Warhol’s fake boxes: It’s the economy, stupid

The following essay was first published on the now defunct blog http://antyphayes.blogsome.com/ on 9 January 2008. I wrote it in response to the “revelation” that the Warhol Brillo boxes then on display at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art were “fakes”. Of course the revelation was nothing of the sort. Warhol, like the detestable Avida Dollars, was never above faking his own work — not to mention working his own fakes. In the case of the Brillo Boxes, Warhol’s “creativity” amounting to reproducing what had already been mass reproduced in a factory. Which is to say, a slight variation on Duchamp’s readymade with none of the original’s verve or corrosive criticism.

One of the themes of this piece is the venality of self-professed “internationally renowned art experts” like Pontus Hulten. As wiser people have remarked about such shady characters, they’re only in it for the money.

There are a few things I would change if I was writing this article today. In particular I would flesh out the breathtakingly brief and inadequate summary of the development of the ‘market in mass produced things’ after the Second World War. But I thought it best to leave the article as is, with that musty aura of electro-authenticity that it so richly deserves.

And for those so inclined, a pdf of the article here.

Warhol’s fake boxes: It’s the economy, stupid

Relations appear to be between boxes, not people

Relations appear to be between boxes, not people

It appears that 100 Brillo boxes attributed to Andy Warhol were produced three years after his death. Short of commissions beyond the grave, what has happened?

Pontus Hulten, an ‘art expert’ and ex-head of the Pompidou centre in Paris, reportedly ordered more than 100 Warhol-brand Brillo boxes made up in 1990 for an exhibition in St Petersburg. Four years later he sold 40 of them to Ronny van de Velde complete with authentication certificates claiming ‘These “Brillo Boxes” were produced in Stockholm in 1968, according to Andy Warhol’s instructions. These “Brillo Boxes” were included in the exhibition “Andy Warhol” at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, February-March 1968.’ Hulten is accused of using his reputation in relation to Warhol—particularly his overseeing of the Warhol exhibition in Stockholm in 1968—to claim such authenticity for the boxes.

Warhol made Brillo boxes for a 1964 exhibition, ‘The American Supermarket.’ Along with other pop-artists, the exhibition aped the supermarket, offering gentle pastiche rather than criticism of the burgeoning market in consumer durables.

Warhol was a good salesman who refrained from any criticism of sales itself. In the 1950s he worked as an advertisement illustrator, using assistants to finish work in order to increase his productivity. In this he demonstrated that he was a man of his time. Later, reinvented as artist, Warhol used similar factory-like techniques, giving his various workshops the non-ironic name of ‘The Factory.’

Warhol's assembly line

Warhol’s assembly line

Warhol and other pop-artists’ fetish of the mass produced thing adapted Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made to commercial ends. Whereas Duchamp had used the everyday object such as a wine rack, hitherto not presented or seen as an object of art, the pop-artists copied the mass produced object in order to present their authentic copies as art objects.

After the Second World War and the development of the market in mass produced things for workers, Duchamp’s radical gesture had been reconciled with a new more expansive artistic aesthetic. Certainly the cavalcade of refrigerators, televisions, cars, stereos and other consumer durables were wrapped up in the rhetoric of artistic aesthetics—a smorgasbord of mass produced beauty sold to the working classes.

However the radical heart of Duchamp’s gesture thrown at the art establishment around the time of the First World War remained: If Duchamp can do it, then why not you or me?

Warhol, however, did not come to bury capitalism, he came to praise it. Certainly Warhol was not shy of pointing this out. In his 1975 Philosophy of Andy Warhol he bluntly states ‘Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’

In the original ‘The American Supermarket’ exhibition, Warhol’s copies of Brillo boxes and Heinz boxes came complete with price tags—real prices indicating the works of art were for sale. At the exhibition he sold his famous painting of a Campbell’s soup can for USD $1000. The Brillo boxes went for the comparatively less expensive $350. It is worth noting that in 1968 the minimum wage in the United States for a forty hour week was $64. However why bother making these points considering that Warhol was a self-confessed devote of capitalism?

Art for sale

Art for sale

Some art critics claim that such exhibitions are pioneers of a postmodern sensibility, deploying irony in their representation of mass produced commodities as art. But in reality there is no irony in an exhibition that uncritically re-presents commodities as art, particularly when these art objects stacked in the aisles are also for sale.

