Warhol's Soup Cans: Art or Not?

Andy Warhol THE SKATEROOM Art Skateboard
©/®/™ The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Ever since the first public appearance, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans have (pardon the pun) stirred controversy. The iconic series has, both, been hailed as a masterpiece and denounced as an outrage. How could these cans have brought about such chaos in the art world?

When the 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans were first exhibited, they were mocked. Taken at face value, all they represented to most was the 32 different soup flavors that Campbell’s sold at the time. No one seemed to notice that their display closely resembled the shelves of groceries stores lined up with products. The disposition of each visual concealed within it the symbol of American abundance. They were subtly reflecting the booming mass consumption right back at their viewer.

Credits: Knowledge@Wharton

At the same time, Warhol’s repetitive silkscreen process reduced his subjects to insipid imagery. In doing so, he repurposed Campbell’s logo into his own until the brand and Warhol were no longer discernible one from the other. The artwork propelled Warhol onto the world stage, becoming the biggest art celebrity since Picasso. He did have a little help though from French artist, Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp, who claimed, “I am interested in ideas, not merely in visual products”, revolutionized the academic conception of art which, until then, judged the value of a work only by the efforts and work put in for an edifying purpose. This definition of modern art allowed Warhol’s work to be recognized as art. Technically speaking, Andy Warhol didn’t create something profound. However, his work made people look at things differently by transferring objects from one location (ex: a supermarket) to another (ex: a museum).

Context and meaning took precedent over technique. Art was no longer just about what you saw, but about the idea beyond the image. Warhol hid his true intentions well and still keeps us guessing. The imagery now embedded in the collective mind of humanity, it’s safe to take the debate off the stove and let it simmer.