Andy Warhol and Brillo boxes
Andy Warhol and Brillo Boxes

Photography and the End of Art

It’s April 1964, New York. Philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto is at the Stable Gallery on East 74th street to see an exhibition of work by pop artist Andy Warhol. The encounter has a profound effect on Danto’s thinking about art and will eventually lead him to write a 1984 essay called “The End of Art”.

You entered the lobby, with black and white marble tiles, and an elegant stairway to the upper floors. The gallery was entered through a baronial mahogany door to your left, which opened onto what looked like the store room of a supermarket. It was genuinely a surrealistic experience. There were hundreds of neatly stacked boxes for Brillo, tomato soup, cornflakes, and canned fruit, and apple juice. Were they art – or were they real cartons? One could not avoid that question.

My philosophical preoccupation with contemporary art began when I visited that exhibition. I more or less accepted that the boxes were art, but immediately wondered what the difference could be between them and the real Brillo cartons of the supermarket, which resembled them visually.

Photography to Philosophy: Two Moments of Post-Traditional Art – Arthur Danto

In the 1960s Warhol began creating the works that will forever linked with his name – screens prints of Campbell’s Soup cans, dollar bills, and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. He appropriated commercial media imagery to create ‘reproductions’ for his art. At the 1964 exhibition he took that appropriation one step further. Using screen printed wood, Warhol and his assistants created replicas of shipping containers of several iconic supermarket brands like Brillo cleaning pads. To the eye these replicas were exactly like the real cardboard boxes that the manufacturers used to ship their products.

These works presented Danto with two questions. 1. Why is one object considered a mere shipping container while another indistinguishable one is considered a work of art? 2. How did the “art world” get to a point where this sort of thing could happen?

Let’s answer the second question first. How in the world did we get to a point where replica shipping containers are now art? Think about it. If we went back to the Renaissance and told da Vinci or Michelangelo that we were going to build some things that look like packing crates and call them art they’d run us out of town on a rail. Even Vincent Van Gogh, the artist that cut off his own ear in 1888, would think we were nuts.

Danto blames/credits this change to Photography. The invention and later development of photography into its own unique art form freed traditional forms of art from the tyranny of producing images that look like what they look like. Artists no longer need to paint portraits that look like people. They don’t need to paint realistic landscapes. They don’t need to paint historic events. Photography can handle all those things in its own unique and exacting way.

Traditional artists are now free to explore new non-representational avenues. They can investigate the deeper meanings of art itself rather than using it as a way to mimic reality. Surrealistic painters like Salvador Dali can explore the sub-conscience mind. Abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock can create wild ‘action paintings’. So began a long line of modern art “movements” – Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, etc. Each movement declared itself as the one true art to the exclusion of all others and each one ended up being thrown over for the next as artists felt their way forward.

Even as photography was coming into its own as a art form at the hands of master photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, its own demise was on the horizon. The advancement of the very technology that made it possible would eventually lead to its undoing. By 1964 we hadn’t yet entered the digital age, but it wasn’t far off.

Cameras had become small enough and cheap enough that everyone could own one. Thirty-five millimeter cameras that were lightweight, hand-held, and capable of producing quality photographs had been pioneered back in 1925 by Leica. Cameras became more and more electronic, more automatic – just set it and forget it. The film development processes became a matter of putting the film and a few bucks in the mail and waiting a week. The “instant” camera, invented by Edwin Land, first hit the market in 1948. Photographs had gone from expensive labor intensive creations that required specialized knowledge and boat load of equipment to being “a dime a dozen” throwaway products that anyone could make. Everyone was now a “photographer”.

Now we can start to answer the first question about how replicas of Brillo boxes can be considered works of art when actual Brillo boxes are not.

As photography became something that anyone could do and as traditional artists no longer needed to replicate real objects to be successful, technique lost its place to concept. Where once to become a successful artist required innate talent and years of intense training to learn the skills required, now the concept or meaning of the work became the focus. Paintings can be made with stencils, sculptures can be made out of ‘found objects’, and some art requires only selection – enter the ‘readymade’.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in 1917
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in 1917

In 1917 when Marcel Duchamp submitted a “readymade” urinal to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists he was posing questions about what constitutes art and what makes someone an artist. Duchamp was ahead of his time. The original urinal was denied entry into the show by the Society, it was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, and after kicking around Duchamp’s studio for a while, was thrown away. The real interest in Duchamp’s ideas arose much later, in the 1950s and 60s. (Remember that Warhol created his Brillo boxes in 1964.)

Duchamp’s profile in art circles rose dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, not least as a new generation of artists identified his dada-period works as precedents for their own. In 1963 the Pasadena Art Museum organised the first retrospective of Duchamp’s work. …Duchamp authorised a number of replicas of his original readymades, many of which had been lost. He authorised replicas of Fountain in 1950 and 1963. In 1964 the Galleria Schwarz reproduced Fountain, along with other dada-period works by Duchamp, in an edition of eight, fabricating the objects on the basis on the Stieglitz photograph and working closely with Duchamp.

