This topic is something that I have wanted to write about since first year. The module was Introduction to Art History II, the week I cannot recall, yet what I can is the topic…
Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes – an exact replica of Brillo pads that one could easily purchase in the supermarket at the time. They embody one of the markers of Pop Art, turning the unremarkable into the remarkable, challenging the decaying question that, indeed, what even is art? Can it viably be a replicated box of soap pads art? Could it possibly be if it sells for millions? The same goes with Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans. Saturated colours, sold for millions of pounds, glorifying a product that is £2 at most from supermarkets, and feels so disposable. Heated in five minutes, and demolished in ten.
Pop Art is arguably the most recognisable art movement of the twentieth century. The bright saturated colours, the lively subject matter of icons of popular culture, and how it didn’t, was something that could easily be regarded as pretentious, but ended up being something that the people found that they responded to. Pop Art was vivacious and artful in the way. It appealed to the masses, yet was devious, as it still had the price tag of so-called ‘high art’.
It is clear that this topic is still important, and I noticed that, when making lecture notes, I couldn’t help a niggling feeling that this ‘art’ or ‘product’ or even ‘art product’ reminded me of a Chanel runway in 2014. The setting was a fictional supermarket, where models wore Chanel’s latest pieces, yet also acted as if they were shopping in the supermarket themselves. The models could be seen picking up Chanel mineral water and Chanel smoked salmon, placing them in primary hued shopping trolleys and baskets.
The similarities between Warhol’s art and Chanel’s catwalk are striking. They could both be said to glorify commodity culture, maybe even making an ironic statement about consumerism.
However, they are also similar because they both have such a wide appeal. In some respects, these art forms are democratic, because it can be argued that art and fashion are making art more accessible to the masses. Not every person can identify with a model on a catwalk, not everyone can identify with a painting within a gallery. But I sure can identify with perusing the supermarkets, and I’m sure Warhol’s contemporaries, such as 1960’s women, would identify with Brillo too.
However, they are not democratic in the sense that it can at times make me question, what really is the point of these arts? Why did Warhol make a replica of a product, and make it available to the masses only through the lens of a glass cabinet and a plinth, when we can all pick it up at their nearest local? Why did Chanel set their runway in a fake supermarket too? I agree it was ‘cool’, and certainly a talking point. But the clothes were still crazily expensive, and not so crazily available. From my position, my only way to access these images are through the lens of the press, and social media.
Regardless of my comparisons, I think, ultimately, fashion and art are quite different. This is because art is something to admire, whereas fashion is more tangible and practical.
Fashion is mostly functional, whereas art can have a desired function, such as driving a political agenda or inciting change (yet, in its physical matter, art is not deemed functional). You could also argue that haute couture fashion is art, and rightfully so, as the pieces themselves command the same degree of praise and admiration of technique that a revered painting also receives.
Despite this, the exhibition of the clothes itself only lasted 15 minutes and is in the past. The Brillo Boxes, on the other hand, can still be seen. In this sense, there is forever a disconnect in art. It garners those thoughts that it ought to be understood, and therefore, if something is classed as art, even the most unlikely configurations, like Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, it still demands attention and awe.
Now, thinking about these questions in third year, I have more awareness of consumerism, and how it relates to both art and fashion. I believe at times, we don’t like to think that everything is so economically driven, even though it is. The fact that both of these pieces are 50 years apart, and are still creating the same questions, makes me wonder, is this a problem? That art and fashion are commenting on the same consumerism – has nothing changed?
All the same, I still appreciate the aesthetic qualities surrounding both Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and Chanel’s runway show. The brilliant thing about art is that it keeps you thinking – there is never a resolute and final answer.
Words by Molly Chatterton
Cover image: Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Brillo Box (3ȼ Off), 1963-64. Silkscreen ink and house paint on plywood. 13⅛ x 16 x 11½ in (33.3 x 40.6 x 29.2 cm).