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Andy Warhol and the Social Construction of the Late Modern Artist

by David Deitcher

Andy Warhol's first Pop show - the infamous Campbell's Soup exhibit of 1962 - is usually understood in terms of its reduction of painting to commodity status. After all, what else is one to make of a cycle of paintings which finds its motif and extent in a highly visible line of groceries? 32 flavors; 32 paintings. With the pictures evenly spaced on a shelf that circled the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the installation invoked nothing so much as an assembly line. Only a connoisseur of condensed soup - or of the Campbell's Soup can design - would notice, or care, that each label claimed a different identity for the contents of each painted can. Of course, there was one such connoisseur: And Warhol himself. And what Warhol put on display was not 32 cans of Campbell's Soup, but hand-rendered easel paintings of their designs, each splayed out and slightly flattened as if to ensure that no nuance of this emblem would be overlooked. Thus, the flip side of the gesture in which Warhol seemed to equate paintings with soup cans was that he also paid tribute to the work of commercial artists. Not an unlikely ploy, considering that Warhol's fame as a commercial artist had prevented every prestigious contemporary art dealer in New York from offering him an individual show; at least until after the exhibits of every other artist associated with Pop virtually sold out. It was his renown as a commercial artist which resulted in the fact that, as Calvin Tompkins wrote, Andy Warhol "got in just under the wire."

Whether or not one detects a trace of professional revenge in Warhol's Ferus Gallery exhibit, vendetta hardly exhausts its meaning. It would be hard to imagine a more concise and balanced realization of the Pop formula according to which an artists aestheticizes commodities while he commodifies aesthetics. I intend to show that this conflation of industrial and aesthetic structures can be referred back to historical and social facts of American life before and after World War II; and that this situation, as mediated through the institution of American art teaching, was instrumental to the social construction of such late modern art.

Pop artists could slide back and forth with unprecedented ease along an axis that extends between high aesthetic structures and those of industrial production. This cannot be explained solely in aesthetic terms: as a side effect of their repudiation of Abstract Expressionism, or of their putatively "realist" response to a new American landscape. To consider the historical implications of this axis - examining its function within a broadly defined pedagogical discourse - is to address the matter of the social construction of the artist who navigates its path with such ease. To a greater or lesser degree, fine art and applied arts have always been perceived to be in conflict with one another. From the second-third of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, the theoretical history of art and design instruction consists in the institutional negotiation between aesthetic and utilitarian structures: between handicraft and assembly line; between originals and copies; between imagination and convention; between the cultivation of unified perception or of the resources of involuntary memory an and the miseries of rote learning.

From the early 1930s through the 1940s, a number of political, social, economic and cultural developments brought these terms into a peculiar alignment within American art and design instruction. This primarily affected students in degree-granting university art departments, rather than those who attended small Beaux-arts derived art schools. That is to say, it affected most of the central figures in American Pop. Between 1935, when the Federal Art Project was launched, and 1945, when the war in Europe ended, American art and design instruction were transformed; so, for that matter were American art and the composition of its public.

As conceived by Holger Cahill, the Federal Art Project provided relief for unemployed artists and designers and encouraged the production of variously anti-elitist and "public" art forms. It is well known that thousands of murals, graphics, and posters were commissioned. Less familiar is the fact that the Federal Art Project instituted educational programs nationwide to construct a vast and socially diversified American audience for art. From Spokane to Harlem, over 100 community art centers were established across the country. Cahill based this national art agenda upon the model of John Dewey's plan for progressive education, reflexive democracy and the social integration of aesthetic experience. As such, its ultimate goal was to incorporate art into the everyday lives of Americans and to undermine the hierarchical distinction between fine and applied arts; in short, to overturn the notion of art-for-art's sake by putting art to the service of forging a sense of national and regional identity and assisting in self-fulfillment.

Not until the end of John Dewey's book, Art as Experience, did he admit that a radical sublation of art and everyday life could occur only if one eliminated, in his words, "the economic system of production for private gain." In the absence of such revolutionary social change, the individual work of art might potentially serve as a model of aesthetic experience to be emulated in other areas of life; this, in addition to maintaining its traditional, bourgeois function as a repository of calm and imaginary resolution which provides temporary relief from the discontents of modern civilization. Thus, despite the more radical implications of Dewey's metaphysics of experience, his theory paradoxically ensured that discrete works of art would retain their special status. Considering the long-term effects of increased art teaching within general education - including the assimilation of art within popular culture - works of art and the persons who created them were fated to become objects of ever increasing mythification and veneration in American society. Indeed, while the domination of Project art by social realist and regionalist styles may denote the failure of a naively populist approach to the problem of shaping national cohesion, the educational programs of the national art agenda were more successful. They helped to confer a sense of cultural entitlement and reverence for art to a generation of middle class and soon-to-be middle class Americans that came of age during and after World War II. It was this generation that Clement Greenberg pictures in 1947, surging towards middle-brow culture in such numbers and with such avidity that he considered it "a greater threat to serious art than kitsch itself."

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