Andy Warhol and the Masterpiece of Consumption

Adam Louis Sebastian Lehodey
5 min readFeb 12, 2024
Shot Sage Blue Marilyn; Andy Warhol (1964)

In a world where Andy Warhol is synonymous with contemporary art and a single painting, such as the Marilyn above, sells for hundreds of millions of dollars, it is hard not to have an opinion on his work. My goal: to make the case that Warhol’s works very much qualify as artistic masterpieces, more specifically masterpieces of consumption.

I use these words, masterpieces of consumption, for that is first and foremost the reality that Warhol aims to capture. Everything about these works, from the colours to the the content, aims to capture the hyper-consumerist world in which we live. This extends beyond pure material consumption, reaching into the consumption of sensationalist media and becoming a meta-commentary on art itself. That, my friends, is what makes these pieces so iconic. It is not necessarily the technique that makes these pieces stand out — there is without a doubt a far greater level of technical ingenuity present in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Monet’s Water Lilies. Rather, that Warhol spotted the consumerist shift, in society as in art, and found the perfect means to capture this in artistic form, is what makes his pieces so striking.

Take his most famous work: 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, found at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York City. You might look at this and think “what’s so special?” It’s just cans, and cans, and cans. 32 cans of soup, laid out in a grid. Sure, Warhol painted each one individually. But lots of people could do that, and he didn’t even come up with the design himself! On the surface then, it’s a piece of little creativity.

“It’s just like an advert,” a classmate of mine suggested of the Campbells. “It’s blatant appropriation of someone else’s work and he only gets away with it because of his status!” another declared as the class and I contemplate the Nine Jackies at the Met.

And… that is exactly the point. That is exactly why Warhol’s work is so striking: whether or not Warhol explicitly intended his work to reveal what it does, there is no doubt that it does speak to an age of mass consumerism, of art itself as a commodity, an age of amour-propre and overstimulation. And I realised, when contemplating what makes good art, that whilst technique and content absolutely play a part, so too does context and the meta-narrative (what the art says about itself) of that piece. To give some examples: Manet’s Olympia is intentionally supposed to disgust the viewer. One is meant to look at this painting of a prostitute lying naked in bed, preparing to meet her next client, and feel disgust at the baser instincts which exist inside of man and drive his behaviour. This painting is good in that it captures this reality, encapsulates European sentiments under the Second Empire, and also communicates something about the state of art itself at the time.

So too with Warhol. From his bright Dollar Signs to the GE/Skull collaboration he did with Basquiat, mass-produced consumer goods take centre-stage on the canvas. We see this trend begin to take hold even as far back as the Impressionist movement, like in Manet’s 1882 A bar at the Folies-Bergere, but it’s perhaps not until Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain that we really see this start to take hold. Warhol’s works are meaningful because they tell us that beyond the art world, we we live in a world whereby everything has become commodified, from education to media and more. The themes first explored by the impressionists are amplified on a massive scale as he holds up a mirror to society.

But Warhol went further, recognising that this realm of mass consumerism extended to art itself. That, I would argue, is what distinguishes Warhol from his Impressionist and Dadaist predecessors. What’s interesting is that for Warhol, the commodification of art is not in and of itself a bad thing. We know this because it’s something he greatly tapped into and used to his advantage — Warhol produced over 9000 paintings and sculptures, amassing a net worth estimated at over $220 million at the time of his death. Gone were the days of the artist at the fringe of society; at the same era in which American conglomerates sought to consolidate their power through mergers and acquisitions, artists became increasingly aware of the power their own brands could have. Art was no-longer confined to the Salon or galleries of the Lower East Side, it was now projected onto t-shirts, buildings, and lofts, saying as much about the owner as it did the painter, on a scale never-before realised.

Warhol’s works, therefore, can be seen as a meta-commentary on the contemporary art market. They underscore the fact that art itself is now a tradable commodity and a status-symbol, helping us to understand how works like Baquiat’s Untitled (1982) went onto break records as the highest selling painting of all time when auctioned in 2017.

For Warhol, the physical pieces themselves — the screen-prints of Marilyn Monroe, experimental films like the Chelsea Girls, and the sketches — all of these matter very little. The entire purpose of his art is the reflection they invoke about the society in which we live. Hence the departure of self-reference as a technique adopted by earlier artists (think the signature knife of Clara Peeters) and the inclusion of symbols of mass-consumption: the newspaper headlines in 129 Die in Jet!, price tags in ‘$199 television’ and depictions of violence in ‘Thirteen Most Wanted Men.

It is the combination of all of these factors — his ability to so well encapsulate today’s hyper-consumerist world, the meta-commentary on art, the colour and dynamism present in his pieces — all of these factors are what make Andy Warhol’s art so significant. And even if it were the case that Warhol just happened to be in the right place at the right time, we should recognise that there is an intersubjective aspect to what makes an artwork significant, and that even if we do not see the merits of his work ourselves, it is highly noteworthy that it was around Warhol that many did coalesce, changing the world of art forever. All of that considered is the true masterpiece of Andy Warhol’s work.

This essay is an extended version of my ‘Masterpieces of Western Art’ final paper at Columbia University.



Adam Louis Sebastian Lehodey

I write about economics, literature, philosophy, sociology, urbanism, and anything that interests me at the time.