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, Tate

In 1964 Andy Warhol is again asking the questions of what is art and who is an artist. He has taken Duchamp’s original ideas and modernized and refined them. Instead of merely selecting actual readymade commercial items he constructed completely new works that are indistinguishable from the objects they are patterned after. He does it at a time when people like Danto are ready to wrestle with these kinds of ideas. Warhol’s Brillo boxes weren’t just photographed and then thrown away. They changed art forever.

Danto explains:

The Sixties saw a number of artistic movements emerge – Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art, for example. Each of these made possible works that were, to say the least, philosophically puzzling… it began to seem that anything could be a work of art, as long as some theory could be invoked under which its status as art were explained, so that one could not tell by looking at something, whether it was a work of art or not. Meanings, after all, are invisible. One could not tell, by looking, if something had a meaning or what meaning it had.

Photography to Philosophy: Two Moments of Post-Traditional Art – Arthur Danto

Danto’s declaration in his 1984 essay about the ‘end of art’ didn’t mean that there would no longer be any artists or that people would stop creating art works. What he meant was that it was the end of formalized art. There will be no more great art movements. There is no more need for Cubism or Impressionism to tell us what art should and shouldn’t be – no more need for Art with a capital A. An artwork can be anything now. You want to paint like Rembrandt? Go nuts! You want to silk screen some boxes to make them look like packing boxes? Knock yourself out.

But if art can be anything created by anyone because there are no formalized rules, then how do we decide what constitutes an actual artwork that we should put in a museum and what is just a cardboard shipping container that we should send to the recycling center?

Danto had an idea about that which he refined over the years and eventually reduced to two conditions that make something art.

The work must have content or meaning and it must embody that meaning in some appropriate manner.

So a real Brillo shipping container IS NOT art because it has no meaning. It is just a container used to ship products. A replica of a Brillo box created by Warhol IS art because although it looks like a normal shipping container, it was created for the purpose of conveying a concept or meaning (posing the question of what is art) and its form (looking like a Brillo box) is what makes it able to convey those concepts.

Overall I agree with Danto’s two conditions. Lately I’ve tried to apply them to the art works that I see. I look at a painting or a photograph and I think about what the meaning might be and how well I think it conveys that meaning. This exercise has taught me some things.

One thing that I’ve learned is that the relative values that individuals place on an art work can and often do vary wildly. In the past when we judged art based on the skill of the artist, it was relatively easy to come to an agreement about what is good art and what is bad art. Painting like Rembrandt – good. Painting like me – bad. Very few people would disagree.

Now that we must judge based not on skill but on meaning, agreement is difficult. Although I personally might think a work has little meaning or the form of it doesn’t convey what meaning it has very well, or both, still it might be a work that is highly prized by many other people and it might demand incredibly high sums of money at auctions as proof. One example is Damien Hirst’s collection of “spot paintings“.

Andrew Russeth from New York, New York, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Andrew Russeth from New York, New York, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the years Hirst has created somewhere north of 1500 of these spot paintings and he continues to do so. Actually Hirst admitted that only about 25 of them were painted by him with the rest done by his assistants. They are what you see above, white canvases covered with more or less colored spots arranged in rows. The one shown here has lots of spots but some only have three or four. Some spots are large and some small. When he started doing the spots he used to come up with names for them on his own, but when he saw how many he wanted to create he got tired of it and started naming them based on the chemicals found in ‘Biochemicals for Research and Diagnostic Reagents’, a sort of encyclopedia of pharmaceuticals by the company Sigma-Aldrich – names like L-Isoleucinol and Erbium Oxide.

These paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars each. They are owned by and shown in museums all over the world. Clearly many people find their meaning and the execution of them significant.

However, some critics beg to differ.

That these works contain none of the depths of meaning that we expect from serious painting is due entirely to the artist’s inability to work in the language of metaphor. This not-uncommon problem in contemporary painting is in its various guises evidenced by a misuse of the medium’s formal devices. In Hirst’s case it is pattern and color that have been employed as stylistic affectations without regard to meaning.

Not Dotty About Damien: Hirst’s Spot Paintings Go Global by Henry McMahon

I myself was not impressed when I recently viewed several spot paintings at a local museum. They are supposed to be disorienting, aggressive, and disturbing. I don’t see it – especially the ones that only have a few dots. Like McMahon I don’t see the depth of meaning in the content. The color and the number of dots have nothing to do with the chemical names. They are just dots with a randomly assigned nonsense name. The works seem to fail on both of Danto’s requirements – there is little or no discernable meaning and the execution doesn’t convey what little meaning there is in any appropriate manner.

If the color or size of the dots were somehow related to the chemicals. If Hirst had developed some algorithm tying the two together based on how the molecules are structured or how they affect biological systems. If the color patterns were arranged in a way so they touched viewers in a significant way. That would be something. Whereas Warhol’s Brillo boxes and commercial appropriations asked many questions about the roots of art. Hirst’s spots are just spots.

