Andy Warhol is famous for predicting that in the future everyone will be well….famous for 15 minutes. This should rightly be considered as the pre-eminent definition of the Democratisation Of Celebrity.
Even more perceptive, (although lesser-known), is another Warhol dictum: ‘Art is what you can get away with’.
In the United States of Everywhere money, like art, is also what you can get away with. So in a sense, art is money. That is to say, there is a clear parallel between the way that both art and money are produced, and a correspondence between what art and money can do- their functionality.
This brings us to Andy Warhols famous Campbells soup tin paintings.
On the surface, it appears that Warhols soup tins are something of a satirical comment on mid 20th century capitalism and consumerism. But if we look deeper and within the context of Warhols background in media, design and advertising we see that these images are something much more profound than mere satire; an exploration and meditation on the production of authority and persuasion.
Authority is a fundamental component of persuasion. This seems to be counter intuitive. Authority is associated with force. Persuasion is generally regarded as the counterpoint to force; force is resorted to when persuasion fails. But persuasion and force are two points on the same spectrum.
Persuasion rests upon the authority of the persuader. Authority is the expression of the validity of power. In effect, you are persuaded by the force of an argument, or you are compelled by the force of an individual or organisation if the argument fails.
The nexus between Authority and Persuasion is the form of a proclamation. The proclaimer makes a statement which is then tested by subsequent events. In this sense we can think of a proclamation as a kind of contract between the proclaimed and the future, or the proclaimed and reality.
A proclamation is a statement to the effect that: ‘Things should be this way’.
Should the proclamation turn out to be in accordance with the future or with reality, the authority of the proclaimed is enhanced. Should the proclamation turn out to be at variance with the future or with reality then the authority of the proclaimed is diminished.
This all might seem a little abstract, so let’s return to the practical example of the soup tin paintings
The Naked Lunch
Warhols soup tin paintings begin with an actual tin of Campbells soup. No soup-no paintings. More specifically, no Campbells soup, no paintings.
A tin of Campbells soup is made up of two separate components: the tin of soup itself and the label on the tin which describes what it is. After differentiating between can and label we can understand that Warhol was primarily interested in soup tin labels as opposed to tins of soup. If Warhol was actually interested in tins of soup as opposed to labels, he would probably have embarked upon a career as a chef as opposed to that of an artist….
Having isolated the Campbells soup tin label as the point of interest we can examine it in more detail. It is composed of a number of graphic elements. It is important to understand that each of these elements fulfils a specific purpose.
The first of these elements is the Campbells logo. This logo is exactly the same on every tin of soup. There is a reason for this. Consistency of this element represents consistency of intention, or more precisely consistency of contract. The meaning conveyed by a brand is: You know what you are getting; this is your guarantee.
The second of these elements is the name of the specific soup- the contents. This tells you what is actually inside the tin and varies from can to can of soup. This is also a form of contract. The fact that you can rely on Campbells soup company to produce consistently the same quality of soup that differs only in type is the substance of the contract that you have with the Campbells company.
Imagine that you purchased a tin of ‘chicken noodle’ soup only to find inside the actual tin was ‘black bean’ soup. In other words, imagine what the effect would be if the contractual elements on the outside of the tin can differed from the contents on the inside of the tin.
It Does Exactly What It Says On The Tin
In the event the soup you thought you were getting did not live up to either the quality or the description on the label then the Campbells brand would be diminished. In other words it’s value would fall.
Both the Campbells brand name and the soup type description are in fact proclamations. They are contractual proclamations made on the basis of the brand authority that Campbell soup company has. They are proclamations tested at the point of future consumption.
If you doubt this argument is correct, imagine buying unlabelled tins of ..whatever from a discount store. Could you sue the manufacturer for breach of contract if it was the ‘wrong’ flavour? Could you sue manufacturer for breach of contract if it were below desired levels of quality?
