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Special Issue: Art Intermediation in the United States since 1945: Concepts, Scope, Spaces Edited by Monica Manolescu and Christine Zumello

Having Your Cake: Caricaturing the Business Organization in 20th-century and Contemporary American Art and Poetry

David Reckford


We focus here on the idea of business as a trope and as a reality that can be placed in a rhetorical position in art (mostly visual art and poetry) in the 20th century. Many artists, from Henri Matisse to Marc Rothko, have turned their heads away from the business organization, although it is a cornerstone of society in the modern capitalist era; conversations with the business world have indeed been a taboo for artists of the avant-garde particularly, which explains why some artists have been taking the contrarian position of making business part of their subject. Business is the utilitarian funneling of resources into standardized and marketed output, with its hated by-products including the organization man, and the daily grind. For many, big business is the source of those greatest of today’s problems: irreversible pollution and climate change. Part of being a progressive-spirit modernist is to open up the form to new fields of experience. In 1919, Marianne Moore, in a Duchampian gesture, broached the inclusion of utilitarian language into poetry. After that other poets, novelists, and especially visual artists have turned their gaze and their rhetoric towards what might be called the business blind spot in art, to expand art’s demesne dialectically, to engage in subtle social criticism, to reach behind business to get to society or, fascinatingly, in the cases of Andy Warhol, and later Jeff Koons, to create new ambiguities that play on contemporary anxieties, revealing hidden vulnerabilities in modern societies, to those that can see and feel them.

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1. The New, the Unknown, and the Unnoticed in Pop Art

  • 1 Arthur Danto encapsulates succinctly the misconstrued fun and trendsetting focus on Warhol during h (...)

1Arthur Danto considered Andy Warhol the most philosophical modern artist, who “did philosophy as art” (10), a statement which takes that catalytic New York figure, in reflective terms, a long way from the mercantile culture and crass vulgarity that one may associate with his subject matter, especially where the reputedly cynical Jeff Koons explicitly follows in his footsteps. People know of Warhol’s celebrity portraits, and the Interview magazine episode. They have been put off by his saying that business art is the greatest art of all. Cursorily considered, that remark is taken to be aligned with extreme capitalism. The concept of Warhol being a philosopher-artist, contrasted with the latter’s statement suggesting that art must evolve into business, or his tongue-in-cheek prediction that museums will be replaced by department stores. That dialectic persists within Warhol’s body of work. With sphinxlike coyness, Warhol himself dismisses the underlying meaning of his production or what he means by his sound bites. It misses something to suspect that he is merely celebrating vulgar, know-nothing culture, even if certain of his promoters and collectors, not to mention the mass media, have abetted the growth of that myth.1

  • 2 About the artist striking insincere poses, see Susan Sontag, Notes on ‘Camp’: in her terms, Warhol’ (...)
  • 3 The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit came out in 1955 and Organization Man in 1956.

2Limiting discussion to some examples, we propose to situate Pop Art and some of its derivatives in a high-modernist tradition, not as business and show-biz art much at all, though they do flirt with those, not as the predecessor of MTV and Reality TV, not as the champion of a world of the quick fix and the superficial, but rather as defining a distance from and a caricaturing of the dominant US culture and its internal hegemony over American sub-cultures, camping it up, so to speak, to hold on to a unique creative niche, which in turn opens a fertile terrain for art and artists.2 Without always seeming to, such work sharply criticizes the conformist figure then known as “organization man,” deflating the venal and the hubristic, what Henry James described in 1898 as the country’s repulsive “swagger” (20).3

  • 4 The immediate reference of the Dollar Sign is Reaganomics and art-market craziness, both still with (...)
  • 5 The two quotes of Rosalind Krauss extolling Pop (not just Warhol) for its energy and critical edge (...)

3One of the virtues of leading-edge art of the 1960s and among Pop artists in particular, in the words of art critic Rosalind Krauss, was “to look modern culture in the face” (Krauss in Wood). The art of the period, as it pursued its aesthetic through decades, can show us more than anything else that pretending art is just business is clever parody, while avoiding imagining unrealistically that art is not itself a kind of business; the business-economics content, say, of the big bright painting of a dollar sign (1981), is both a way to tease the self-image of gallery-goers considering themselves culturally advanced, exploding their comfortable certainties.4 Warhol’s dollar sign looks a bit like a backwards question mark, and money itself can be seen as form without predetermined content. That effect is accomplished by leaving assertions of intent out. Money is a malleable, open type of object. It should be remembered that in Warhol there is not only no teleology, the art’s meaning is up for grabs, just as, in a way, a dollar sign is comically meaningless without an actual number attached. That attitude in turn emphasizes the potential for the “liberating nihilism,” in Krauss’s words (Krauss in Wood),5 animating the creative process and the life-style in an experimenting period accelerating in the 1960s. Such ambiguous work as Warhol’s is both poetic and edgy in design, at a remove from totalizing narratives in a Lyotardian sense. There is a gritty flipside to the worship of prosperity: as Lyotard points out criticizingly, “[the] realism of anything goes is a realism of money” (The Postmodern Explained 8), and the Warholian gesture lives within that tension between art and control.

