In 1885 Vincent van Gogh painted a pair of very worn boots. It was a small painting – 18 inches by 15 – but a powerful one. It remains one of Van Gogh’s most familiar images. It is also one of the most densely discussed. Both the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the theorist and critic Frederic Jameson have pondered these boots. What they both conclude is that, in Jameson’s words, “the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth”.
The painting is not simply an arrangement of pigments, nor even, primarily, a representation of something. It is, rather, a statement about a world that lies beyond the painting – the hard life and work of the peasant who wore these boots. It is a portrait of the man and his life painted in his absence. The painting is a window through which we see not just these boots but their place in a world of toil and struggle.
That, in fact, is exactly how people usually look at art, as a physical embodiments of wider meanings. What other reason is there to look at all? But Jameson goes on to compare Van Gogh’s boots with a Warhol print from 1980 called “Diamond Dust Shoes”. This work, says Jameson, “evidently no longer speaks to us with any of the immediacy of Van Gogh’s footgear; indeed, I am tempted to say that it does not really speak to us at all. Nothing in this painting organises even a minimal place for the viewer, who confronts it at the turning of a museum corridor or gallery with all the contingency of some inexplicable natural object.”
That, in a nutshell, is the entire history of Warhol criticism. It all pivots on the meaning of the word “meaning” when applied to the visual arts. Warhol, a far more intelligent man that he liked to appear, understood this perfectly. “The more you look at the same exact thing,” he said in 1975, “the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel.” He also said: “Always leave them wanting less.” He was in pursuit of an art that meant nothing.