R.I.P. Friends of Warhol: Lou Reed, Arthur C. Danto
As you’ve probably already heard by now, musician Lou Reed died yesterday at the age of 71. You may not have heard, but philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto died on Friday at the age of 89. It was a terrible weekend for those connected to Andy Warhol.
Lou Reed was originally known as the front man for the Velvet Underground; to this day, their 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico, with its famous Warhol cover art, is one of my favorite albums of all time. When I think of Reed, in addition to that album what I think of most is this anecdote: Several months ago I was with a young child when Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” came on the radio. I tried to explain to the child that this song is the definition of “cool.” Cool is a concept that is impossible to define to a small boy – like Justice Potter Stewart with pornography, all I can say is that I know it when I see it. If I were forced to define it though I would do so by pointing to that song. With apologies to James Murphy, Lou Reed was the coolest man alive, even in his 70’s. He will be missed. (And if you don’t really know the Velvet Underground and have been afraid to try or don’t know where to start, I highly recommend the A.V. Club’s Gateway to Geekery introduction to VU by Jason Heller.)
Mr. Danto was pursuing a successful career in academic philosophy when he had a life-defining moment. As he recalled in numerous essays, it happened in 1964 when he encountered a sculpture by Andy Warhol in a New York gallery. It was “Brillo Box,” an object that seemed to Mr. Danto to differ in no discernible way from the real cardboard soap-pad container it copied.
If there was nothing visible in Warhol’s sculpture to distinguish it from an ordinary object, Mr. Danto wondered, what made it art? At a time when more and more artists were creating works lacking traditional artistic qualities, this was an urgent question.
In December I read Danto’s biography of Warhol, and on the date of Warhol’s birthday this past summer I celebrated by imploring readers of this blog to pick it up. His last book, published this year, is the simply titled What Art Is, a book I look forward to reading in the near future.
The embodiment of cool. The philosopher of art. Two men that had a profound influence on the way I think about music and art, respectively, both gone this weekend. R.I.P. Lou Reed and Arthur C. Danto.