Andy Warhol held a mirror so that society could see their consumer-selves. His background as a commercial artist, and his fascination with advertising, lead him to create refined artwork. In Campbell’s Canned Soup, he took a banal, mass-produced item and put it centre-stage. The process he used to create the work reflected a production line. Finally, in using an assembly line artistic process, and in using other people’s ideas, Warhol asks society to question the value of his art. Through these ideas Warhol forces society to reflect on the theme of consumerism.
Andy Warhol’s background in context of 1950s America is important to understand, as it gives one an idea of why he was so fascinated with consumer culture. He grew up in Oakland, Pittsburgh and had two older brothers. He left school in 1945, and started his career as a commercial artist . He did artwork in this setting, looking at consumer products, until late 1959 (Shanes, 2011). Due to the middle classes’ strengthened financial position in the 1950s, American Society, through mass production, had become conformist, consumerist and banal. As a commercial artist, Andy Warhol was involved in this consumerist drive directly, through producing marketing materials. His attention turned to showing us this when he moved into fine art, from 1960 onward (Shanes, 2011). With the Pop Art movement taking shape, it allowed him to explore these ideas.
The Pop Art movement forces us to reflect on many aspects of society. A lot of Pop Art used irony as a means to critique the banality, capitalist, and consumerist nature of society. One example is in Richard Hamilton’s (1956) artwork, and indeed question, titled just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? This directly asks us to be critical of current society, and indeed we can draw negative connotations of our consumer culture though the use of clutter, and kitsch objects in the artwork. Another example is Roy Lichenstein’s (1961) painting, titled Popeye, which uses a children’s cartoon to directly ask society to be critical of the idea of copyright and sharing information, and of violence, both on television and in general.
In contrast, Warhol’s method of constantly refining the idea down to its most basic element, resulted in art that didn’t use irony, at least not outwardly, but rather puts our cultural objects into plain view to allow society to make our own judgements. As it is put, in Andy Warhol: A Documentary, “to subject those raw data [artistic ideas] to as little manipulation as possible” An example of this, Campbell’s Canned Soup (Warhol, 1962), puts the item front and centre, with little embellishment, and forces society to reflect on what consumerism means to each individual.
Campbell’s Canned Soup is one of Warhol’s earliest fine art works to be critically acclaimed. Sometimes referred to as 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans; the artwork is a collection of 32 individual canvases, measuring 20 by 16 inches. Each Canvas has one of the 32, available at-the-time, soup flavours. The flavours are arranged by chronological order that they were produced, however Warhol didn’t necessarily envision them in this manner (Museum of Modern Art, n.d.). One of the Gallery labels describes the process of their manufacture:
Warhol made these paintings using a multi-step process. First, a pencil underdrawing of the soup cans outline was made on each canvas, possibly by tracing a projection of a drawing…. Next, the can and label were painted by hand, and the lettering for each variety was projected and painted onto each canvas. Finally, the gold fleur-de-lis at the bottom of each can were applied with a stamp cut from a rubber eraser.
The individual canvases are quite simple, and reflect Andy’s earlier commercial work and his rejection of the impressionist fine art of the day. The colours used in the drawing of the cans are simple black, red, a little yellow, and the gold for the fleur-de-lis. White space is used liberally, which reflects both corporate art of the era, and mirrors the actual Campbell’s Soup Company labels. Extraneous details, including an inscription on the medallion in the centre of each can, were left out (Bauer & Warhol, 2004, p. 35). Warhol’s use of simplicity in Campbell’s Canned Soup helps society to form our own ideas about what the artwork means, and leaves interpretation to the viewer.
One major theme that Warhol explores, and indeed, forces society to come to terms with is consumerism. At first glance, the artwork appears to be nothing more than simple drawings, when looking at the work on a purely aesthetic basis. His almost ardent rejection of what fine art was suppose to be sometimes infuriated those in the impressionist scene, and due to reductionist method, he set himself apart from contemporaries in the pop art scene (Warhol & Hackett, 1980, p. 14). Upon further inspection, we can see how his earlier work was influenced through consumerism.
Firstly, the theme of consumerism can be shown in Campbell’s Canned Soup as being one of the influences of his earlier work as a commercial artist. He worked in commercial art not only as a way of making a living, but he was also “deeply fascinated by advertising and it’s mechanisms” (Bauer & Warhol, 2004, p. 23). Warhol reached his peak as commercial artist in a time of heightened consumerism in the United States. The simple, commercial aesthetic in Campbell’s Canned Soup is mirrored in Warhol’s earlier the series of shoes, À la recherche du shoe perdu (Warhol, 1955), both are of a stripped back image of a consumer product, which was produced when he was a commercial artist. We can, therefore, see Campbell’s Canned Soup as an extension of his earlier work as a commercial artist, and as a growing interest in advertising and consumerism.
Secondly, the theme of consumerism in Campbell’s Canned Soup can also be shown through the use of cans as a subject. Cook (2003), notes that a new era of consumerism began with cheap commodities, and that the pop art movement was a “cultural response to and reflection on this” (p. 71). In essence, Warhol is singling out this mass-produced item, and then forcing society to reflect on the significance of this. Campbell’s soup was a benign object of the consumerist, capitalist culture, and Warhol’s response to this was to put these objects into the limelight to force society to pay attention to them, to force society to think about our own consumerism, and our own place within a consumer society.
Thirdly, one can see how Warhol’s artistic process reflects mass production in a consumerist society. In Campbell’s Canned Soup and other works, Warhol “acted like a machine” (Jackson, 2010), in that he repeated his can 32 times, not for any aesthetic or artistic reason, but solely because there were 32 flavours. In this, he mirrors the Campbell Soup Company’s production line (Warhol, Bluttal, & Phaidon Press, 2006). His artwork was produced on a mass scale, reflecting the mass-production necessary to support a consumerist society, each step in producing his artwork corresponded to a mechanised process in a production line.
Furthermore, Warhol knew that his own artwork had a certain value that consumer society placed on it, and pushed these ideas to the limit. Warhol was happy to have other people contribute ideas about things he should draw, asking society to question the value of the artwork if the idea wasn’t solely his, or not his at all (Warhol & Hackett, 1980). In using the mechanised processes to create his work, it would be simple to create copies of a Warhol artwork. In this, he is commoditising his own work, packaging and repacking the work. Later versions of Campbell’s Canned Soup were created with the use of studio helpers (Bauer & Warhol, 2004). Given the easily reproducible nature of the artwork, and the idea that it wasn’t solely Warhol’s work, he forces society to ask what value it places on art in a consumer market.
Andy Warhol’s early success as a commercial artist, and his interest in advertising influenced his later work as a fine artist in the Pop Movement. Indeed, Warhol’s Campbell’s Canned Soup is an extension of his earlier work, but with a different focus, that of reflection. Warhol’s production-line artistic method, mirrors the manufacture of a mass-produced object, reflecting both a Campbell’s soup can, and the commoditisation of his own artwork. He brought a mirror to the masses so that one could examine oneself. Warhol never directly told society what we should think about this consumerism, only that one should think about it.
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This essay was completed as part of a Communication and Presentation Systems course at AUT