From the Archives: The Warhol Product

Cover of the May 1980 issue of Art in America.


Our November 2018 issue features a special section of essays on the legacy of Andy Warhol. Among them is Alex Kitnick’s “Notes on Gesture,” in which he digs through our archives to show how critics came to understand gesture as the key category for understanding the Pop artist’s way of working. Kitnick cites “The Warhol Product,” an essay in our May 1980 issue by Jeffrey Deitch, then identified in his bio as “an investment advisor who received a 1979 NEA art critic’s fellowship.” Deitch foreshadows his own future career as a dealer, impresario, and museum director in his admiring appraisal of Warhol’s contamination of art with business and vice versa: “Warhol may have done more than any other artist to make the art world obsolete. And at the same time, he’s made some real progress toward transforming the real world into an art world.We present Deitch’s text in full here. —Eds.


How appropriate that you had to buy your way into Andy Warhol’s recent Whitney Museum opening with a $50 check. Instead of pushing consumer goods, sophisticated marketers now sell consumer experiences, and the art experience is one of the hottest items around. The Whitney’s management knows that a ticket to an Andy Warhol opening is a valuable commodity. They are also aware of Warhol’s ability to pull in the general admission crowds at $2 a head, and the opportunities he presents for negotiating corporate support. Although surprisingly negative press reviews may have given the Whitney less of a bonanza than it anticipated, nevertheless it got the chance to exploit the popularity of one of the foremost figures in the art experience industry. As part of the bargain, Warhol received a stunning display of his new wares.

Warhol has recently been able to cut some pretty good deals. The history of Studio 54 provides a good example of the peculiar barter that he engages in. The frequent Warhol and his crowd and the flack machinery of his Interview magazine had to do with the Studio’s astronomical success. In return for his endorsement, Warhol had at his disposal an arena that was a ‘70s equivalent of his old Factory, no less decadent, a lot more visible, completely establishment, and just as important in the cultural history of its respective decade. Studio 54 served up continuous fodder for Interview’s pages and, just like Roy M. Cohn, Warhol created an extraordinary connection that was one of the keys to social power in the late ‘70s. Studio 54’s operations were, of course, drenched with sleaze, but it all seemed to serve Warhol’s purposes. He helped create and document a phenomenon that reflects one of the essences of our culture and economy in the post-counterculture, post-Vietnam era.

In his ability to actually help shape the vanguard of mass culture, as well as in his uncanny ability to reflect it in its most rarefied form, Warhol is perhaps the ultimate artist of our time. But what makes him an especially fascinating figure is that he is also one of the ultimate contemporary businessmen. Indeed, Warhol probably embodies the cultural contradictions of capitalism better than almost any person alive. The sociologist Daniel Bell might find him a perfect case study of how a man can thrive in the post-industrial society.

Bell takes an ironic view of American economic progress. The disciplined, churchgoing Calvinists who forged the Protestant ethic believed in the reinvestment of their earnings to expand their businesses. As little as possible was taken out to fund the personal pleasures of the owners. But now, many of America’s greatest business enterprises achieve success by pandering to the character weaknesses of the American consumer. Warhol’s lifestyle would give spasms to the traditional small-town businessman. Yet the spineless consumer culture that Warhol feeds on is the paradoxical creation of those stern, self-sacrificing early capitalists who fervently believed that the dogged pursuit of capitalistic impulses was of the highest moral order. Although it wouldn’t be admitted in the boardroom, Warhol represents the spirit and the present state of American business with eerie accuracy.

Why is capitalism worth fighting for? You can read the answer in Andy Warhol’s Interview. The glamorous lifestyle presented on its pages is in many ways the American version of Nirvana. Warhol reveals the carrot that awaits us at the finish line of the rat race.

Money is the measure of value in our culture and art and provides no exception. Art and money were intertwined long before the current hyped-up art boom. The major change in recent years is that the average up-to-date American now reads art on the wall as money on the wall. Previously, art was more likely to be read as a reflection of class and refinement. Though the public’s tendency to see dollar signs when looking at a painting is not exactly an affirmation of the purity of art, at least it’s more democratic and probably less distorted than looking at art as a patrician indulgence associated with Mellons and Rockefellers.