4With Warhol in mind, reading Henri Bergson’s 1900 essay, Laughter, seems uncanny: there is discussion of caricature (38), discretion (43), the mechanical and repetitions (62), form upstaging content (66), confusing the person and the thing (70), a single image belonging to two situations (110), and visible absurdity (148). Caricature is of blatant critical intent, while necessitating some inner view of the problem to fully appreciate the satire. When the comedian Chevy Chase portrayed president Gerald Ford as exceedingly clumsy, which he was not at all, physically, he was drawing attention to his awkward approach to policy, and to the way he was undermined in all his actions by his quick pardon of Richard Nixon. He was perpetually “tripped up” by that previous act (1975). The Warholian techniques of zooming in, cropping, isolating, and especially repeating imagery in mechanical ways best approximate the caricaturist’s sketchbook fantasies or a TV-comedy sketch. In turn, Warhol’s reliance on mechanistic method, regardless of subject matter, constitutes a caricature of techno-fetishism, a send-up of the business ethos.

5To look at American Pop Art incisively, it is necessary to bring to it the kind of modernist, skeptical view on over-mediated modern life that is all over the British Pop Art of the 1950s. Indeed, the title of Richard Hamilton’s collage, Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, so Appealing? (1956) makes the satirical intention unmistakable, mimicking the typically irritating puerility of the Americanized advertising copy of the day. The crazy, uncomfortable, media- and techno-fetishizing interior Hamilton construct makes the irony all the clearer.

  • 6 In his interview with Michael Peppiatt, Oldenburg also discusses setting up his Store where there w (...)

6A crucial clue to Pop Art’s hidden agenda is its streetiness. An important context to have in mind then is that American Pop Art was born in New York when the poetry scene was ballooning, and even many of the drug dealers who frequented Warhol’s Factory, feeding the crazy atmosphere, were writing poetry on the side. The whole Factory scene, Warhol’s direct creative milieu and crucible for all the crazy output, seemed heedless and decadent, to be sure, but not crassly venal. Claes Oldenburg, an early important Pop figure, speaks in a memoir/interview about how, when he started his fine-arts career in the late 1950s, and crossed lower Manhattan on foot every day, poetry was everywhere, and text-images by unknown poets of the streets were pasted to the walls along the sidewalk, towards Cooper’s Union, including his own works, just left there until the weather removed them.6 In the end, it is the history of American modernist poetry that opens up the secret side of Pop where a sensitivity to tone of voice and being able to hear the non-explicit irony, are essential, where “organization man” becomes a figure and an ironic position for the artist, and also part of an artistic texture with many levels.

7Pamela Lee’s book on the political entanglements affecting the art of the period, with its brilliant title, Think Tank Aesthetics (2000), convincingly links art funding and collaborative projects between artists and businesses—like the Rand Corporation—to hegemonic strategies and the military-industrial complex. The camouflage motif on Warhol’s self-portrait done in 1986, just a few months before his death, can be interpreted as, among other things, Warhol winking at artists who work for the militarily powerful. Though emphatically not aimed at elites, Pop Art nipped at the toes of the country’s business and political elites. Realizing that there was criticism, despite ambiguity, depends on how the art is framed and explained.

  • 7 Productive and provocative, Menand calls “Warhol's run from 1960 to 1964,” one of the great stories (...)
  • 8 Peter Schjeldahl in discussing what he calls the “German miracle” of the emergence of Richter, Polk (...)
  • 9 Pierre Restany formed the Nouveau Réalistes and speaks in their “Declaration of Intention (1960)” o (...)

8Not always perceived as political, Pop acted as a stimulant to newness in its day, that seemed linked to phenomena such as Beatlemania, and irrigated the look of American arts and crafts for a span of two or three decades as a modernist part of a counter-culture.7 Pop helped inflect and ran parallel to the socially engaged French Nouveau Réalistes (including Arman, Niki de Saint Phalle, César, Raymond Hains, Jacques Villeglé, and Christo) and La Figuration Narrative (including Eduardo Arroyo, Gérard Fromanger, Valerio Adami, Jacques Monroy, and Erró). Pop was adopted in parts by ambitious German painters like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke.8 On a less-serious tangent, it inspired Antti Lovag’s Palais Bulle’s loopy forms, and seemed to authorize some provocative posturing by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot.9

  • 10 In the essay on Ashbery’s friend, Larry Rivers, whose Pop Art he describes as light and elegant by (...)

9The deepest ways in which the Beatles and Warhol were political was in transforming the media they touched (the pop song and the artwork). As has been much noted, Warhol’s work highlighting banal subject matter, through repetition, takes the ascendant media as its real subject, revealing media excitement as of-a-piece with the industrial era (Jaubert). Interrogating restrictive business cultures of the mid-century and conformity in society are linked to that preoccupation. John Ashbery, whose poetry this paper examines below for contacts with the business lexicon, takes for granted the wide focus, and speaks of “the cautionary industrial trompe l’œil of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes.10

10Certain artists’ gestures have opened other artists’ eyes to greater possibility. In some ways the whole contentious story of modernism in painting and in other artistic forms can be contained in the process of widening the frame and probing beyond the traditional contours of what the audience expects an artwork to be (thinking of Pop Art and Warhol’s Factory, the forms of theater, sculpture, music, dance, film, novels, and poetry are relevant). After working a bit in advertising and book illustration, Warhol worked in painting, printing, sculpture, performance, and cinema. Later, Interview was a magazine-business venture. Being a multimedia artist mirrored the act of expanding expectations regarding subject matter.