No, you couldn’t- no contract exists to be breached because the manufacturer has not specified the terms of any contract in the form of a label. Effectively the contents of the tin would have no value.
The Proof Of The Pudding
The test of the Campbell soup company proclamation comes in the opening of the tin and the eating of the contents. Either the contents live up to the label or they do not.
A money currency note fulfils essentially the same function as a Campbells soup tin label. In the same way that a soup tin label has a brand name so currency note has a brand-name; that of the issuing central bank.
And in the same way that a soup tin label has a specific flavour, so currency notes have a corresponding specific interest rate.
The brand is what all Campbells tins of soup have in common; the flavour is what they have in difference. The central bank is what all currency notes have in common, the interest rate is what they have in difference.
A bank note issued at 25 basis points is a different flavour from one issued at 50 basis points! They have the same brand label, but they are NOT the same soup !!
You test the soup proclamation by opening the tin and eating the soup. You test the central bank proclamation by bearing the money and using it to turn a profit.
If the soup tin company product turns out to be rubbish you look for an alternative, which forces the company to change its recipe. If the currency notes issued in any particular quarter at any particular interest rate prove incapable of producing a profit you also look for an alternative forcing the central bank to vary the interest rate.
The Plot Thickens….
So far so good.
Then along comes Andy Warhol who leveraged the meaning of the Campbell soup tin label and the authority of Campbells. (Remember here that the meaning of the Campbell soup tin label is a contract). By means of his soup tin paintings Andy Warhol produced what was effectively a derivative of the Campbell soup tin label.
This is one of the hardest things to understand about derivatives: the relationship between a derivative and the nominal subject of the derivative:
There is no direct relationship between a derivative and the subject of activity of that derivative. The derivative, as its name makes clear is one step removed–derived from its subject.
For instance, there is no direct link between the infamous Mortgage Backed Securities and the housing which they purport to represent (as everyone found out to their cost in the Credit Crunch).
This lack of a direct link is precisely the basis on which derivatives can be said to be money and money can be said to be equivalent to derivatives.
WHEN YOU CAN’T SPECIFY (LEGALLY RESOLVE), WHAT THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A CONTRACT AND THE SUBJECT OF THAT CONTRACT IS, THAT CONTRACT IS A FORM OF MONEY.
THIS MEANS MONEY IS INTRACTABLE.
Everyone is aware that there is no longer a link between silver and gold and the five pound note in your pocket. But most people still fail to understand that there is no direct link between the 5 pound note in your pocket and the wealth of the British economy. You cannot take a 5 pound note into the bank of England and claim a portion of ‘Britain’ on the basis of the contractual ‘promise’ made on a 5 pound note.
This absence of direct relationship is the basis for a currency notes which are a generalised contract being money.
Does this mean then that there is no relationship at all between activity based on a derivative and the subject of that derivative? In fact, the subject of a derivative is used as a trigger to activate a particular clause in a derivative contract in the same way that a horse race is used to trigger a particular clause in the betting contract between a punter and a bookie.
The bookie leverages the authority/power of the winning horse to run a book on the race. This is the essence of a proclamation.
The race itself can be regarded as a commons. A horse race is an open, common event. Everyone has equal access to it. Bets are money/derivatives based on that event.
The economy/society is an open series of events. Money/Derivatives are generalised contracts like betting slips, based on this series of events.
Andy Warhol leverages the power of the Campbells brand which can also be regarded as a commons. The Campbells brand necessarily works on the basis that a large number of people recognise it and its significance, whether they actually buy Campbells soup or not.
They recognise the significance of the label and the contract that the label represents. This is related to, though separate from the soup itself. The Campbells commons is separate from the soup- nothing to do with the physical soup. It is to do with the label, the contract and the meaning. The brand value; paid for by advertising and found on supermarket shelves.
The soup is private, the label is a commons.
