Andy Warhol’s Campbell's Soup Cans might evoke the question “Why is this art?” because it underscores tension and disagreement about what art is and what it should do.
Some believe that art should highlight the serious issues facing the world at any given time. For example, right now, it likely wouldn’t lead to much controversy to refer to Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica as a work of art. His painting tackles the dire subjects of war, death, and destruction as they related to Spain’s civil war in the 1930s.
At first glance, Warhol’s soup cans bear no explicit connection to the serious issues of his time. Warhol first exhibited the soup cans paintings in 1962. During this time, the United States faced myriad lethal problems. It was fighting a brutal war in Vietnam and dealing with ongoing racial injustice domestically. The seeming superficiality of the soup cans undercut the common notion that art is supposed to be deep and overtly addresses relevant, substantive issues.
However, it’s possible to argue that Warhol’s soup cans provoke such debate about what is and isn’t art because they address the rather unsettling relationship between art and commerce. For Warhol, art was not separate from capitalism or generating profit for himself and his associates. In Warhol’s view, art was not a pure, virtuous endeavor that emanated from his soul or another romantic, abstract place.
In his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warhol destabilizes the imputed differences between business and art. According to Warhol, “Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.” Again, Warhol’s formula will likely unsettle those who believe there should be a clear boundary between creating art and participating in capitalism.