Soup? Art? The Quandary Thickens. - Pacific Standard

Soup? Art? The Quandary Thickens.

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Talk about coming full circle. Beginning Sunday, most Target stores will be selling special-edition cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup featuring colorful labels that evoke the work of Andy Warhol.

For Trudy the Bag Lady, the Lily Tomlin character who attempted to define the difference between soup and art, life has just gotten considerably more complicated.

Warhol’s now-iconic paintings of Campbell’s soup cans in the 1960s brought the imagery of mass marketing into museums and art galleries. They were, on one level, a critique of our consumer culture, but a sly one: Warhol wasn’t condemning the advertising imagery that was all around us, but he was insisting we pay attention to it.

As Neil Gabler put it in his thoughtful 1998 book Life: The Movie, Warhol struck a “deep cultural chord” by “acknowledging that popular culture had prevailed over high culture, and that its junk, which was the subject of his paintings, now occupied the resonant center of American life.”

So what does it say that a mass-market company (which, according to its in-house historian, had a surprisingly cordial relationship with Warhol) is bringing visual flair to the canned-food aisle? Has the difference between the Tate Modern and the Target Midtown been completely obliterated?

Some intriguing answers can be found in a 2006 essay on “the aestheticization of consumption,” published in the journal Marketing Theory (a must-read for all fans of modern art). Isabelle Szmigin of the Birmingham Business School argues that the post-Warhol era has seen a “convergence of art and consumption” in which “so-called high art and graphic design can be melded in new and innovative ways, acceptable to the market and willingly integrated into it.”

She goes on to note that shopping, for many people, is increasingly an aesthetic experience rather than a practical task. Choosing between going to the museum and the mall isn’t so clear-cut if, in either event, most of your time will be spent gazing at objects you find attractive and interesting. Sure, at the mall you can purchase something particularly pretty—but you can also do that at the museum store.

“When shopping is used to hold boredom at bay, it loses its purposiveness and acquires an aesthetic dimension,” Szmigin writes. “Like a beautiful work of art, shopping in this mode can be said to have no end other than itself. As such, the circle has come around, the work of art is as much a commodity as a pair of shoes, and the pair of shoes can embody an aesthetic dimension as much as the work of art.”

All of which brings up a question: When purchasers bring home the Warhol-inspired soup cans, will they open them and have a bowl of soup? Doing so, after all, will destroy the design, which was the inspiration behind the purchase. Does actual hunger trump our hunger for beauty? Ponder that, Trudy, and get back to us.

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