'm 80 percent there. I remember in college there was a 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 is what he called it. So he did it as a prank and everyone thought it was really funny but to some degree it's kind of a sign that maybe what he did was art. Steven: Well I think that's why it was funny because it was so close, right? Sal: And to some degree 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. That's kind of the same idea, that something that's such a mundane thing but you use it everyday. I mean, what would you say to that? Was that a prank or was that art? Steven: 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. Sal: And the reason why we talk about Warhol or Duchamp or any of these people is that, as you said, it's not that they did something technically profound. Obviously Campbell Soup's marketing department had already done something as equally as profound, it's more that they were the people who looked at the world in a slightly different way and highlighted that. Steven: Well I think that that's right. Warhol 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 this Campbell's, he's really sort of rendered the reflection of the tin at the top. But then he stopped and he said, I don't want to paint the fleur de lis. You see those little fleur de lis 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 I think 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. Sal: I don't 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 industrial or whatever, but if he had done it the other way, if he had hand drawn it or hand drawn it with his elbow you know, or finger painted it or something people would say oh 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 am I just being cynical? Steven: Well no, 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 in some really direct and authentic way? Sal: And maybe it's easy for me to say this because I remember looking at this when I took 5th grade art class, Andy Warhol and all of that, 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. Steven: I think that Warhol was looking for, in 1962, a kind of subject matter that was completely outside of the scope of 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 that 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 that we immediately accept it. But I think that it's really interesting to retrieve just how shocking and radical that was. Sal: This is fascinating. It seems like there's a lot of potential there, that stuff that's 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 shone on this, that it does... In your mind would that cross the barrier into being art? Steven: Well I think that, you mentioned before, that if somebody was doing this now it would feel really derivative. 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. Sal: Fascinating. (piano playing)