The inescapable economic component of art is something that very few artists have come to terms with in their work. Most artists continue putting out drawings, paintings, photo-documentation pieces or whatever, oblivious to the fact that their work is just as likely to be considered a $5,000 investment as it is an artistic statement. The interaction between art and its context has been one of the major, if not the major, art issues of the past twenty years. There has been wider and wider acknowledgement of the crucial role of the artwork’s environmental, architectural, personal, sociological and economic contexts in the determination of its meaning. Art that responds to or shapes its physical environment is no longer the exception. The “installation piece” is now a common exhibition idiom. But despite the success of certain vanguard artists in overturning “objecthood,” very few have been successful in dealing with the economic context. Hans Haacke, Christo, and Warhol are among the few who have been able to engage economic realities.

Even with “Art Boom” recently emblazoned on the cover of Time, the art commodity phenomenon is something that artists find easy to ignore. Artists who are sheltered by the gallery system are able quietly to go on with their art-making just as artists did seventy years ago. The gallery system is not yet poised for entry into the post­industrial society. If anything, the economics of art galleries are a throwback to the late nineteenth century. But the post-industrial art world, also known as the postmodern art world (depending on whether your bias is sociological or art historical) requires substantial readjustment on the part of most members of the art community. Three recent developments have sharply altered its structure: art as an investment, art as corporate public relations, and art as an arena of advanced consumerism. Artists and dealers can either ignore the changes and end up being exploited or take advantage of them and exploit the situation to their own great benefit.

No readjustment, however, is required by Andy Warhol. Not only is he totally in sync with the social and economic currents of Post-Eisenhower America; he has actually helped to create them. Perhaps because he is himself a rags-­to-riches child of the American dream, Warhol has understood that it is through the mass marketplace that even the most advanced ideas enter the culture. Distinguished thinkers will gladly go on Merv Griffin’s show to flog their latest book. Food, clothing, ideas and even people are made into products by the consumer economy. Elvis, Liz, Marilyn and Jackie are celebrity products that Warhol helped package for history.

Warhol has few rivals in his grasp of today’s cultural communication system, a structure that has little to do with the way art ideas have traditionally been transferred. Warhol has updated Walter Benjamin’s insights about the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. He understands the potential of art in the age of mass media and mass consumer society. Warhol’s stock image paintings don’t stop at simply being made to be reproduced. They are fashioned as actual products with actual brand identity. His Campbell’s soup cans are a perfect example. Warhol has repeated this image thousands of times and in a dozen formats. Anybody who is even vaguely familiar with contemporary art identifies the soup cans with Warhol and vice versa. We have genuine brand awareness here. Warhol’s use of the soup can has been so successful as an art product that it’s not even necessary to have seen a reproduction of one of the paintings or prints in order to know about Warhol’s Campbell’s soup works and to have a good idea of what they look like. It is likely that there are many people who have only read about or heard about Warhol’s art. Yet the substance of it has been communicated. He started with an image of an actual consumer product and made it into a consumer product of his own. Warhol has exploited a creation of American business for his own purposes and has used business methods to promote it to his own advantage.

The relationship between the artist and business usually works the other way around. An unfortunate example was provided by Philip Morris Inc.’s ads about its sponsorship of the Jasper Johns retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Johns allowed his work to be transformed into a classy corporate image advertisement. The tag line under the reproduction of his paintings read: “It takes art to make a company great.” Warhol, on the other hand, has been able to get business to play his game. One of many examples in an advertisement for the New York Post that appeared in the November ‘78 issue of Interview. Warhol has schooled thousands of consumers in his way of looking at things through his films and publications. Now, an influential news medium like the Post is willing to pay him handsomely for access to people who share his aesthetic attitudes. Interview’s increasing ad pages attest to the eagerness of a wide range of business to pay for access to the 400,000 or more regular readers Warhol has cultivated.

The key to Warhol’s success in dealing with the economic world is his uniquely American method of detaching his art from the tradition of the unique art object. Warhol certainly makes paintings and prints as traditional artists do; in fact, Warhol’s paintings are the foundation of his fame and fortune. But by mass producing thousands of them, Warhol has entered a league of his own. Making commodities is precisely the point. Warhol got around the problem of the unique image by making it into a product. If investors and status seekers want to buy Warhol’s goods, then that’s terrific. Such transactions do not vulgarize the works. On the contrary, they are perfectly consistent with Warhol’s intended meaning.

Building on mass acceptance of his “products,” Warhol has been able to achieve what he has perhaps desired from the beginning—to become a product himself. “Andy” has made himself into another one of those first-name celebrities. He is a walking aesthetic package, and you are free to buy him if you can afford the fee. In the recent past, he has sold himself to Puerto Rican Rums and Pioneer Electronics (among others), as well as to the thousands who have bought Interview T-shirts and other Warhol image products. Like other celebrity products, Warhol is good copy in the media. As an artist, he can communicate with the public without having to go through the whole cumbersome system of art galleries, museums, art journals, and mass media reviews. Every public gesture he makes can be interpreted as an art gesture.

