The AWs and Conceptual Art

This week’s readings on hybrid art forms in a  post-Warhol world were useful in tracing the history of art and what we have historically considered to be art. Focusing on Arthur Danto’s analysis and critique of Warhol’s work and impact on the way in which we conceptualize art was particularly thought-provoking. In “Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary,” Danto explains that Warhol was so important to contemporary art, or “post historical” art, which is characterized by a “lack of stylistic unity,” because he showed the art world that anything could be considered art. There was a huge shift in our cultural collective understanding of art when art could be conceptual rather than being focused on technical artistic skills. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, according to Danto, is a perfect example of such conceptual art: “nothing need mark the difference, outwardly, between Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box and Brillo boxes in the super market.” This change is so important because thought and philosophy enter the conversation when art becomes conceptual.

Brillo Box is indeed a fascinating and clear example of conceptual hybrid art work. Warhol integrated everyday objects and consumer products into his art. It makes us consider the socially constructed systems of meaning and value around a work of art in comparison to a commercial, everyday product. Ben Davis, in “What Arthur Danto Meant to Me,” explains Danto’s interpretation of this work: we can’t be certain about the difference between artworks and actual boxes “without the intervention of thought,” which draws upon the aforementioned systems of meaning.

Another significant characteristic of Warhol’s work, which has carried over into the works of contemporary conceptual artists internationally is the idea of authenticity and the artist’s physical touch that Richard Dorment describes in his essay “What is an Andy Warhol?”: a Warhol painting or work can be considered original even if Warhol did not physically make it. What matters, pointing back to the Brillo Box example that Danto explored, is the idea behind the work of art, and the thoughts and dialogic conversations with audiences and culture that it provokes.  Did Warhol put together the Brillo Box sculpture with his own hands? What is the difference between the sculpture and the mass produced boxes? How can authenticity be verified, and should it still be valued and measured in the same way in the art world as it had been before the age of mass production?

Some of Ai Weiwei’s sculptures are very similar to the conceptual works of Andy Warhol, like Brillo Box, in provoking viewers to question the systems of meaning built up around material objects. Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases plays with the appropriation of cultural meanings, just as Warhol did. Ancient vases from the Han dynasty, cherished for their historical value, were appropriated by Ai Weiwei when he took them (or, someone in his studio took them–he, like Warhol, comes up with the concepts but often lets others execute his ideas) and dipped them in different bold colors of paint. Just as Warhol reappropriated the Brillo boxes (albeit not by physically taking the objects but by building replicas of them) so too does Ai Weiwei reappropriate objects with a different cultural value than that of a work of art. The cultural meaning attached to the ancient pottery, most probably first a functional object, later turned into object of historical value due to its age, and then turned into a work of art by virtue of Ai Weiwei dipping them in paint, arranging them together in an installation. Like Brillo Box, Colored Vases makes us question what we are seeing. When exactly does the transformation from an object of history to a work of contemporary art happen? The provocation of these questions makes these works of art conceptual, and ensures that there is a dialogue between the artist and the audiences receiving the works.


Works Cited

 Arthur Danto, “Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary,” From After the End of Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997): Chap. 1, pp. 3-19 (New York Times excerpt)

Ben Davis, “What Arthur Danto Meant to Me.” ARTINFO, Oct. 30, 2013.

Richard Dormant, “What is an Andy Warhol.” Review essay, The New York Review of Books. Oct. 2009.

Will Hunter, “Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases,” The Architectural Review, N.p., 26 May 2011, Web, 1 Mar. 2014, <>.

Lovern, Lindsey, and Jonathan Yee, “Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes: A Series Index,”Artnet. Artnet, 15 Mar. 2013, Web. 01 Mar. 2014, <>.