Merch

These Brillo boxes sit on a top shelf in the bookshop in the Bozar, Brussels’ contemporary art museum. They’re not made of cardboard, like the originals, nor plywood, like Warhol’s faithful copies, but of what looks like a fine-grained foam. They appear to be smaller than their predecessors. They made me wonder what it is one is buying. Not a Warhol, but something that looks like it from a distance. The philosophical issues raised by the boxes that occupied Arthur Danto in his essay on them in his book on Warhol (Yale University Press, 2009), are here absent. They have been displaced by something domesticated, both in terms of scale and meaning, since the conundrums embodied by the originals at the time when they were shown in 1964 have long since been accommodated by art theorists, however, Danto says he does find the boxes beautiful -he has one at home- so the Bozar boxes share this with the originals but they are impoverished, one could say, in that they have been reduced to aesthetic objects. This seems strange since art objects are typically supposed to be aesthetic objects. (The boxes were designed by an artist, James Harvey, who was amazed to see Warhol’s copies selling for large sums of money). Danto says: ‘nothing that the Brillo box and Andy’s Brillo Boxes have in common can be part of the definition of art, since they look—or could look—absolutely alike. What makes something art must accordingly be invisible to the eye’. The Bozar boxes are surely not art, but are rather distinct copies of an original artwork. They’re not examples of appropriation art because they lack the right context and authorial claim to be seen as such. The question of context relates directly to Danto’s remark about what makes them art being ‘invisible to the eye’. However, whereas Warhol’s original boxes were made by craftsmen and meticulously hand-painted and screen printed by his assistants to resemble the originals as closely as possible, the Bozar ones are, in terms of fabrication, are more like the originals, in that they would presumably also have been made on a mechanised production line. As such they complete a circle by returning the boxes to an industrial context that they share with the originals, deprived, however, of both functionality and artistic meaning.

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