11Already, in the mid-19th century, Edouard Manet and Honoré Daumier were interested in blurring the borders between fine-art painting, journalism, and caricature (troubling the high-low dichotomy was part of multidisciplinary practice). Raising the stakes, in a manner of speaking, art began increasingly to range around into territories that seemingly have nothing to do with esthetic endeavor. In Pop Art and in poetry, the modern business world will make its entry as a repository of forms, as a metaphor and an irritant.

2. Thinking out of the (Brillo) Box

  • 11 Duchamp signed his ready-made, Fontaine, “R. Mutt, 1917,” the manufacturer being J.L. Mott Iron Wor (...)

12Marcel Duchamp in 1915 extended the artistic arm outside the fishbowl art world by putting an industrially-produced snow shovel in a gallery and calling the sculpture In Advance of the Broken Arm. It was an anti-war anti-art of some detachment.11 In the Pop era, many would follow that reifying gambit. If one relinquishes the name, “art,” for what the artist is making, and replaces it with “concept,” “installation,” or, ironically, “business idea,” the art object takes on fascination that the industrial object would not. When it has not been done before, brashly moving the frame is quasi-political. We are free to interpret the shovel as a digging to find new foundations, removing the “snow-job” of myth, or a broadening of the terrain of perceptions. Warhol’s work around pot-scrubbing Brillo Pads suggests a need to scrape clean, and the elusive aspect of that possibility, the boxes being empty. His boxes of Campbell’s Tomato Juice may refer to gallons of fake Hollywood blood in the B-movies.

  • 12 The recognition of the value of individuals in all their quirks is exampled by Google’s policy enco (...)
  • 13 In regard to redesigning of workspaces to resemble bohemian neighborhoods see Gladwell; Florida.
  • 14 Management guru Peter Drucker (1909-2005), who blurs the boundaries between the creative and manage (...)

13Caricature takes as its target not the individual but the system that the individual has bought into. Thus, Warhol’s repeated Marilyn images are about the Hollywood system. When he repeats images of Elvis Presley playing a cowboy in a movie, it is an artificial role to be sure, but the myth of the cowboy is also transparently a Hollywood construction. The business world does thrive on fakery as Alain Supiot’s criticism of Corporate Social Responsibility policies points out (see Supiot and Delmas-Marty). In rare cases, corporations can be liberating: hybridity, ambiguity, ambivalence, the reconciling of opposites, coherently forward-looking intentions, and generally enterprises that philanthropically take the world’s and society’s challenges to heart.12 Some firms now redesign their offices to look like art spaces.13 The co-opting of the artistic in business that Pamela Lee is leery of has its fans: Richard Florida extols a “creative class” transforming their professional surroundings.14 It is not the dominant trend, nor can it solve our problems.

14What system we live in seems a preoccupation of John Ashbery’s. His long, abstract, 1972, prose-poem called “The System,” which he himself said was “tedious” (“Reading”), seems to be about getting away from a bureaucratic existence into something more authentic. The first sentence of “The System” is “The system was breaking down” (Selected Poems 123). That system could be any number of things (including the author’s own nervous system) but the concept feels like a Heideggerian release into being. The last words seem to bring the reader back to a totalizing, RAND-corporationish project: “this incommensurably wide way leads to the pragmatic and kinetic future” (Selected Poems 160).

15A resonant call for systemic change—not individual confrontation—in the “prologue” to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, of 1952, has the narrator in a self-described spiritual hibernation due to systemic racism. His set-up runs parallel to the garage enterprises of the time. The Ellison character, in a secret basement with 1,369 light bulbs, was taken up in Jeff Wall’s photo composition of 2000, at the height of the garage-enterprise myth. Ellison’s narrator crucially calls himself a “thinker-tinker” in the American tradition of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison.

  • 15 A self-professed anarchist, John Cage, stages a “Composition which is indeterminate,” noting, “noth (...)

16The unlikely-sounding idea of a business that the socially concerned artist could adhere to does make some sense and is a subtle dimension of most art that claims some proximity to business, boring from within. Two strands of modernism are engaged by the idea: the anarchistic and the utopian.15

3. In Poetry, an Art Intersection, from Marianne Moore Forward

17Creating disturbances from within art, Marianne Moore writes audaciously, in her 1921 poem, “Poetry,” of artists convoking the extra-artistic. Her statement appears heavily qualified, but the crux of her argument shines through:

the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
flea, the base –
ball fan, the statistician –
nor is it valid
to discriminate against ‘business documents and

school-books’; all these phenomena are important. (32)

  • 16 From “A Season in Hell”: “J’aimais les peintures idiotes, dessus de portes, décors, toiles de salti (...)
  • 17 Moore’s style in “Poetry,” matches Barthes’s assertions about the “écrivain [qui] convertit toute e (...)
  • 18 Ben Lerner in The Hatred of Poetry reflects on Moore’s piece saying he hums the opening lines to hi (...)

