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Arthur C. Danto. 'Art into life': Rodchenko - a portrait of the artist as an advertising man. (Aleksandr Rodchenko; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY). The Nation, Sept 21, 1998 v267 n8 p31(4)

I have spent a fair amount of philosophical time the past many years pondering the difference between Andy Warhol's Brillo Box and the actual cardboard boxes in which Brillo is shipped from factories to warehouses to the stockrooms of supermarkets, to be discarded when unpacked, or recycled or given away to those in need of a carton to ship books or house kittens or store documents. The ordinary shipping carton exemplifies, if anything does, a slogan of the Russian artist Aleksandr Rodchenko: "Art Into Life!" Or it would do so if it were art in the first place, the way Warhol's facsimile of it is. The question that obsessed me was how this distinction could be made, since the Brillo Box that was art and the Brillo box that was merely a corrugated paper carton looked exactly alike. Or at least, the differences between them were not of a kind one could appeal to in explaining why one was art and the other not. Warhol's boxes, in any case, sell today for about $45,000--and though they could be used for the same purposes as the manufacturer's paper cartons, it would be a very privileged litter that tumbled and mewed in them. It is extremely unlikely that a Brillo Box would be permitted to divest itself of whatever aura it may possess and be put into the service of life. Sooner or later, each Brillo Box will find its way into one museum or another. This is not a destiny that Brillo cartons are likely to have, unless for a museum of commercial design.

In 1961 the Pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg opened a storefront on East 2nd Street in New York--called The Store--and stocked it with objects that (roughly) replicated items of common use: frocks, gym shoes, automobile tires, underpants. He handed visitors a spirited manifesto that defended turning the most commonplace objects into art, and placing them for sale in a space that far more resembled a mom-and-pop store than one of the standard art galleries of the time. And consistently, he sold his art the way a storekeeper sells canned goods--over the counter, with sales slips and the like. It was, in a way, an effort to bring art out of the institutions in which it grew auras and re-situate it in life. "I am for an art," Oldenburg's manifesto asserted, "that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum." He continued: "I am for an art that is put on and taken off, like pants, which develops holes, like socks, which is eaten, like a piece of pie, or abandoned with great contempt, like a piece of shit." The art shown in Oldenburg's Store did not quite satisfy these specifications. No one could slip into the blue or pink underpants of his 1961 Blue and Pink Panties or eat Ice Cream Sandwich of the same year, both of which were made of muslin soaked in plaster over wire frames and painted with enamel. So what Oldenburg had to mean was that he was for an art that depicted the most ordinary objects of daily consumption--objects that would not commonly have provided the motifs of fine art. His work perhaps celebrated their ordinariness, but it was the ironic destiny of his art to sit on its ass in the museum.

It would be difficult for anyone to mistake Blue and Pink Panties for actual lingerie: The paint drips, almost as if the work were driven by the imperatives of Abstract Expressionism--and it shines the way enamel shines, not the way nylon or silk shines. This is not the case with Brillo Box, which forces us to recognize that what makes the difference between art and nonart cannot be something that meets the eye.

Warhol was one of New York's most successful commercial artists before it occurred to him that, without changing a thing, he could be a fine artist instead. Or, as the art world patois would have it, a real artist. This would not have occurred to Steve Harvey, the actual designer of Brillo's shipping cartons, who took up commercial art when it was no longer possible for a "real" artist--by which Harvey would have meant an Abstract Expressionist-to make a living by means of real art. The thought that must have gone into his design for Brillo was almost certainly closer to real artistic thought than whatever went through Warhol's mind in inventing Brillo Box as sculpture--Warhol merely selected what Harvey had wrought, and turned it into art without changing anything, the way he shifted from one career to another making the same kinds of things.

Still, there is the problem of what makes commercial art different from fine art when the products of either can look as much alike as anyone cares to make them. It seems to me that part of the difference can be identified if we consider the art criticism appropriate to the two kinds of objects. Harvey had the task of celebrating what his boxes were to contain--soap pads. From this perspective, the shapes on his carton are emblems of sanitation and of patriotism (the wavy shapes of white and red, together with the blue letters, are like a flag)--and they have art historical references to Hard-Edged Abstraction. The cartons shriek NEW! GIANT! FAST! The words Harvey has chosen belong to the ecstatic hypervocabulary of the used car lot, and his work is a remarkable piece of visual rhetoric. Warhol's by contrast is laconic. It is of a piece of rhetoric without being one in its own right. The art history of his box takes us back not to Hard-Edged Abstraction but to Duchamp. His box raises deep philosophical questions on which Harvey's text is mute.