Who’s right? The people that rave about the spots or the people that find them empty? There is no way to settle something like this. We just have to get used to disagreements. Maybe that makes the world of art more exciting.

Another thing I’ve learned, especially in regards photography, is that there should be another factor in Danto’s definition – that of newness. Not only does an art work need to convey some meaning, it needs to convey some NEW meaning or it needs to convey a familiar meaning in new and unique way.

Being the first person to silk screen some Brillo boxes is powerful but being the second is merely imitation. Being the first to photograph something like Antelope Canyon is great, but photographing it again in essentially the same way loses meaning. Meaning decreases with each imitation until there is no meaning and no art left. Even the original image loses its meaning. Heck, even the location itself loses meaning after a while – it becomes an imitation of itself. Here’s a little description of what it’s like to photograph Antelope Canyon.

We made it to our first spot, and Tony drew a line in the sand for us to line up against. He suggested some compositions, yelled ahead to another guide named Kirk, told us we had two minutes, and then jumped out of the scene. We shot for a bit, and he’d come back and move us along.

My Last Visit to Antelope Canyon: Why I Agree with the Photo Tour Ban by Andy Luten
Screenshot of Antelope Canyon image search showing similarities
Screenshot of Antelope Canyon image search

Think you’re an Instagram artist? Check out @insta_repeat an account that chronicles how truly repetitive the medium has become. Looking at this account makes me sad. Even though I know that this sort of imitation goes on all the time and has been for many years pre-dating the rise of digital photography, seeing it all lined up in one place really brings it home.

Screen Shot of Insta_Repeat
Screen Shot of Insta_Repeat

People tend to flock to the same viral locations — Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, Norway’s Preikestolen cliff, Arizona’s Horseshoe Bend — and take photos from the same angles and with the same framing.

One Instagram account, Insta Repeat, brings that repetition into sharp focus. The person behind it collects similar images from the same places and edits them together. The resulting collages show a flood of nearly identical photos.

An Instagram account exposes how everyone’s photos are starting to look the same — and it’s striking by Jacob Shamsian

The images themselves aren’t art anymore (supposing they ever were in the first place) and the locations have lost their wonder and become ‘destinations’. On the other hand, I’d say that insta_repeat is art. It uses an effective medium to bring to light serious questions about how imagery reflects our society and how, despite technological advances that should allow us to be more individualistic, we cling more rabidly than ever to a herd mentality.

My final thought on Danto’s definition of art is that we need to expand our understanding of the term ‘meaning’. Not all works of art have an easily definable meaning like environmental protection or pointing out social injustice. One of the common knocks against Danto’s definition is that it is difficult to apply it to music. When we say that an art work has meaning we tend to think in concrete ways about questions asked or comments about something. We can translate that meaning into words that we can analyze and have conversations about. Although we are sure that music is art, it doesn’t fit this pattern very well, especially if the piece has no words. We know music is art. We know that good music affects us in very tangible ways mentally and emotionally, but we have no way to express what music does by using words.

The great power of music, regardless of its genre, is that its meaning is ineffable – “where words fail music speaks” (Hans Christian Andersen) – and for many of us music perfectly expresses that which cannot be adequately expressed in words.

Finding Meaning in Music by Frances Wilson

Since there are some kinds of meaning that can’t be adequately expressed in words, we need to be careful when we say that art needs to have meaning. Not every photograph, not every painting, not every musical score needs to make an overt comment about society or ask an obvious question.

Sometimes our connection with an art work is completely inside our heads or our souls if you will. We know it touches us, we know it changes us, but if someone asked us what it means we would be hard pressed to come up with a coherent answer. Many times the artists themselves are unable to explain their work. They just know that it somehow expresses what’s inside them and they hope that it will connect with something inside their viewers.

The modern artist… is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces.

Jackson Pollock

You’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me – and my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet, and therefore both of us need to feel less sad.

Mark Rothko

Just as we use the term déjà vu to describe the feeling of remembering scenes or events that we know we are experiencing for the first time, we need to come up with some new words and phrases for how art affects us mentally, imaginatively, and spiritually. When I look at a Rothko or a Pollock painting I know there is meaning there. I feel it, but I can’t express it. Just because the meaning is inexpressible doesn’t signify that it isn’t there and it doesn’t mean that it isn’t art by Danto’s definition.

Art is a uniquely human form of communication that transcends time and culture. We have always created art. From ancient cave paintings to brillo boxes and everything in between. We are art. We are what we draw, what we paint, what we shape, how we move, how we sing. We haven’t reached the end of art in a literal sense, but things certainly have changed over the centuries… or have they? Here’s an image of cave painting from Argentina that is estimated at between 9000 and 13000 years old. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I saw something like this in a museum today.

Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
Mariano, CC BY-SA 3.0

Comments on "Photography and the End of Art"

  1. Your post makes me think of that definition of art I ran across once, as being “whatever deepens the mystery.” I like that, although I’m not necessarily sure if it can be applied to all the examples you mention.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.


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