Andy Warhol held a mirror to society and the mass consumerism of the 1960’s with his art. His background as a commercial artist, and his fascination with advertising, lead him to create a refined style of artwork. Using the production line as his means to create medium, he fed the consumers in the same way that most goods were made. Warhol asked society to question the value capitalism and his art in a duality. Through these ideas Warhol forced society to reflect on the theme of consumerism.
Warhol’s first success came through commercial art and his interest in advertising. This combined with his influence from the Pop Movement. From this combination he brought the Campbell’s Canned Soup – which was an extension of earlier work, but with a different focus: reflection. Pop Art’s movement forced consideration on many aspects of society; Pop Art used irony as a means to critique the banality, capitalist, and consumerist nature of humanity. Warhol used a method of constantly refining the idea down to its most basic element. From this he created art out of cultural objects, and they were in plain view to allow society to make our own judgement. 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 center, with little embellishment, and forces society to reflect on what consumerism means to each individual.
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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 flavors. 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 supposed to be sometimes infuriated those involved in impressionism. Due to his 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.
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.
The theme of consumerism in Campbell’s Canned Soup can also be shown through the use of the 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). There was no difference between the can of soup owned by a famous actor or the housewife in the suburbs of the mid-west. It was a different type of purchase, a different type of influence on daily life. There was no status associated with the product, but it made impact on nearly every American in the 1960’s.
Warhol’s artistic process was itself a reflection of mass production; it is noted that 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 flavors – a literally interpretation. The Campbell Soup Company’s production line was mirrored (Warhol, Bluttal, & Phaidon Press, 2006). His artwork was produced on a mass scale, identical to what is necessary to support a consumerist society.
Warhol knew that his own artwork had the 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 mechanized processes to create his work, it would be simple to create copies of a Warhol artwork. In this, he is commoditizing 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 forced society to ask what value it would place on art in a consumer market.
The uniqueness of the art, the cleverness of how the moment of consumerism was captured, and Warhol’s ability to replicate mass production of his art, in irony, called out the artistic commentary itself.
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