Irony is the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning. In order to qualify as ironic, an exhibition such as ‘The American Supermarket’ would have had to be more than simply a facsimile of an American supermarket. The artists involved would have been better off affixing tags that said ‘Free!’ or ‘Steal this!’ to achieve such an effect. The problem then would have been if people had taken them at their word, as indeed they did when purchasing the non-ironic $350 box sculptures. Capitalism already lays on the irony cost free—‘It’s a steal!’ has adorned many a product. The irony of capitalism is that objects for sale, alienating work conditions, and the rule of exclusive property rights are considered expressions of individual freedom—the freedom to buy, work and own.

If we examine Warhol’s 1968 exhibition in Stockholm, which is also a vector for the current brouhaha regarding so-called fake Brillo boxes, we can come to understand what exactly is going on. For this exhibition at the Modern Museum in Stockholm, overseen by Pontus Hulten, Warhol had boxes made up in Sweden by workers to his specifications. Certainly this is the logical conclusion of Warhol’s factory attitude to art—he issues the orders and others produce the work that he claims creative and proprietary rights over.

We have noted that Warhol had developed his factory style techniques in order to increase efficiency. Such notions of productive efficiency are conventionally seen as external to concerns over ownership, that is they are merely technical problems related to the process of production. But as Karl Marx pointed out over a century ago this is false. The ability to command other peoples’ labour is not separate from questions of ownership; rather it is an essential part of capitalism.

The capitalist mode of production

The capitalist mode of production

Warhol’s involvement in the art industry does not exempt him from the criticism that he is as exploitative as any business owner must be in order to compete in the market. It is a moot point that his individual talent lays at the heart of a process to which other people’s time and creativity can be harnessed, considering that his creative ability is both a product of and contributor to society. For Warhol to increase his ‘personal’ efficiency he needed to further socialise his immediate process of production; that is he needed to command others’ ability to labour to that end. And this isn’t even to broach the topic of the necessarily large-scale socialised processes of production that brought the raw material to Warhol and his minions in the first place.

Pontus Hulten’s commissioning of further Warhol boxes in 1990, and then his sale of some of these four years later to a hapless collector under the claim that they were ‘genuine’ Warhol boxes is the least of our worries. Hulten was just after a piece of the sizeable pecuniary action using the alienated production techniques of his dead friend. In his defence he could have paraphrased that arch defender of property and Catholicism, Salvador Dali, and said that ‘the only difference between Warhol and I is that I am not a Warhol.’ Just as Warhol is no different from any other capitalist and should not be mystified by the mantle of art, so to the waring brothers and sisters of the Warhol industry should be named as the exploitative capitalists that they are.

Sadly Warhol and many that have been inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades have adapted such techniques to the ignoble cause of exclusive ownership and profits. Far better guides to irony are the Italian workers and revolutionists of the 1970s who engaged in ‘political shopping.’ Developing from the strikes in factories and offices, workers logically extended their strikes against work to strikes against paying for the goods they also made, delivered, sold and consumed. By stealing Warhol’s name for profitable ends Hulten only demonstrated an understanding of the monetary value of the Warhol brand—something that doesn’t appear that far removed from Warhol’s own money-making schemes.

Artists represent the world in various ways. We must change it as well. Truthful representations in art may be possible, providing we dispense with the dissimulations of Warhol’s marketing. However, even if such representation is a good start, it is a poor end.

Thanks to Gerald Keaney and Miranda Lello.

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3 Responses to Warhol’s fake boxes: It’s the economy, stupid

  1. antyphayes says:

    Reblogged this on works & days.

  2. Eric Wayne says:

    Great stuff. Hadn’t seen a pic of Warhol’s factory before, and enjoyed the analysis of his use of Capitalism. Obviously this is the model Koons and Hirst use, and it’s not surprising the resultant “art” appeals to the corporate-minded buyers of art. When at artist is a CEO, his work appeals to CEOs. Shiiiiiit.

    • antyphayes says:

      Thanks for the comments. Yeah I agree totally, Warhol and others are the model for success as dictated by the market. The barely “self-reflexive” part of this, from sly winks to the wholesale embrace of the venal arts, has become the prime selling point of pop art and beyond. Boredom and dulled fascination ensues for the rest of us…

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