I read about a big retrospective exhibition of Andy Warhol's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so I wrote this.
First the idea of beauty dies, but still there survives the belief that a work of art should contain some visual interest, to delight the eye, or move the feelings or stimulate the aesthetic sense. With Monet, for example, we have the wonderfulness of light, with Renoir we have the joy of social life, with Van Gogh we have the crazy energy that sparkles off living things, with Cezanne we have the fascination with the material world itself, the magic of physical existence. All this art says, look, look and be changed! That relict commitment to attract the eye's interest continues in painting through the middle of the 20th century, with slowly decreasing confidence. Abstract expressionism was interesting to a degree, and was carried on by people with at least some attachment to what had gone before, although we were told then that painting was not about anything but paint. Yet there is real energy and interest in, say, Pollack, and it's clear that he descends from Van Gogh, as Picasso descends from Cezanne.
It was Warhol's genius to discover that, given the state of society and the art market, the requirement of interest was no longer limiting. The energy of artists need no longer be trained by study and practice to entrance the eye. Quite the contrary: instead, Warhol directed his energy toward the creation of an art that was as boring as it could possibly be, ending with a vast oeuvre, no single item of which is worth the trouble to view. That is its point. Rich people buy Warhols and hang them in home and office, but for all the purely visual experience they represent, they might just as well hang notices on their walls stating, "I paid $11.3 million for a Warhol." Commoditization has reached its apogee.
In this sense, Warhol is as important to the history of art as Giotto or Manet. It is, after all, a gigantic achievement to have liberated art from the necessity of being interesting. That said, it still puzzles me why anyone would take the trouble to visit a Warhol retrospective. Because if art is ultimately about experience, then boredom is the negation of experience. If you went to a Giotto or Manet retrospective you would have had an experience. You might be angry or inspired or transformed, but something would have happened to you. A visit to a Warhol retrospective would, in contrast, actually sap experience; you would have endured a sort of negation. This is boredom's work, and why we endeavor to avoid it, and why boredom is characteristic of totalitarian regimes--those endless queues for eggs or licenses. The regime is saying that it exercises total control of your life and can impose boredom at will. A Warhol retrospective is thus an analog not of a regular exhibition but of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The question then remains why the upper crust of our society should have voluntarily submitted itself to this quintessence of boredom, praising it, lionizing this dreadfully boring man, and paying huge sums for his work. Perhaps it is because people whose every whim is satisfied and who have no real spiritual existence must make their boredom into a cult, of which Warhol's studied presentation of common crap and familiar photos are the sacramental objects. And in his boringness, Warhol was undoubtedly sincere, although, of course, sincerity is the least attractive of the saving graces. That he was not a con-man is his tragedy.
It's often pointed out that Warhol's work descends from Marcel Duchamp's Fountain of 1917, an unadorned urinal signed with the name of a comic strip character. But Duchamp was not sincere. He was making a joke, the point of which was that if the bourgeois persisted in commoditizing art, art might as well be urinals. The joke was not got, however, and the urinal now sits proudly in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also a major buyer of Warhol's work, including the famous Campbell's soup can. Another difference, perhaps as important, is that you can actually piss in the urinal, but there's no soup in the can.