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Soap Boxes and the End of Art

As bizarre and unlikely as the title of this article may sound, in the decade of the 1980s American philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto claimed that in 1964 some comercial soap boxes had brought about the end of art (Danto, 2010); as it had been known up until that point, art had been terminated. But what made these boxes as special as to possess the ability to bring art to an end? And, for that matter, what exactly does ‘the end of art’ mean? To inquire into this purpose, it is necessary to look at Danto’s thesis and at how art history has framed twentieth century artistic practice, in addition to exploring some of the challenges that arise from this framing and what these would imply if we were to frame current contemporary art practice.

Figure 1: Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes (1964). Screenprint and ink on wood, exposed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Clement Greenberg’s Modernism

To understand the cultural and historical context in which the end of art is situated, it is of crucial relevance to learn about modernist art and its place in art history at the time. Specifically, it is important to bear in mind Clement Greenberg’s account of Modernism, for it is against this backdrop that Danto made his claims. Greenberg, who has been one of Modernism’s most important theorists, set to explain the artistic development that underpinned the period from 19th century Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s.

According to him, Impressionism allowed art to take a reflexive turn, since instead of its hitherto mimetic or representational goal to portray the outside world, art began to transform into its own subject matter: painting relegated the realistic portrayal of the world in favour of a reflexive exercise to explore its own materiality (Greenberg, 2010). Greenberg contends that Manet’s thick brushstrokes were less concerned about achieving representational verisimilitude than they were with making an allusion to paintings medium-bound essence, so to put it briefly, the history of modern art can be conceived of as a progressive development towards an ever more pure and strict medium self-referentiality (Greenberg, 2010). According to Greenberg, this developmental logic lead inevitably towards abstraction, a telos of which the abstract expressionist movement seemed to have become the pinnacle in the 1950s. See, for example, Jackson Pollock’s painting One: Number 31, 1950, where there is no discernible representational element and the painting is made of seemingly indiscriminate paint drippings that weave an abstract image. If, in fact, there were any—however abstract—worldly objects or elements to be found represented in the painting, these would be considered mere secondary accidents.

Figure 2: Jackson Pollock's One: Number 31, 1950 (1950). Oil and enamel on canvas, exposd at the Museum of Modern Art.

There is obviously a plethora of art made in the time period Greenberg deals with that does not exactly adhere to his prescriptive narrative. This art was not necessarily worse or of a lesser nature than abstract art, but since it was—as Danto would say borrowing Hegel’s words—outside of the pale of history, it was, in fact, rendered of a lesser importance by Greenberg and those who supported his view of art. It could be said that falling outside this history came at the price of a certain irrelevance at the time.

Pop Art and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes

In this art historical context emerged, from the mid to late 1950s onwards, a new art movement in the American art world that differed radically from the Abstract Expressionism that dominated it: pop art. It was a movement that grew out of popular culture and the consumerist imagery of late capitalist mass-production. Art critic Laurence Alloway, who coined the movement’s name, explained how urban mass cultural products such as films, advertising, commercial design, science-fiction and pop music served as the point of departure for this new art that elevated everyday imagery to an artistic plane worthy of consideration (Alloway, 1985). Among its most notable exponents were, for example, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton in the United Kingdom, and Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol in The United States.

Arthur Danto recalls in his book After The End of Art the moment he first learned about pop art through Lichtenstein’s work, coming across one of his comic-book style paintings in ArtNews when he was in Paris. The author talks about it as a “surprising yet inevitable” watershed, where he perceived art’s possibilities to be radically opening up, stating how “if it was possible to paint something like that—and be taken seriously by one of the main art publications—, then anything was possible” (Danto, 2010). Danto already perceived art’s dissolution in his first encounter with pop art.

Figure 3: Roy Lichtenstein's Blam (1962). Oil on canvas, exposed at the Yale University Gallery

But it was not until Danto made his way back to New York and visited Stable Gallery in April 1964 that he discovered the artwork that would entrench his initial hypothesis, which he used as the ultimate example over and over again in his defence of the thesis about the end of art: Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. This artwork was basically an exact copy of the boxes in which Brillo soap was commercialised. By silkscreening plywood panels with acrylic paint, Warhol made boxes that were perfectly undistinguishable from the actual brillo soap boxes, hence the artwork was impossible to tell apart from its non-art counterpart. Anything could be an artwork and there was no plausible way, at least not based in perception alone, to tell the difference between an artwork and any other object. Therefore art, according to Danto, had come to an end (Danto, 2010).

The end of art

Be that as it may, we know that art did not really come to an end in 1964 and its production certainly did not stop after that. So ignoring the gravity and flashiness of Danto’s claim, what exactly did he mean by ‘the end of art’? As mentioned earlier, it is against the backdrop of Greenberg’s modernism that he put his theory forward. The end of art made reference not to a scenario where art production came to a halt or where art ceased to exist, but to the dissolution of the historical, developmental narratives that granted art its legitimacy (Danto, 2010). The pale of history, or the limits established by these legitimising developmental narratives, were crumbling and since everything and anything could be considered art and be treated as such, nothing was out of bounds. The burden of irrelevance alluded earlier would disappear, therefore art did not need to be abstract to be considered good, relevant or even art itself. Without a narrow logic underpinning the legitimacy and relevance of art in terms of its adherence to an official narrative, Warhol’s soap boxes could be considered art. Danto explains that artists “were liberated from the burden of history and were free to do art in whatever sense they desired, under any purpose they wished, or under none at all” (Danto, 2010).

