To the editors:
Fred Camper, the author of “Warhol, a Long, Close Look” [June 2], claims that Warhol has carefully selected the tones of red on the soup can covers. But everyone knows that there is NO WAY that a soup label can be reproduced by any other artist–regardless of tonal quality–and be given any artistic value at all. The idea was Warhol’s, who cares what a different soup label actually looks like?
WHAT IT ACTUALLY LOOKS LIKE! That is what separates 20th Century conceptual art from what we recognize as greatness in the arts of other periods and civilizations. We do not consider a particular medieval painting great just because its subject matter depicts the Madonna and Child. We do not consider it repulsive because it also includes the portrait of a wealthy, corrupt patron. We judge it, and may come to love it, because of how it actually looks. A historical work of art may even be a copy of an earlier masterpiece. It doesn’t matter. If a painting is beautiful, it has a value to us because of the way it looks.
The value in Warhol’s work is that he came up with the ideas first. His genius is that of the entrepreneur, not the Artist. America has had many great entrepreneurs and they deserve our respect for the boldness of vision and their capacity to act on it. They have marketed everything from feminine hygiene spray to Presidential candidates to Fundamentalist religion. I salute them! But the proper venue for their works is the television set or the shopping mall, not the Art museum.
This is not to question the perfect understanding and ecstasy which Mr. Camper experienced at the Warhol exhibit. But it is to question his understanding and experience with that body of work which over the centuries our civilization has accepted as Fine Art–works which embody a quality of life-sustaining beauty within their forms and compositions. These are qualities which may appear in everything from ancient Assyrian bas-relief to medieval Chinese calligraphy to Renoir and Picasso. The ecstasy of life within a form has nothing in common with Mr. Camper’s experience and the rest of conceptual art. It’s like the difference between the satisfactions and challenges of a marriage compared to the excitements, terrors and rapid mental gymnastics of a first date.
Marcel Duchamp, that great pioneer in conceptual art (the man who submitted a urinal to an art exhibit) spoke revealingly about his understanding of historical Art. He was sure that the best of it never made it to the museums because it was new, fresh, and perfect only for the moment it was created in. Eventually, Andy Warhol’s fetishes and the rest of modern academic art will be honored in the same way when museums are curated by people with an eye for Beauty instead of a taste for cultural curiosities.
Fred Camper replies:
My response to Warhol was based on my visual/emotional experience of his works spread over about ten hours of viewing on four separate visits to the exhibition. I was moved, and in a way that was surprisingly similar to how I was by the great religious paintings in the Metropolitan Museum’s Siena show that was running at the same time as the Warhol exhibit.