Andy Warhol

Start Free Trial

Student Question

Why does Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans question the definition of art?

Quick answer:

Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans evokes the important question "Why is this art?" because it challenges the conventional idea that art should deal with beauty and/or demonstrate exceptional technical skill.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In 1962, Andy Warhol exhibited thirty-two small paintings which depicted almost identical cans of Campbell's Soup. The point of these paintings was to portray everyday, common, ordinary objects and to make people question the nature and function of art.

Art has been traditionally concerned with subject matter that is beautiful or unusual or inspirational. The Campbell's soup cans are in and of themselves not particularly beautiful, unusual, or inspirational, and are thus surprising, controversial subject matter for something that proclaims itself to be art. This made people question the assumption that art could not and should not be concerned with that which is purely functional or with the worlds of mass culture and commerce.

The Campbell's soup can paintings were produced by a screen printing process, which is a process first used to mass produce the same images onto fabrics. It is not considered a particularly difficult process and does not require too much of what might be called artistic skill. It is also a relatively quick process.

Traditionally, art is produced by methods which require tremendous skill and which take considerable time. Michelangelo took four years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and two years to sculpt the statue of David. Leonardo da Vinci took four years to paint the Mona Lisa and three years to paint The Last Supper. Warhol's paintings of Campbell's soup cans, in contrast, would have been produced very quickly because of the screen printing process. This screen printing process was therefore another reason why these paintings made people ask, "Why is this art?" Indeed, for many people, something should perhaps not be considered art if it does not require great artistic skill or take a considerable amount of time to produce.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why does Andy Warhol’s Campbell's Soup Cans evoke the important question “Why is this art?”

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on