Exploiting the Exploiter: The Campbell Soup Company and Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol‘s 50th Anniversary Labels by Campbell’s

This week, I had a group presentation on contemporary art in one of my classes, and I was going to elaborate on the issues of contemporary art in relation to Postmodernism. In the class, our presentation was interactive (and used the entire class of three hours) so we had a break halfway through it. During the break, I saw this image in my Reeder, and I decided to add it quickly to my PowerPoint as I was going to show the following image:

Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)

We’re reading Liam Gillick‘s article where he highlights some issues of contemporary art while engaging his framework of what he calls “current art.” As soon as I started reading the article, I felt that we could replace “contemporary” with “postmodernist” or “postmodernism” and the essay would still make sense. If this is the case, (almost) all the issues Gillick raises don’t seem really new; they rather seem to have been there for a while.

When we talk about art, many of us, including myself, still maintain the utopian, romantic sense of creativity in artworks, but the reality is pointing out at the opposite direction. This is not just because of the Postmodernist pastiche sensibility but also due to the ever intensifying capitalism and its influence over the institutional condition and the production of art. Some artists may be cleverly exploiting this condition instead of being exploited by elites and/or the rich. Also, studying art and receiving a BFA, an MFA, and even a Ph.D. in art, many artists end up conforming to the new norm of art practice bounded by institutional preference under capitalism.

Unlike typical artists and artworks, many filmmakers and films have been under the influence of capitalism; indeed, the awareness of such an influence is crucial in studying film history and even film theory. I am not exactly sure yet what approach in cinema and media studies would help me better understand the condition of contemporary art under (hyper)capitalism. As I learn more about contemporary art in this course, I may be able to see some similarities (and differences) between cinema and art clearly enough to come back to this question.

Back to the first image, I think the use of Warhol by Campbell’s in their labels is exploitative to a certain degree, but Warhol is the one who exploited the company’s soup cans in this case. I don’t know if Warhol gained financially through his Campbell’s Soup Cans, but I’m guessing Campbell’s financial gain (and the media attention to these labels) would be much larger. Instead of just being exploited by or exploiting others, experiencing both concurrently may provide a fair balance between art and capitalism at least.

Will artists be able to overturn their relation with capitalism someday? In other words, will they be able to regain their independent creativity? Or, am I just dreaming of the myth of the utopian, romantic sense of art? I hope I’m not dreaming.

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