Stories Arthur Danto on Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box
The Warhol Museum mourns the loss of a brilliant mind whom many of us were fortunate to call a colleague, Arthur Danto, who passed on October 25, 2013. His perspectives on art shaped the aesthetic discourse of his times. From about 1993-95, Danto was a member of the museum’s Advisory Committee, along with Henry Geldzahler, Walter Hopps, David Whitney, Paul Morrissey, Geraldine Stutz, and others who played important roles in Warhol’s life and work.
David Carrier earned a PhD in 1972 studying under Danto at Columbia University. He later taught philosophy and aesthetics at Carnegie Mellon and at Case Western Reserve University. He’s the author of 17 books including “Proust / Warhol” (2009) and most recently, with Joachim Pissarro, “Wild Art” (2013).
Arthur Danto (1924-2013) was a famous, much published philosopher. He wrote major studies of epistemology, historiography and the theory of action, as well as studies of such varied subjects as Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Oriental Religion. He was a distinguished art critic, famous for the catholic range of his enthusiasms. And for one period, he was a successful practicing artist—he made prints.
The story of Danto’s relationship with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) is stranger than fiction. Like many intellectually aware New York intellectuals, Danto enjoyed gallery openings. And so it happened that at the Stable Gallery, on the Upper East Side he saw Warhol’s installation. As he recalls:
The gallery was on the lower floor of a duplex apartment. It contained several stacks of what looked like commercial shipping cartons, including the now famous Brillo Box. There was not a lot to look at.
At this time, Danto had no interest in the philosophy of art. But, by chance, just then the annual professional meeting of the American Philosophical Association – the society where philosophers give lectures and job applicants circulate—had an opening in the schedule for the meeting held right after Christmas. And so he gave a lecture dealing with Warhol, published soon afterwards in a philosophy journal as “The Artworld.” The attendance was small, for more exciting-seeming material was being presented elsewhere at the conference; the commentator, a distinguished philosopher of art, found the analysis frankly incomprehensible. Danto himself went on to deal with other subjects. And so the whole subject of the philosophical analysis of Brillo Box seemed dead in the water.
In 1964, Andy Warhol was only starting to attract public attention. But very soon, of course, art critics began to write extensively about him. And then the immense literature coming from cultural studies and the emerging discipline of queer studies took up discussion. Within the philosophical community, which is a much smaller world, another philosopher, George Dickie, offered an analysis that built, so he claimed on Danto’s, in a way that, for better of worse mis-read “The Artworld.” Dickie didn’t say anything new about Brillo Box. Danto himself only returned to the questions raised by Warhol in 1981, when he published his treatise The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. In that book, actually, Warhol and his Brillo Box is mentioned only in passing. Not until much later, in part because Danto became an art critic, did he return to consider Warhol in detail. Warhol changed his intellectual life- but that took a long time.
Art historians are interested in Brillo Boxin relation to its place in the history of art. In 1964 the grand era of Abstract Expressionism was followed soon by the time of Pop Art, and so there is a need to explain this dramatic stylistic change, and to compare Warhol to the other Pop Artists. Scholars doing cultural and queer studies are concerned with Warhol’s identity as a gay man, and his often uneasy place within our culture. Danto’s concerns as a philosopher were completely different. (He had, of course, a further, non-philosophical interest in Warhol, who he wrote extensively about.) We philosophers in the analytic tradition are interested in essences, in what qualities make something what it is. So we ask: what is a person?; what is justice? ; and what is art? These seemingly abstract questions are often of great practical significance. If you think that a person consists of an immortal soul joined to a body, then you live in a different world from someone who believes that persons are mere material beings. If you believe that justice demands gender equality, then you have a very different political vision from a patriarchal thinker.
The question Brillo Box posed for Danto in 1964, then, was: why is this object a work of art? This is a very specifically philosophical query. Traditionally visual works of art have a special sort of appearance. Under the old regime, in Europe as in China, a work of art is a representation. When Jackson Pollock and his peers created abstractions, then, it was discovered, a visual work of art was something expressive. But since Brillo Box is basically visually indistinguishable from the Brillo boxes in the grocery story, it really is neither a representation nor expressive, in the way that Autumn Rhythm is expressive. Why, then, should it be a work of art? The paradox here comes in the fact that we naturally expect that the identity of a visual work of art be given by its appearance. What Warhol showed, Danto argued, was that this intuitively plausible claim is in fact entirely mistaken. Brillo Box is a work of art, unlike the Brillo box in the store, which looks essentially similar. Brillo Box is a work of art because it exemplifies and instantiates a theory of the nature of art. And what this demonstrates, he argues, is that Warhol was a distinguished visual thinker, a true philosopher of art.
Needless to say, this claim has been the subject of an enormous amount of debate, at least within the philosophical community. In his many later books and essays, Danto extended the analysis in significant ways. What Warhol’s definition of art shows, he argues, is that the history of art has come to an end. Philosophers have taken up Danto’s analysis, which is linked into his larger philosophical system. But within the art history world, this argumentation has not been much discussed. Art historians are not usually interested in the definition of art as such; their concern, rather is to interpret art. Within Danto’s own writings, there is a sharp division between the philosophical works, which take up this discussion of the essence of art, and his writings as art critic, which are concerned with the evaluation of particular works of art.
In his home, Danto had a Brillo Box, not of course Warhol’s, which soon became far too expensive for a professor, but Mike Bidlo’s version. It would be an interesting Dantoesque task to explain how this Brillo Box, which looks visually identical to Warhol’s is in fact an entirely different work of art. But then the names of works of art are tricky. In Muriel Spark’s great novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie there is an imaginary book on aesthetics called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Loving that title, Danto wrote to Spark who gave him permission to use it for his own treatise. To his regret, he then lost Spark’s letter.
– David Carrier
The Library of Living Philosophers. Volume XXXIII. The Philosophy of Arthur C. Danto (Chicago: Open Court, 2013) summarizes the themes I discuss; quotation is from his “Reply to David Carrier,” p. 231. It contains an invaluable bibliography of Danto’s writings as well as his intellectual biography. My account of his art appears in “Arthur Danto: Artist,” 1 January 2011, http://artcritical.com/2011/01/01/danto-artist/