A lot of the world's great art is rhetorical and celebratory, aiming to move viewers to hold certain prescribed feelings toward what the art shows. The martyrs are shown in torment, to move us to empathize with their sufferings. The Madonna is beautifully if simply dressed, the Son is luminous and handsome. The Grands Boulevards shown from a balcony on the sixieme etage are celebrations of Paris. The Death of Montcalm celebrates heroism and victory. So being rhetorical cannot disqualify Harvey's boxes as (fine) art. Perhaps what does is the fact that he uses his rhetorical skills to recommend something unworthy of it. But that may be a prejudiced view, as we might recognize if one of our best painters were to portray a pad of Brillo. I recently visited the Munch Museum in Oslo and was thrilled to find that when he was a child Munch painted the most commonplace of objects--such as his toothbrush.

I am not certain I know the rhetoric of Warhol's Brillo Box, unless it is a celebration of commercial art. But I know that if Steve Harvey's box should find its way into the museum, it would be as a collectible rather than a work of fine art, or as a superlative example of graphic design circa 1960. We can imagine an exhibition of Harvey's work consisting of his perhaps derivative Abstract Expressionist canvases, his drawings--and his commercial art. Perhaps the paintings would help us understand how he arrived at his beautiful graphic solutions, perhaps not. But the question of whether we are to look at that work in the same way in which we look at the paintings will not entirely go away. Nor will it when we work our way through the retrospective exhibition of the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) on view at the Museum of Modern Art until October 6. Like Warhol and Harvey, Rodchenko was a commercial as well as a fine artist. Unlike Warhol, he began as fine, but unlike Harvey, his downshift into visual rhetoric was not a pis aller--a matter of having to make a living. It was, rather, an act of political sacrifice and a gesture of political commitment. The place of art after the Russian Revolution was in the life for which the Revolution had ostensibly been fought. In the new communist society, there could be no place for fine art. The comedy is that Rodchenko's commercial art now sits on its ass in the museum. The tragedy is that the form of life the art was to enhance was betrayed by its leaders.

"Art Into Life" was formulated in a plenary session of the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk) on November 24, 1921. Inkhuk, established a year earlier, had been charged with formulating the role art was to play in a tree communist society. A majority of the members present condemned easel painting as outmoded and irrelevant to communism's cultural needs: It emblematized the society whose demise the Revolution was believed to entail. Incidentally, there was no call for a Bonfire of the Vanities. Paintings, confiscated by the Revolution, were recognized by the Soviet as a form of currency bourgeois society would honor, and were sold to the West in exchange for industrial equipment. Our own National Gallery is the immense beneficiary of just such an astute negotiation with Stalin by Andrew Mellon.

Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova resigned from Inkhuk to go into industry as applied artists. The shift released immense energies in both. Popova designed fabrics, and said that whenever she saw a peasant woman wearing one of her patterns she felt a greater joy than easel painting had ever given her. I think she found herself as an artist in the process: The set she designed for Meyerhold's production of The Magnanimous Cuckold is in every sense a masterpiece of sculptural architecture. The actors wore "production clothing," which she (and, judging by one of the drawings in this show, Rodchenko) designed--jumpsuits with several pockets and snappy Russian collars. Rodchenko's great work, whatever its genre, was his graphic design and especially his book covers. The abandonment of easel painting by Rodchenko and Popova was an artistic deliverance and a dedication to a new form of social life: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive."

Rodchenko painted a farewell to painting in 1921, in the sense that his Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, and Pure Blue Color was recognized, in his circle, as the Last Painting. The Last Painting consists of three monochrome panels, in red, in yellow and in blue--though whether there is some meaning in their order I do not know. My sense is that the idea of this being the Last Painting has to do with the thought that each of the panels has the shape of an easel painting, into which any subject can be fitted. And the colors are the basic colors every painting will combine. These being the ultimate colors and the shape being the ultimate shape, painting has been resolved into its ultimate components. We now, analytically, know what painting is. And having broken through to this level of self-consciousness, we are liberated to put art to work in the service of the proletariat. With the whole of painting behind him, Rodchenko left the artistic life of bourgeois culture and, like a butterfly leaving a cocoon, he emerged as--well--an advertising artist. What would our leftist denouncers of advertising as crass say to that?