18That was the jab against the haughty conformism of critics-as-horses, but even more especially the piece is Duchampian, in the sense of forcing us to consider context: she puts a stanza break between the “business documents” and the “school books,” and there’s a key line break between “base-” and “ball” (as in “base,” emerging from below). One remembers that Arthur Rimbaud declared he found inspiration in “children’s books.”16 Thus, Tolstoy’s remark that Marianne Moore is quoting has him extending poetry’s domain considerably but pulling up short of business documents and school books (Moore 32). Roland Barthes’s later écrivain-versus-écrivant distinction notwithstanding (Barthes 44), Moore suggests that poetry can enter any receptacle and integrate any material.17 However, she stipulates a bit further on in the poem, the level of artistic skill required to do so will surpass what is required for more ordinary production (“by half poets, the / result is not poetry”). The attitude and context are crucial. She is drawn to the tension of making diverse universes cohabit. As part of that thought, one must read poetry with a contempt for poetry, as she shrugs in the opening lines of that piece (“there are things that are important beyond all/this fiddle”).18

19Moore was on to something which her poetic contemporaries followed, and Pop artists perfected, integrating the inartistic into their art. Warhol blew the corner of a Kodak advertisement up large for his Flowers series (1964), the commercial origin visible within the gallery pieces, with provocatively little (but crucial) alteration. Wallace Stevens, in “Of Modern Poetry” (1942), is even more explicit than Moore that, although you may wish to occlude all reference to the modern world, that must be your raw material (“the raw material of poetry in/all its rawness,” says Moore in “Poetry”). Stevens says, dramatically alluding to World War II:

Then the theater was changed
to something else. Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
the women of the time. It has think about war. (34)

  • 19 For Foster there is a consistent feeling with Warhol that the “image is watching you.” The camera w (...)
  • 20 In Stevens’s first poetic phase, dense, lush poems with complex imagery, see “Sunday Morning” (1923 (...)

20The souvenir-type object is actually typical of Jeff Koons’s ironic subject matter. Some of those include the puppy doll (Puppy, 1992), the dime-store heart (Heart, 2011), the inflatable lobster (Lobster, 2003), which he provocatively installed in the Salon de Mars at Versailles (2003), the Kiepenkerl (1987), and the porcelain Michael Jackson, based on a fanzine photo (Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988). Warhol’s Factory was a “changed theater” in the Stevensian sense: analogous to the way Stevens’s poem is a structure that goes on thinking.19 Among other things “Modern Poetry” is a call to realism, jettisoning the embellishments of Stevens’s earlier poetry.20

  • 21 Leonor Cuahonte: “Rothko espérait que le spectateur serait emporté par ses couleurs et ses formes v (...)
  • 22 James Rosenquist notes: “Whereas Ad Reinhardt only likes to see one thing at time, I want to see ev (...)

21In the name of paring down and realistic vitality, American artists of New York most expansively rejected the human figure, in protest against the fall of humanity into a state of what E.E. Cummings called in a sonnet “this busy monster, manunkind” (14). Robert Motherwell entitled one his essays, echoing J.P. Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946), “On the Humanism of Abstraction” (1970). Rothko gave back the check from the Seagram’s Drinks Company for the biggest art commission of its day, decorating the Four-Seasons Hotel’s restaurant, Central Park, New York, in a rejection of thinly-veiled effort to co-opt the artistic elite into the proud display of corporate wealth.21 Reinhardt’s pure and quiet, black-on-black paintings, he called “Ultimate paintings,” made him the “black monk” and he, like Rothko, was serious in his rejection of pandering to popular or uncultivated sensibilities, indeed the gesture excludes all aspects of modern society, in Mondrian’s utopian mode.22

4. You Are Too Absolute

22Such grandstanding gave scope for contrarian stances. Roy Lichtenstein was wrong-footing the art world around 1960, when Duchamp was living again in New York: “the one thing that everyone hated was commercial art” (Stiles and Selz 388). He and other Pop artists built careers vexing elite art-world insiders: silently hating the corporate world and bemused by its power over imaginations, but seizing that world’s images, amplifying its methods. “Apparently they did not hate that enough either,” Lichtenstein added laconically in the same breath (Stiles and Selz 388).

  • 23 Jean Baudrillard, squaring with Danto, speaks of a Hegelian “rage to disappear,” linking Warhol dir (...)

23Leaving one classic dimension of artistic integrity behind, the eschewing of quid pro quo system, Andy Warhol, in Jean Baudrillard’s words, created “an absolute merchandise,” an alienation of the commodity.23 Campbell's Soup Cans in his many iterations of them are forlorn consumer items that cannot be consumed. As in Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “A Supermaket in California,” one goes there “shopping for images,” spending an evening never reaching the cash register. The paintings were first shown in L.A., displayed on fake supermarket shelves. It is impossible to miss the word “camp,” ironic posturing, within the word Campbell’s. As mentioned earlier, Brillo scouring pads refer to the avant-garde tabula rasa and conceivably to Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction theory loved by neo-liberals. It could be said that creative destruction also captures the spirit of cottage industry in the arts: small presses and artist-run spaces, a model being the Factory.

  • 24 Baudrillard remains unconvinced by Warhol’s aesthetics. Schjeldahl differs: “Warhol was a supreme c (...)

24Marxist innuendos in Andy Warhol’s work run from the calling of his studio the Factory, to the film Empire, featuring exclusively a building belonging to the globalizing company and business empire, Ford Motors, and calibrated to eight hours like a factory shift on a Ford assembly line, to his advertisement lookalike Coca-Cola bottles and celebrity portraits, not to mention his Chairman Mao series, or the hammer-and-sickle image he called “Still Life,” in 1976—great timing, just when people, during “détente,” began to receive such imagery lightly. Warhol’s extension of the mechanisms of marketing to people is blatant. As art essayists, Peter Schjeldahl and Michael Fried have both pointed out, they represent esthetics successfully, and uncomfortably, smuggled into the tabloid world.24

  • 25 Jean-Pierre Criqui notes in the on-line catalog of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, a “disenchanted” Ros (...)

