How merchants of style became the institution of art
Natasha Degen’s new book Merchants of Style examines how the fashion industry piggybacked on the Warhol revolution to take control of the artworld — and what that means for art
In looking identical to actual boxes of Brillo scouring pads, Andy Warhol’s painted artwork, Brillo Boxes, surfaced the primary ontological question in the philosophy of art: Why do we consider certain objects to be “art” even if they look exactly like “non-art”? Arthur Danto’s exegesis of Warhol’s work in the 1960s led to the “institutional theory of art” — explained by philosopher Nöel Carroll as the proposition that "something is an artwork only if it has had the status of candidate for appreciation conferred on it by some person or persons acting on behalf of the institution of the artworld.” Warhol’s Brillo Boxes is art because the “artworld” — galleries, curators, museums, historians, and critics — say it is “art.” Of course there are quibbles about this theory on philosophical grounds, but we know it works on a practical level: the presentation of an object as an “artwork” encourages audiences to give it attention and ready themselves for aesthetic experiences.
Institutions, then, play a major role in determining what is “art” and what is not, and for the first half of the 20th century, the “artworld” centered around avant-garde artists, like-minded dealers, critics, and museum curators. In her new book, Merchants of Style: Art and Fashion After Warhol, FIT professor Natasha Degen looks at the last sixty years of art after Warhol’s destruction of the avant-garde system. On a basic level, the book serves as an excellent history of postmodernism, summarizing the major moments in fashion, retail, streetwear, and street culture, especially after 2000. But Degen makes a much deeper contribution in arguing that Warhol opened up a pathway for the luxury industry to take control of the entire artworld. In Degen’s retelling of our history, the once-disparate cultural strands of art, fashion, and commerce become a single entity that ultimately bent art away from its role as a radical agent of cultural refresh.
Degen begins Merchants of Style by recalling how art and fashion intermingled in the early 20th century. Coco Chanel collaborated with Picasso, Elsa Schiaparelli worked with Cocteau and Dalí, and Christian Dior began his career as an art dealer. Yet the directionality of influence was constant: High art was the more esteemed pursuit, and so fashion always borrowed from art. This would change with Andy Warhol, who in his calculated attempt to enter the art market, acted like any good avant-garde thinker and negated his predecessors’ style. To create the next “stage” in the narrative of art, Warhol would negate abstract expressionism’s sanctimonious focus on form by embracing the kitsch of American popular culture. Warhol now looked to fashion for art ideas, and in making this schtick a full-body pursuit, also sought to transcend the monkish confines of "artist." Degen writes, “Warhol was assuming a growing number of guises — publisher, publicist, producer, celebrity, salesman — all under the umbrella of ‘Business Art.”
This pro-commercialism cleverly came in the form of avant-garde sloganeering: “everything is an artwork,” and later for Joseph Beuys, “everyone is an artist” (not “everyone can be an artist.”) Philosopher Arthur Danto marks this development as the “end” of art history: a time in which there would be “no longer a pale of history for works of art to fall outside of.” Before Warhol, an almost teleological fervor had motivated avant-garde artists to slowly consider radical new ideas that would expand the potential of artistic practice. Warhol blew it all up by declaring everything art. So as Danto explains, "Contemporary art, by contrast, has no brief against the art of the past, no sense that the past is something from which liberation must be won, no sense even that it is at all different as art from modern art generally.” There would be no more line between kitsch and art.
Pop Art could have kept this intellectual rebellion neatly within the avant-garde world. But in championing commerce as a key component of artistic practice and partnering with celebrities, Warhol opened the door for business enterprises to also directly participate in the artworld. Fashion, explains Degen, had always been adjacent to art in order to imbue its goods with an intangible cultural value. Now with Warhol welcoming fashion into the fold, luxury brands could become an equal partner in good-standing. The art didn’t have to just inspire handbags — it could go on the handbags, famously starting with Louis Vuitton tapping Warhol-disciples Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, and Jeff Koons for their own product lines. This merger progressed, writes Degen, to the point where the “growing overlap in practice and dissemination ultimately challenged the idea that making art and making fashion were distinct practices.”
