“Why was it a work of art when the objects which resemble it exactly, at least under perceptual criteria, are mere things, or, at best, mere artifacts? But even if artifacts, the parallel between them and what Warhol made were exact. Plato could not discriminate between them as he could between pictures of beds and beds. In fact, the Warhol boxes were pretty good pieces of carpentry.”
Andy Warhol was expert at self-promotion. Obsessed with celebrities, Warhol loved jet-setting and partying. Yet he said, ‘I think it would be terrific if everyone was alike’, and coined the cynical slogan that ‘everyone has their fifteen minutes of fame’. Warhol emerged in the ‘Pop Art’ movement of the 1960s, a movement tied into fashion, popular culture, and politics.
Warhol was already successful as a commercial artist when he exhibited stacks of hand-stenciled plywood boxes at the Stabler gallery in New York in 1964. The boxes had a tremendous impact on philosopher Arthur Danto, who has repeatedly discussed them.
Danto wrote a much-discussed paper, ‘The Art World’, about this puzzle. His essay, in turn, prompted philosopher George Dickie to formulate the ‘institutional theory of art’, according to which art is ‘any artifact…which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution.’ This meant that an object like the Brillo Boxes was baptized as art if accepted by museum and gallery directors and purchase by art collectors.
But, Danto objected, The Brillo Boxes were not immediately accepted by the art world. Danto argued instead that the art world provide a background theory that an artist invokes when exhibiting something as art. This relevant ‘theory’ is not a thought in the artist’s head, but something the social and cultural context enables both audience and artist to grasp. So Danto concludes that a work of art is an object that embodies a meaning: ‘Nothing is an artwork without an interpretation that constitutes it as such’.
Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction.Oxford U Press: New York, 2001.