The Campbells label contract is ubiquitous. Ubiquity is always a characteristic of a commons. As I explain on previous occasions the appropriation of all or part of a commons is the fundamental process of democratisation. Democratisation- the process of creating a Democracy, works by stealing a commons from the people. That is what democratisation is and always has been.
The reason that the soup paintings have ‘cultural power’ is the ubiquity of the Campbells brand. Andy Warhols soup tin can paintings based on the soup tin originals are a private appropriation of cultural commons.
Who is appropriating this commons?
Andy Warhol and the wealthy patrons of Andy Warhols art. Andy Warhol is issuing a proclamation based on the Campbells Soup Tin Contract (the ‘Andy Warhol proclamation’), and his art dealers and patrons are trading on that proclamation. Andy Warhols reputation and value as an artist (like an issuing bank) is derived from the reputation and value of the Campbells Soup Co.
The use that this derivative will be put to is considerably different from the use that the original label contract was put to And the effect of this is that an Andy Warhol painting of a tin of soup it’s worth a hell of a lot more than the tin of soup that it derives its value from.
Still, there is nothing here that is fundamentally unstable. The problem arises when the paintings of the soup cans no longer actively correspond with the with the reality of the soup cans they are based on. So for instance, if Andy Warhol produces a painting of ‘mosquito wing and belly button lint’ flavoured soup, this clearly does not correspond to any soup that exists in the real world.
In other words if the Andy Warhol painting is judged to be inauthentic then its value or the value of the proclamation it makes will be reduced, possibly to nothing.
And this, believe it or not, was the basis for the credit crunch that destroyed so much of the western economies since 2008.
Before financialisation managed to establish a death-grip on the worlds developed economies, the production of currency proceeded more or less more or less along the lines that the Campbell soup can company produces soup.
Every three months or so central banks produced soup at a proclaimed interest rate, (equivalent to a flavour), and people decided whether to buy that soup or not.
Then along came Andy Warhol (derivatives creators and traders) and Andy Warhol chose Campbells soup to be the subject of his painting practice. Note that there is no direct relationship between soup production and painting production, there is only an indirect derived relationship.
Financial institutions decided that housing would be a good area to base their derivative production on. Just like Andy Warhol, it was simply a matter of choice..
After a while, as they became more confident, financial institutions began to imagine all kinds of strange flavours of soup in the images they produced. They could do this because no one dealing in these images was actually going to eat any soup or have to taste it. Unlike the Campbells soup company there no constraint on the about what flavour of soup got the financial institutions could produce.
And this went on until 2008 when those who dealt with and owned this new form of art became increasingly worried about the validity of their purchases. This can and does regularly happen in the art world of course. Some art appreciates in value and some doesn’t.
Now imagine that Andy Warhol found that his ‘mosquito wing’ flavour soup tin paintings weren’t being well received by the critics or selling so well. So he contacts the Campells soup company and tells them that they need to actually start producing mosquito wing soup so that he can point to the real tins on a supermarket shelf and prove that his vision is valid.
‘Why In Gods Name would we want to do that?’ asks the soup company
‘Because I am a very famous artist’ says Andy Warhol
‘The people who buy and trade my art are very rich and very important. If they lose money on my paintings and go bankrupt this will bring the entire economy down. In other words, I am Too Big to Fail’
And that is more or less what actually happened in Quantitive Easing!
For the past seven years, like Oliver Twist and the foundlings in the workhouse, savers have been put on an enforced diet of Campbells Very Thin Gruel. Meanwhile, the sick and the old have been treated to Campbells Good Old Fashioned Poverty Broth.
Developing economies have enjoyed Campbells Hyper Liquidity Hot Money (a spicy concoction that burns going in and burns even more at the other end)… And for the upper echelons of the market it is Campbells Extra Thick Full Fat Cream Flavour.
And the reason that the shelves are full of this stuff and are going to remain so for the foreseeable future, is so that the derivative soup tin paintings look authentic and the proclamations they made are valid…