There is no Duchampian context trick in Warhol’s attitude—no choosing an ordinary object and bringing it inside the art context to aestheticize it, no meditations on the meaning of the gallery space. Instead, Warhol operates as if there were no difference between the art context and the ordinary world. His art involves business because American life is structured as business. He addresses the mass media because that is the most efficient way to communicate. He is fortunate that American society has evolved to the point where he can exist in the avant-garde and mass culture simultaneously. He has taken advantage of the fact that the mass media has been just as hungry or maybe even more hungry for new ideas than the avant-garde itself.

Warhol was known for being an especially good businessman when he was a top commercial illustrator in the 1950s. His approach to fine art was from the beginning marked by the same sort of business acumen that he developed as an illustrator. The first public exhibition of Warhol’s Pop paintings took place in the windows of Bonwit Teller’s in April 1961. Throughout the ’60s, Warhol used galleries the same way he used the store windows—as showcases, as a means to attract attention, as events to be talked about in the media. Now that Warhol has his own house organ and easy access to other media, there isn’t as much of a necessity to create news in order to be in the news. Warhol can afford to slow down and benefit from the brand recognition he has already established.

Andy Warhol brought an intuitive understanding of marketing to the art world. Actually, today it’s mostly business people, not artists, who copy his methods. The public relations profession, especially, has been influenced by his techniques. Promotion is not the only area in which Warhol has been a business innovator as well as an art innovator. His success in managing people led to the extraordinary atmosphere of group creativity at the old Factory. His technique of passive management is most visible in his films where he would set up a situation and let the people being filmed create the action. Warhol’s interest in bringing other people’s ideas into his own is well known. Like any ambitious industrialist, he has even admitted to buying ideas. Warhol also brought a business-like approach to art production, devising his photosilkscreen technique to mass produce his paintings.

Does Andy Warhol Enterprises actually bear much resemblance to the business art conglomerate that he seems to delight in speaking about? Is it anything like Bob Hope Enterprises, or even Billy Carter Enterprises? Warhol has proclaimed that “Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. After I did the thing called ‘art’ or whatever it’s called, I went into business art . . . making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” What is it really like inside the world’s foremost business art organization?

Fred Hughes, who is president of Interview Enterprises, responded to my questions about business art by saying that Warhol is basically a painter and that Interview is sort of a “business hobby” of Andy’s. He called Warhol’s comments about business art just “throwaway phrases.” Of course, after all these years of close association with Warhol, Hughes could be just as good at playing dumb as his boss. In any case, Warhol has said that one of the things that he looks for in an associate is a certain amount of misunderstanding of what he’s trying to do.

Ironically, Andy Warhol Enterprises is run very conservatively. The most striking note of conservatism is that Warhol refuses to borrow money. Everything is financed with internally generated funds. Warhol once did have to sell 50% of Interview in order to keep it afloat, but he has since and is now 100% owner. Without borrowing, and without plans to issue stock, Andy Warhol Enterprises can remain only a small, informal operation. It will never become a Walt Disney Enterprises. All the deal-making takes place in lawyers’ and accountants’ offices, not in the Factory. A young man named Vincent Fremont runs the operation, managing the payroll for the twenty employees and signing the checks. But Warhol reportedly keeps track of every penny and is kept fully informed about every aspect of his enterprises.

The real Andy Warhol Enterprises is somewhere in between the business art corporation that Warhol fantasizes about in his Philosophy book and the “business hobby” that Fred Hughes called it. The foundation of the whole operation is still Warhol’s painting and printmaking. He works alone all weekend in his incredibly cluttered and modestly equipped studio at the rear of the Factory.

Even with this prototype operation, Warhol has redefined the role of the late twentieth-­century artist. It has recently been demonstrated that universities and museums can be run more effectively if they are thought of as businesses. Warhol has demonstrated that art, too, is a business in the context of American culture. The people who follow Warhol’s lead in the future will come from both the art world and the business world. Business is potentially the most powerful medium in existence, and hopefully, artists will be able to equip themselves to exploit it. Business people, seeing that Warhol has been able to make money with cultural innovation, may become inspired enough to run their businesses like art performances. Warhol may have done more than any other artist to make the art world obsolete. And at the same time, he’s made some real progress toward transforming the real world into an art world.