Advertising was not regarded as in any sense a sellout in the new society. Rodchenko, with inventiveness and damped gaiety, flourished. He designed advertisements for the Red October Cookie Factory, for example, in which a row of cookies disappears into the mouth of a young girl, pretty and smiling, who manages to say: "I eat cookies/from the Krasni Oktiabr' factory/formerly Einem./I don't buy anywhere except at/Mossel'prom [the state grocery store]." The girl's head is set in a hexagonal frame, superimposed on a blue grid. The row of cookies breaks the frame, as if to say, "From the oven's shelf to your mouth." Rodchenko's advertisement for vegetable oil is equally ingenious. The grid this time is red and vertical, and the bottle is portrayed as having the grid as part of its label. I cannot forbear reproducing the message: "Cooking oil/Attention working masses/Three times cheaper than butter! / More nutritious than other oils! Nowhere else as at Mossel'prom." We forget, I think, that advertising was an expression of Modernism. In The Ambassadors, Henry James redeems a wayward young man by giving him a career in advertising: "Advertising scientifically worked presented itself thus as the great new force," he has the young man say. "It really does the thing, you know"--advertising advertising by way of a slogan Rodchenko would have admired.

I draw attention to Rodchenko's exclamation points, to which the corresponding ones on my keyboard do not do justice. Exclamation points belong to verbal moods in two ways: to mark imperatives and to convey excitement. Rodchenko's exclamation points are in red, in the upper right comer of the vegetable oil poster, and they are respectively two and three lines high--higher, that is, than the words they punctuate. They are ancestors of Steve Harvey's exclamation points and MUCH MUCH MORE!!! They are marvels of graphic design. I would venture, even, that Rodchenko made the exclamation point his own.

When the widely controversial exhibition "High & Low" (note the ampersand!) was held at MoMA in 1990-91, the press was issued, in the spirit of frolic, a plastic badge with a large red exclamation point on an ivory background. The dot was a perfect circle. The vertical stroke was sharply cropped across its top (upside down, it looked like an abstract figure, with a round head atop a trapezoidal body). It conveyed the excitement the show was intended to create, and I have kept my exclamation point to this day as a memento of a show I--but scarcely the critical community--admired greatly. It was, of course, appropriated from Rodchenko.

In several advertisements for cigarettes, the exclamation points are nearly as high as the page, and stand, like pillars, on either side of the text ("No story can tell/no pen can describe / Mossel'prom cigarettes. / Nowhere else as at Mossel'prom"). But the mother of all exclamation points is placed on the right side of a jacket Rodchenko designed in 1923 for a book on the poet Mayakovsky. It is black on cream (with red letters) and is nearly nine inches high. The catalogue for "High & Low" was a celebration of Rodchenko. The exclamation point was in red, and eleven (!) inches high. The ampersand replaced Rodchenko's squared-off, below which the subtitle of the show was presented through a cross made of words, just the way Mayakovsky's name was in Rodchenko's design.

I think nothing could more graphically present Rodchenko's achievement than juxtaposing the "High & Low" catalogue cover and the book jacket Rodchenko designed. It proclaims that high and low are not artistic antinomies--Rodchenko, in his advertisements, was at once high and low. There was nothing anywhere in the twenties to match them. They are as brilliant today as they were when freshly painted. They exhibit what it means for art to go into life.

Hegel writes: "Beauty and art does indeed pervade all the business of life like a friendly genius and brightly adorns all our surroundings whether inner or outer, mitigating the seriousness of our circumstances and the complexities of the actual world." He contrasts this with what he speaks of as "art in its highest vocation," which he thought of as no longer possible. I am reasonably sure that our own distinction between fine and commercial art makes a tacit reference to Hegel, but with artists like Rodchenko and Warhol, I think we find that "high" and "low" fuse. Warhol expressed the defining ideals of American life as Rodchenko did the defining ideals of communist life--and this is precisely the office of art in its highest vocation.

And now for the tragedy. The bright promise of the world Inkhuk was to enhance was stifled under Stalinism, and the marvelous designs Popova and Rodchenko created gave way to heroic depictions of Lenin and Stalin and of working-class heroes, in a retrograde academic style known, after 1934, as Socialist Realism. The great purges began in 1936. Miraculously, given his politics, Rodchenko died a natural death. He made some wonderful photographs, showing the streets from a perspective high above the action and symbolizing the distance between the artist and the society he had hoped to enhance. From 1935 on, he rededicated himself to painting.

In a photograph of 1947 we see Rodchenko seated beneath a painting, titled Clown With Saxophone, that must have meant a great deal to him, since he shows himself together with it. Given what painting meant to him under Marxist analysis, this was a sad effort to mm back history. His late paintings are not in the Modern's show, alas, evidently failing to fulfill the aim of the exhibition, "to grasp Rodchenko's best work, in all of its varieties, as a whole." I think "best work" and "as a whole" impose conflicting imperatives, above all in respect to an artist bent on entwining art and life. The life, as a whole, requires these final paintings, even if they are not among the "best work." From a human point of view, they are testimony to the kinds of straws this master grasped as his world disintegrated into terror and his life into neglect.