If it looks just like advertising, can it really be a work of art?
Could a can of soup be art? No, wait, I said that wrong. Can a painting of a soup can be art? A clean, exact reproduction: can that be a work of art?
The question of course pertains to pop artist Andy Warhol. In 1962, he painted a precise rendering of a can of Campbell’s tomato soup on a white, blank background, and it became one of the most famous works of art of the 20th century.
The Campbell’s soup can was something of an American icon at the time, and Warhol ultimately created a series of 32 canvases, one for each flavor of soup then available. As do many flavors of modernism, Warhol’s work creates skepticism among some people. It’s difficult to see why prepackaged imagery, no matter how skillfully mimicked onto a canvas, should qualify as original art. (more)
But the matter really comes down to what we assume the job of art to be. Is it simply to express the innermost thoughts and feelings of the artist like a pop song? Or is its job to look exactly like that which it is representing, like the work of Norman Rockwell or the Dutch Masters? If that’s the case, there are lots of popular paintings that may lose the label of art. Plus, after the advent of photography, few painters could compete with a camera just in terms of mere realism.
Artists have to decide what the salient features are of the culture they seek to portray and interpret. This crucial act of inspired choosing is as much if not more a part of the artist’s job than precise reproduction. Sometimes that salient cultural feature is a specific person: George Washington for instance, in the years of the American Revolution. At other times it may be someone anonymous: a cowboy for example, and an artist like Frederic Remington brought that feature into focus through his art.
Like any form of serious art, pop is a window on the time in which it was created. By the late 1950s, the salient cultural features of the United States had become movie stars and mass-produced consumer goods. The Coca-Cola bottle, the comic strip and Elvis Presley were as representative of the time as the cowboy had been 75 years before. Mass produced images had become the image of America itself. To pop artists, this seemed self-evident, but it set them radically apart from their individualistic, expressionist predecessors.
Most elite opinion of the day assumed that Warhol’s work was intended to be a critique of crass American materialism, but Warhol didn’t mean it that way. Like Remington’s cowboys, it was an image that for him reflected the American idea. It’s what American culture looked like. And capturing that is what a good artist does.