25Co-opting of marketing by politics is suggested by James Rosenquist’s President Elect (1960). Associated with a car and a cake, the president also resembles a vampire or a toothy predatory capitalist, the dark side of JFK’s marketed double. Rosenquist is not meaning to target a particular politician for opprobrium but rather to reveal a system and its mechanisms.25

26Warhol, avoiding affront, marked Kennedy’s death with a repetitively grieving Jackie Kennedy. Between the camera and the silkscreen reproduction the mourning veil becomes a smudge that looks like ink stain on newsprint. The paintings are not about the veiled and impenetrable widow but about the capitalist mechanisms revealed in the frontpage treatment—the way yellow journalism serves private corporate interests mirrors the way art kowtows to power.

27The avant-garde filmmaker Marie Menken's twenty-seven-minute 1965 art film called Andy Warhol captures what happens to the individualized moment of mourning treated through a sped-up, industrialized art process. She also, in the same film, juxtaposes two scenes. One is filmed in Andy Warhol’s open studio where fake-real Brillo Boxes, artworks that suggest a new ontology for art, in Danto’s view, are being wrapped for shipment to a commercial gallery. Another is of workmen at a real Brillo warehouse, seen behind protective wire, loading Brillo boxes onto a truck to be taken to supermarkets. Keeping in mind Menken’s anesthetized Warhol “paying homage to Jackie,” it is crucial to notice the way none of Andy Warhol's work can be taken at face value. Yet he insisted that it was all on the surface. Nevertheless, that affirmation did hold truth: the emphasized surface-ness could refer to the modern media, television screens and tabloid covers, his great invisible, merely suggested, subjects. His work addresses the shifting gaze of a whole population.

28Menken’s ironically titled silent film, Go! Go! Go!, renders a zooming-along version of a day in big-city Manhattan and alludes to the inhabitants’ life-spans going by in a wink of an eye. It shows up how the official capitalist discourses praise the hustle-bustle of a whole population on-the-make. As she is picturing the aggregate, the invisible hand, the title becomes an injunction to move: the resulting vision of the film is of a pathetic human ant-hill.

29Both Warhol and Menken are twisting their art towards their techno-industrialized versions which record by implication the loss of significations, producing a melancholy core, which Hal Foster convincingly links to processes that entail decomposition and degradation of the image (oxidation of “piss paintings” for example) (Foster, “Talking About Andy” min. 40). Changing perspective, context shifting, revealing another aspect of reality: Pop Art gravitates to cameras helping onlookers to alienated looking.

30For the sake of art, the anarchistic John Cage plays the game of the mechanized and technological culture, all the better to show up its vulnerabilities. His 9 EVENINGS : THEATER & ENGINEERING (1966) mix art and engineering with the enthusiastic support of Bell Laboratories engineers: it leverages openness in business organizations conscious of what is at stake for them in innovative thinking and manners of embedding their products in the art-world culture (foreshadowing the mainstream). From the science-fiction sounds atmosphere, and Plato’s cavern decor of shadows, the relationship to the audience, who can sit or wander around to produce part of the spectacle, triggering some of the effects, to the team of artist and engineers involved, like Nam June Paik, Cage’s installation and spectacle works to aesthetic effect while pushing the technological envelope, since a computer was used to coordinate the analog instruments, and light captors were also part of the complicated rigging.

5. Ashbery’s Love-Hate Relationship with Business

31Author of a positive review of Warhol’s opening in Paris in the early 60s, and a friend of John Cage’s, Ashbery mines, among a plethora of other sources, the language of business, to test just how much his poetry can swallow. In poems titled “Business Personals” (Houseboat Days), “The Wrong Kind of Insurance” (Houseboat Days), “Alone in the Lumber Business” (April Galleons), “A Bird’s-Eye View of the Tool and Die” (Houseboat Days), and, in the 1990s, “Flow Chart” (Flow Chart) and “Your Name Here” (Your Name Here), his art can totally ingest what it evokes. Business principles are convertible currency within modernism. Two examples will highlight Ashbery’s judo moves on what the world throws his way: in the 1975 poem, “Worsening Situation,” written arguably when Ashbery’s personal situation was improving, the poet invents a glib character, wrapped in his own ego, but also surrounded by inane and invasive advertising constituting a papery backdrop:

One day a man called while I was out
And left this message: “You got the whole thing wrong
From start to finish. Luckily, there’s still time
To correct the situation, but you must act fast.
See me at your earliest convenience. And please
Tell no one of this. Much besides your life depends on it.”
I thought nothing of it at the time. Lately
I’ve been looking at old-fashioned plaids, fingering
Starched white collars, wondering whether there’s a way
To get them really white again. (Self-Portrait 3-4)

32The end of the selected passage echoes the Rolling Stones’ song Satisfaction (“a man comes on the radio and says how white my shirts can be”), an obvious send-up of lovely and awful advertisements. Another interesting example, the extravagantly titled, “Variations, Calypso, and Fugue on a theme by Ella Wheeler Wilcox” (The Double Dream), collages several modes including, quotation, doggerel, prose-poetry, typical Ashberian successions of entrancing, dreamy phrases, business documents, and surreal storytelling. Parts of one of the “business documents” passages follows:

‘MAKE MY DREAM COME TRUE’ This message, set in 84-point
Hobo type, startled in the morning paper:…
These things could be a lot clearer without hurting anybody. But it does
not follow that such issues will produce the most dynamic capital gains for
you. (Selected Poems 96)

  • 26 Language poet Kit Robinson’s “Return on Word,” imitates the diction of a corporate advertising depa (...)