Figure 4: Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans (1963). Exposed at the Museum of Modern Art.

Art had reached a post-historical state and all that was left was theory, producing the grand narratives of artistic progress which gave way to a new state of art’s self consciousness. “All there is at the end”, Danto wrote, “is theory, art having finally become vaporized in a dazzle of pure thought about itself, and remaining, as it were, solely as the object of its own theoretical consciousness” (Danto, 2010). Much like Hegel’s history of art —which also culminated, vaguely speaking, in a heightened self-awareness of The Idea—, philosophy stands in at the end of art’s narrative of progress (Hatt & Clonk, 2006). A problem that Danto runs into at this point is that of coming up with a criteria for what counts as art and what does not. Why is Warhol’s Brillo Box an artwork and the real commercial boxes are not? In this novel state of radical artistic pluralism he turns to analytical philosophy to come up with the necessary and sufficient conditions that would define art (Danto, 1998). His proposal was later developed by philosopher George Dickie, becoming popularised as the institutional theory of art.

However, leaving the discussion of Danto’s definition of art aside, it is needed to point certain inevitable weaknesses of his theory of the end of art. It is true that Danto did a very sound job at explaining key changes in the development of art and identifying the defining differences between modern and contemporary art and art practice; if one accepts the art historical cannon in which he situates his theory then his analysis and postulations seem acute and plausible. Nevertheless, it is this fact of being necessarily complicated with a specific story of art that makes Danto’s theory vulnerable from a more structural, historiographic perspective. As mentioned above, Danto responds to Greenberg’s Modernism, which is a history of Modernism showing a clear discriminatory bias towards anything falling outside its narrative of reflexivity and self-referentiality. Feminist art history has shown these normative narratives are not necessarily the only valid or productive ones and the fact that they have established themselves as the normative paradigm does not mean they must be the best way to account for art’s development (Nochlin, 2018).

Figure 5: Duchamp's Fountain (1917), photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at 291 art gallery following the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit.

About fifty years prior to the Brillo boxes, Marcel Duchamp had already introduced the idea of the readymade. His widely known artwork Fountain had already dissolved the limit between art and life, already making the point that anything could be an artwork and that telling the difference between one such artwork and its non-art counterpart could be practically impossible. How is it that end of art happened half a century later? Danto argues that the cultural and historical context that brought about the end of art through pop art was different from the context in which the readymades appeared (Danto, 2010). Supposedly, Duchamp tested the limits of art but failed to undo them completely since the artistic and historical context was not yet ready for it. But what if a narrative different to Greenberg’s had been told? What if by undoing Greenberg’s modernism new narratives emerged that were not compatible with Danto’s? If non-western art, art made by women, or art outside the abstraction canon was considered as a central part of a narrative of twentieth century art, if so, new ways of looking at contemporary art that differ from the radically pluralistic scene Danto envisions might appear and the end of art might not have been the end after all.


Returning to Hegel, whom Danto drew so much from, it is worth mentioning his preface to the Philosophy of Right, where the German philosopher wrote: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk” (Hegel, 2017). Through this brief and lucid image, Hegel means that the kinds of self-conscious reflection characteristic of philosophy can occur only when a way of life is sufficiently mature to be already passing; self-consciousness and self-knowledge come after the passing of the object or period of knowledge. It is possible that we might come to accept Danto’s end of art if at the end of the contemporary art period we are able to attain a certain self-knowledge that renders alternative narratives unfit, and equally we might come to realise that art and the grand narratives of art historical progress might no have ended if at the end of the contemporary art period some other alternative narratives prove more suitable. Only history will tell.

Bibliographical References

Alloway, L. (1985). The development of british pop. In L. Lippard (Ed.), Pop Art, 29–30. Thames and Hudson.

Danto, A. C. (1998). The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense. History and Theory, 37(4), 127–143.

Danto, A. C. (2010). Después del fin del arte: El arte contemporáneo y el linde de la historia. Paidós Estética.

Greenberg, C. (2010). Modernist painting. In C. Harrison & P. Wood (Eds.), Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 773–779. Blackwell Publishing.

Greenberg, C. (2010). Towards a newer Laocoon. In C. Harrison & P. Wood (Eds.), Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 562–568. Blackwell Publishing.

Hatt, M. and Knlonk, C. (2006). Art History: A critical introduction to its methods. Manchester University Press.

Hegel, F. G. W. (2017). Philosophy of Right. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Nochlin, L. (2018). Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Routledge EBooks, 145–178.

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Telmo Ojanguren

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