Souped Up

the problem with louis menand’s “ambidextrous” postmodernism.

The point of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup-can paintings was not that a soup can is like a work of art. It was that a work of art is like a soup can: they are both commodities.

[Robert Rauschenberg] would buy paint cans whose labels had come off, so that he wouldn’t know the color before he used it, in order to let the materials dictate the products.

Louis Menand, “Saved From Drowning: Barthelme Reconsidered,” New Yorker, 23 February 2009

Louis Menand has a typically marvelous essay about a new biography of Donald Barthelme in this week’s New Yorker. In the piece, Menand uses Andy Warhol to distinguish between an understanding of postmodernism as the continuation of modernism — we are all modernists now — and a use of the term to signal that modernism is dead and what follows is something new, something even antimodern.

The definitions come down, for Menand, to one’s view of art as something similar to, or different from, commerce: highbrow-lowbrow-middlebrow kinds of categorizations of art.

As many do, Menand uses Warhol to symbolize postmodernism as the effort to extinguish art, to destroy its status, to render it (or reveal it) as nothing more than another commodity, another soup can. Barthelme has often been associated with this Warholian understanding of the postmodern. But in Menand’s reassessment, he should in fact be grouped with the other definition of the postmodern: Barthelme was, in Menand’s interpretation, exploring the modernist obsession with form and process (which focused on the how rather than the what of representation) that he found and loved in authors such as Beckett.

All well and good. But there is one problem. I do not think upon closer inspection that Warhol’s art holds water, or better said, holds condensed soup, as a container for the kind of postmodernism that Menand describes.

Pictured in multiple forms — as serial repetitions, stuffed with dollar bills, in mutated colors, in various poses — Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans did not reduce art to a commodity so much as artfully explore the nature of the commodity.

That is, Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans are still lives turned into history paintings. They explore the material of the postwar consumer world, including the invisible, just-add-water materials of marketing and advertising, in order to grasp at representing the experiences — emotional, sensorial, intellectual, ideological — of the historical moment.

In this sense, Warhol’s soup cans are just like Rauschenberg’s paint cans — they start with the material reality of the world as it is and not in the representational mode of what it might be. They refuse to fake it, but in doing so seem like they are rejecting verisimilitude, when in fact, they long to discover, embrace, and capture the real. Or, as Menard quotes Barthelme writing about Rauschenberg: “The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude.”

What’s fascinating about Warhol’s soup cans (I am working on a longer article about this) is not that they empty out meaning, that they reduce art to the blank form of the commodity, but rather that they are flooded with meaning: these representations continually return to the multiple meanings of the commodity and the labels of marketing, advertising, and consumer desire in which the commodity gets wrapped up.

You can never quite keep the lid on Warhol’s art of the Campbell’s soup can. From drawings by his mother of Campbell’s soup cans followed by a scribble that “soup is gut” (the immigrant Julia Warhola’s effort to write that soup was good) to all the iterations of the soup can that Warhol explored to the rich commercial afterlife of his Campbell’s soup imagery, which was quickly reabsorbed into the mediascapes of postwar American consumer culture (including my favorite example, from a 1969 cover of Esquire, in which Warhol is drowning in a soup can), Warhol’s representations never simply became commodities.

Instead, they are either materially located in his real life (his mother Julia served them as part of Warhol’s lunch for decades) or they can serve as symbols of the perplexing nature of democracy in postwar American consumer culture (in which dreamlives increasingly derived from the same symbols, but never in precisely the same way) or they speak to anxieties about the status of art in the modern world (as on the Esquire cover, which contains the title, “the final decline and total collapse of the American avant-garde” or the soup can erupts out of being merely a commodity in some other manner.

So this second definition of the postmodern grows increasingly suspect in Menand’s article. Which is where Menand seems to be taking us as he reconsiders Barthelme.

Menand poses a binary of postmodernism as an “ambidextrous” term that at once refers to the continuation of modernism and the abandonment of modernism. In this dichotomy, Barthelme has always been lumped in with Warhol as examples of the rejection of the modernist approach; but Menand notices how Barthelme’s writing was in fact an elaboration and extension of modernism (quite similar to other writers of the day—Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch—who attempted to import methods from postwar American painters such as Rauschenberg into their use of language, so that they created poems that were “combines” of linguistic detritus, incongruous sentences and phrases brought together to produce the pleasures of systems on the very of coherence and incoherence).

This would seem to demand a reassessment not only of Barthelme, but also of the entire dichotomy with which Menand started out his essay. He does not propose how Barthelme’s writing (or Warhol’s art for that matter) forces us to rethink this binary. Maybe this is because the distinction does not matter so much. Perhaps, a pragmatist might say, it’s not the theoretical categorization that matters, it’s the result that counts.

In this line of thinking, being a new kind of art or nothing more than a commodity is immaterial. What’s important, as Menand argues Barthelme believed, is pondering and trying to access the ineffable. And that might be worth doing, Warhol’s art seems to suggest, even when it’s material for sale all around us. Maybe especially then.

“The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.” So declares, in mock-ironic tones of grandeur, one of Barthelme’s early short story characters (Baskerville in “Florence Green is 81”). It sounds like it could be a particularly hirsute incarnation of one of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans.

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