There is clear parody of common business, advertising, and investment parlance, but it also creates an atmosphere of banality, added to the arcane feeling of an internal memo from an unnamed business, against which the more heightened phrasing of other parts of the poem can stand out. There are also strange resonances with themes building in the poem (like the place given to dreams in waking existence.)26 When misread, the “Hobo type” could evoke a bohemian artist rather than a marketing lettering standard.

6. Two Knock-offs on Warhol: Pictures and Koons

33The use of advertising techniques for political agitprop then echoes strongly through the 1980s and 90s, particularly in appropriationist works of the so-called Pictures Generation. Among the most edgy, Richard Prince recognized the quality of artistry in advertisement visuals and wished to inflect it, including, with his cigarette-advertisement cowboys, to denounce the use of myths that lie people into addictions. His Untitled (Cowboy) (1989) showcases the work of an unknown but obviously talented photographer working for an ad agency plugging away for a big tobacco company to manipulate male consumers with an image of absolute independence. Isolated from the tag-line and with the brand-name cropped away, the cowboy controlling his horse inside an engulfing sand dune really does present a seductive narrative, and the brand identity is much present even when it is removed. Éliane Elmaleh shows how Prince is flipping what is really brilliant work by ad-world creatives, completely against them, including their creation of a mythological country, Marlboro Country (271-281). Barbara Kruger worked in magazine advertising, and has a business-like understanding of the slogan: her “I consume therefore I am” piece highlights the subtext of many advertising supports, letting irony stare the viewer in the face (1980). Cindy Sherman, mocking the myth-making of the cinema, dresses herself up to be photographed. Wigs, clothes, postures, gazes, and situations evoke some non-existing, plausible movies. Philip Yenawine reproduces six images from Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series of 1979: the first has her a guilty and transgressive co-ed reaching a high shelf in the cinema section of a library; the second like Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate (1967) looking out of a hotel room, with a martini glass and an air of command; the third squatting down to groceries on the floor of the kitchen and picking up an egg carton with a murderous glance as if it were a weapon; the fourth confident and confrontational in a swimming pool with a diving mask; the fifth in the middle distance in a maze of a building looking spied on; and the sixth in a corridor with no doors and wearing a hospital robe, evoking a mental patient wishing to escape the ward (Yenawine 129-131). The charcoal drawings of Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities series are large, imposing images. The postures contorted ambiguously into images either of agony or wild, contemporary, night-club dancing, were friends the artist photographed avoiding tennis balls and other objects. The power suits emphasize the comment on go-go business dealings in terms of the distorted body.

  • 27 In “Full Fathom Five,” based on interviews with Burke & Hare (Brooks Adams and Karen Marta), Koons (...)

34Finally, Koons, in works from his “banality series,” like Pink Panther (1988), brings the most unethical kind of behavior sanctioned by the market, pandering to a lowest-common denominator taste (the junky souvenir and the window-shopping aesthetic), into full view as if taking all his cues from Ayn Rand and the Chicago School (Koons clearly accepts the system as it is, free-market style, working within it for his maximum profit, thus representing it).27 His works are expensive to make, and go for high prices, targeting those on the top of the financial pyramid. His subject matter seems to be blind-consumption porn, media-saturation porn, and, in a famous series of himself and La Cicciolina, homemade porn. His work makes us face what we wish to avoid—the reign of the ego. He manages to use impeccable production values, with a big team of artists in his studio, and even reference the splendor of Louis XIV (whom he says he admires), yet still manages to make it all look cheap and derivative.

35Summing up the whole quandary about business interfacing with art, a representative of the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery (that showed Warhol in Paris in 1964 and 1965), in the film “Jeff Koons a Confidence Man” says: “People say that because Jeff Koons worked as a trader to raise the initial capital to finance his first artworks that proves how cynical he is, but for me it's the most romantic gesture imaginable.” Cynical or late-in-the-day romantic: gallery-goers will have to decide.

36Indeed, this paper does not insist on a singular, unequivocal way to interpret the tropes, business-executive poses, and other inclusions of business imagery and rhetoric in art. The phenomenon links to artists’ characters and skills, not covert financing. The audience too, especially since the modernist era, and into postmodernism, when works are designed for openness of interpretation, has a role to play that will be influenced by social and political factors. When Foster points out that the story of degradation told by Warhol’s repetitive pieces, which fade or blot due to the silkscreen process, reflects the state of flux mankind is thrown into, post-war, the constant retooling of the productive systems and apparatus (Foster, “Talking About Andy” min. 52), the spectator is free to find that world of constant change thrilling or worrisome, or both. The inclusion of the business motif in art seems important vis-a-vis art’s role to shed light on the realities and spirit of a time. Even characters like Matisse, Rothko and Reinhardt, who reject the muck and mayhem (Schama min. 7), and, for the two latter, illusions and pretenses of American social processes, also affirm the place such phenomena hold in the modern psyche. Perhaps sixty years from now humanity will look back on the corporate age and repeat with glee, that Ashbery line: “The system was breaking down” (Selected Poems 123).