With luxury brands now embedded in the artworld, we entered an era that Degen calls “Art Pop,” marked by “popular aesthetics that assume the designation and offer the prestige of high art.” Art Pop is “not consumer culture in art, but consumer culture as art.” The artworld become an interlinking Rolodex of showman artists, celebrities, galleries, museums, fashion brands, and media outlets, where everyone proclaimed “democratization” from the same Art Pop gospels. Vogue editor Anna Wintour bragged, “Commercial is not a dirty word to me.” Once fashion conglomerates became the primary sponsors of art museums, curators started to hold exhibitions of fashion items “to inject the energy of consumerism and celebrity.” Jeff Koons designed the cover of the Lady Gaga album literally called ARTPOP. In the 2000s, street culture — an organic amalgamation of hip-hop, punk, skateboarding, graffiti art, sportswear, and DIY graphic design — fully merged with Art Pop and now provides its second wave of ideas. In the last few decades, especially with the rise of young Chinese consumers, luxury labels transformed from storied craft-focused ateliers who outfit Old Money families in elegant garments into spectacle-led businesses who mass produce logo-heavy casual clothing for urban youth. Supreme brand director Angelo Baque was clear about this change: “Gucci is streetwear. They are selling hoodies and denim.”
Many have pointed to positive outcomes in this institutional takeover. Virgil Abloh believed that fashion could be a “gateway drug” to art. Degen, by contrast, argues that these benefits are incidental. The most tangible result is that fashion has fully stolen art’s valor. Art once provided the “most trenchant critiques against consumer culture” by drawing attention to “luxury’s ephemerality.” In conquering the artworld, “Luxury brands neutralize the inherent challenge [art] poses to fashion. Through patronage, brands see an opportunity to subtly recast art in their image.” When Tom Sachs satirized the luxury industry through his works Prada Deathcamp and the Prada toilet, Prada immediately added him to their stable of artists, thereby nullifying the critique.
Luxury brands have helped determine which artists become global superstars, always choosing those who work in consistent graphic motifs that can easily be incorporated into product design. Yayoi Kusama is an easy choice for Louis Vuitton because she “does dots,” which makes a handbag with dots “art.” More broadly, Degen writes, “Art that fails the test of ‘fashionability’ is increasingly avoided, along with art that cannot win corporate support. There is little place for art that alienates the public, lacks visual impact or challenges the political or economic order. Brands have no use for such art, and traditional art institutions, operating more like businesses each year, find themselves driven by similar calculations.”
I may be making Merchants of Style sound more polemical than it is, but the objective facts of this historical development will make attentive readers wonder have we gained from the luxury industry’s institutional takeover of art. Degen asks, “If fashion inculcates an aesthetic sensibility in consumers, what kind of education are its students receiving? Among the lessons of ‘fashionable things’: that brands are the primary signal of value; that cultural goods should be seen above all as assets; that rarity is important, although a certain volume of production helps generate buzz; that consumption is a form of community building; and that critique is a kind of spoiler. Indeed, the aesthetics of rebellion resonate more than rebelliousness itself.”
Warhol acolytes can celebrate the collapsed distance between “high and mass culture” and a public “more interested in contemporary art than any generation of the recent past.” But as Degen suggests, this only happened because the fashion industry erased the hard-line once regulating art from kitsch. She writes, “Art, as it cedes autonomy, will become increasingly instrumentalized until it transforms into a cultural commodity indistinguishable from any other.” In this, Merchants of Style serves as a critical text for understanding the roots of our ultra-poptimist era. Viewed from today, art does seem doomed to sink deeper into the fold of capitalist enterprise. But in laying out how the new institution of art functions, perhaps the book also provides a recipe for how to reverse-engineer a solution. Someone may just come along and end this "end" of art history.