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1 Arthur Danto encapsulates succinctly the misconstrued fun and trendsetting focus on Warhol during his lifetime, when, contrasting with the European reception of Warhol’s work as only political, he says in Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays: “It took a long time for Warhol to become intellectually respectable in America. Instead, he became an icon” (xiii). Robert Hughes considering the same phenomenon comments slyly: “to the media, Warhol seemed barely explicable and therefore infinitely intriguing—a slightly eerie vacuum, which needed to be filled with gossip and speculation” (346). For a collection of Warhol’s statements, see “Warhol in His Own Words: Statements (1963-1987)” (Stiles and Selz 390-396). Louis Menand notes, in his lecture at the Met, that none of Warhol’s statements should be taken at face value; our argument about business reality being commandeered into aesthetics, reflects Menand’s (min. 23). For the left-right cleavages around Warhol in France, see Michel Bourel, “Andy Warhol à Paris dans les années 60,” including the planned showing of his film, Chelsea Girls, at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival and its removal from the official program. Hal Foster, in his Hirshhorn lecture, points out that regardless of subject matter, Warhol’s dark gaze is “distressing and testing” its object, as well as something that will “test the viewer” (min. 50).

2 About the artist striking insincere poses, see Susan Sontag, Notes on ‘Camp’: in her terms, Warhol’s attitude is consonant with the camp sensibility, he appears “ironically detached” and “epicene,” but, she notes, Pop Art is not wholly camp, because, “[it] is more flat and more dry, more serious, more detached, ultimately nihilistic” (33).

3 The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit came out in 1955 and Organization Man in 1956.

4 The immediate reference of the Dollar Sign is Reaganomics and art-market craziness, both still with us: cf. “the Pearlstein nude stands out in this company like a Bach fugue interrupting The Monkees Greatest Hits… the estimate for Warhol’s 210 Coca-Cola Bottles $800,000” (Klawans 145).

5 The two quotes of Rosalind Krauss extolling Pop (not just Warhol) for its energy and critical edge are in Michael Wood. Referring to the way Pop Art seeks a way out of strict formulas of artmaking, she notes, in “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”: “artists’ video is largely involved in parodying the critical terms of abstraction” (3). Regarding a lack of teleology in Warhol, Danto notes that his typical reaction in front of a painting was not to comment but to say, “Wow!” The theme of indeterminacy is explored by Marjorie Welish in her article, “Contextualizing ‘The Open Work’”: “indeterminacy in form and content elicits interpretative and interactive engagement… to wrest sense… from visual events apparently static and thus uneventful in the extreme” (281).

6 In his interview with Michael Peppiatt, Oldenburg also discusses setting up his Store where there was nothing to buy (cf. Ben Vautier’s less short-lived “Magasin”).

7 Productive and provocative, Menand calls “Warhol's run from 1960 to 1964,” one of the great stories in modern cultural history (min. 24).

8 Peter Schjeldahl in discussing what he calls the “German miracle” of the emergence of Richter, Polke, and others, creating a mini-movement in 1963, “Capitalist Realism” in response to American Pop Art (Let’s See 135).

9 Pierre Restany formed the Nouveau Réalistes and speaks in their “Declaration of Intention (1960)” of the “depletion and sclerosis of all established vocabularies, of all languages, of all styles” and establishing of the basis for “a new expressivity” (Stiles and Selz 352). Related to the irony of Arman’s accumulations, see Barthes’s essay, “Nautilus et Bateau Ivre. La Figuration Narrative artists designed canvasses like cinematic shots. Gérald Gassier-Talabot frames the Figuration Narrative artists in terms of their liveliness in reaction to Pop Art’s coolly satirical position (Bourel 97). Roy Lichtenstein is the immediate reference for Bardot and Gainsbourg’s video clip (now on French middle-school programs); it also derived from Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: the camera, at one point has Bardot, in her flesh-colored super-girl costume, framed by singer’s dark-slacked legs. The Palais Bulle belonged to Pierre Cardin.

10 In the essay on Ashbery’s friend, Larry Rivers, whose Pop Art he describes as light and elegant by contrast (Something Close 70). Foster points out that during Warhol’s “screen tests” (not in the Hollywood sense but testing people’s conformity to their own self-image) tended to disturb those being so “tested.” Interestingly, Ashbery, who wrote about staring into a mirror, was a rare one to “stare down the camera.” (Foster min. 43).

11 Duchamp signed his ready-made, Fontaine, “R. Mutt, 1917,” the manufacturer being J.L. Mott Iron Works, underlining the ironic misappropriation of business output, questioning authorship and genius.

12 The recognition of the value of individuals in all their quirks is exampled by Google’s policy encouraging staff to spend one-fifth of their time at work on individual projects. Balle (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) encourages businesses to be forces of social and environmental good. Cf. the Spanish Co-op, Mondragon (Romeo).

13 In regard to redesigning of workspaces to resemble bohemian neighborhoods see Gladwell; Florida.

14 Management guru Peter Drucker (1909-2005), who blurs the boundaries between the creative and managerial, articulated ideas on simplicity and community of production applicable to artistic fields, and half-criticized financial capitalism, in his 1993 book, The Post-Capitalist Society.

15 A self-professed anarchist, John Cage, stages a “Composition which is indeterminate,” noting, “nothing is accomplished [by it].” Influential utopian, Pete Mondrian, imagined a calm and ordered world emerging from his canvases (Stiles and Selz 831).

16 From “A Season in Hell”: “J’aimais les peintures idiotes, dessus de portes, décors, toiles de saltimbanques, enseignes, enluminures populaires; la littérature démodée, latin d’église, livres érotiques sans orthographe, romans de nos aïeules, contes de fées, petits livres de l’enfance, opéras vieux, refrains niais, rythmes naïfs” (139) a program, chiming with Pop, and John Ashbery and Ted Berrigan aggressively mixing registers. Sontag points out how camp is “seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon” (4).

17 Moore’s style in “Poetry,” matches Barthes’s assertions about the “écrivain [qui] convertit toute explication en spectacle” (84), like Warholian paradox-statements. Her “half-poet” rings similar to Barthes’s hybrid, écrivain-écrivant (a little of both), which he regards more neutrally than she (89).

18 Ben Lerner in The Hatred of Poetry reflects on Moore’s piece saying he hums the opening lines to himself when people question him on meaning or usefulness in poetry (9).

19 For Foster there is a consistent feeling with Warhol that the “image is watching you.” The camera with no one behind it activates a worried aesthetic. As Foster later calls the Factory a “late bohemian set-up,” the visitors being are examined by the walls for bohemian credentials (min. 44 and 103).

20 In Stevens’s first poetic phase, dense, lush poems with complex imagery, see “Sunday Morning” (1923) with its hedonistic first lines: “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/ Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair.” Note Stevens’s successful business career: a company Vice-President. In the pre-World War I period, Matisse included windows, drapes, wall paper, fish bowls and screens, to evoke interiority, as in Intérieur aux aubergines.

21 Leonor Cuahonte: “Rothko espérait que le spectateur serait emporté par ses couleurs et ses formes vers un plan plus spirituel où il pourrait partager sa vision sa conception de l’art” (Hilaire and Lemoine 72). Simon Schama, in The Power of Art, wonders rhetorically why Rothko provisionally accepted the commission (it was to convert people’s vision). Robert Rauschenberg, more sanguine, interviewed by Raphaël Sorin in 1968 about his founding the organization called E.A.T. (Experiments in Arts and Technologies, Inc.) says: “Artists need industrialists and industrialists need them” (Sorin 31).

22 James Rosenquist notes: “Whereas Ad Reinhardt only likes to see one thing at time, I want to see everything at once and celebrate it all” (Sorin 21, my translation). Stéphanie Jamet points out that Reinhardt’s work adds up to an oriental aesthetic (Hilaire 118). Lichtenstein calls himself “anti-zen” (Stiles and Selz 388).

23 Jean Baudrillard, squaring with Danto, speaks of a Hegelian “rage to disappear,” linking Warhol directly to Baudelaire, which creates Warhol’s modernist veneer, an “aura” as “authentic simulacra” (9).

24 Baudrillard remains unconvinced by Warhol’s aesthetics. Schjeldahl differs: “Warhol was a supreme colorist who redid the world’s palette in art, amazing hues such as cerise, citron, burnt orange, and apple-green,” “add uncanny aesthetic sensitivity and social acuity, and you have a catalyst, [which, when] dropped into the art world’s chemistry, stayed the same while altering everything,” or “Art’s noble past and uncertain future still meet in his frayed, beautiful, hieratic surfaces” (Let’s See 164-165). Fried calls Warhol’s Marilyns, for example, “beautiful, vulgar, heartbreaking icons” (Perl 777).

25 Jean-Pierre Criqui notes in the on-line catalog of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, a “disenchanted” Rosenquist, “how to do someone in an ad? Let’s go for the face and the promise: half a Chevy and some rancid cake.”

26 Language poet Kit Robinson’s “Return on Word,” imitates the diction of a corporate advertising department meeting. There's an interesting contrast in the poem between the financial, “return on word” and the aesthete's “return to words” later in the poem. Ashbery’s friend, Kenneth Koch, uses business motifs playfully in “You Were Wearing,” a blouse with the image of Edgar Allan Poe, merchandising but literary (Koch 9).

27 In “Full Fathom Five,” based on interviews with Burke & Hare (Brooks Adams and Karen Marta), Koons says in hyper-capitalist mode: “my work will do anything—absolutely anything—to communicate and to win viewers over,” “I try to be an effective leader. I'm very interested in leadership”, “I’ve found that collectors are my power base,” “I think it’s important that the work be bought, that I have the political power to operate,” “we were the great seducers, we were the great manipulators, we have given up those intrinsic powers of art,” and “what you have to do is exploit yourself and take the responsibility to victimize others” (Stiles and Selz 439-442).

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Electronic reference

David Reckford, Having Your Cake: Caricaturing the Business Organization in 20th-century and Contemporary American Art and PoetryEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 03 July 2023, connection on 14 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

David Reckford

David Reckford teaches, at Cergy Paris Université (CYU), the Contemporary America Novel, Literary Translations, the History of the Medias, and American Civilization. He teaches at the École du Louvre, the Beaux Arts de Paris, and Sciences Po Paris. His PhD, from Université Paris-Nanterre, was on the New York Poets. 

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