Art may be defined in the following way: an excellent example of excellence in the particular mode of that excellence.
Art is the example, the thing represented is the excellence.
Art is the borrower of excellence, but once that excellence is borrowed, the borrower becomes excellent, since excellence is purely excellent whether excellent in itself, or borrowed.
Because the thing is excellent, excellence exists, and therefore an excellent example must exist, whether an example par excellence is necessary, or not. Hierarchy exists, whether we want it to, or not.
The excellent example may be actual, or simply inferred as such.
For instance: The real and excellent example of a woman is excellent without any qualifications. A beautiful woman is not like a beautiful work of art; she is a beautiful work of art, given our incontrovertible definition above, and this is true without irony, and understood immediately, despite the fact that a woman par excellence shares countless physical attributes with other women.
Duchamp’s readymade art—the famous toilet, for instance, is art, also, because we infer that here is the best example of its kind—we do not know that it is the best factory-made toilet there is—but when it stands alone by itself, presented as an example, and we note a certain utilitarian beauty in its form, we give in to the general idea that here is an example par excellence—just as when we gaze, in reality, upon example la femme par excellence. Had we a real familiarity with the types of factory-made toilets, we might look at Duchamp’s piece and laugh: “That’s a poor example of a toilet! That’s not art!”
Warhol was actually spoofing Duchamp, not society, or the marketplace, or anything more profound, with his Brillo boxes and soup cans—no one could ever confuse Warhol’s ‘plain store item’ exhibit with an example par excellence—the only possible excellence is the beauty of the satire on Duchamp’s artificial trick, which featured a more mysterious, stand-alone object.
This is why Duchamp’s piece belongs to Modernism—art mocking the real—and Warhol’s to post-Modernsim: art mocking art, or more specifically, art mocking modern art that mocks.
In a democracy, we are all supposed to vote for the best people running for office. But the whole point of a democracy is that there are no “best” people; so we see the great dilemma. This is why a democracy is a necessary evil, thwarting excellence at every turn and creating art which looks like trash. In democracies, the artist makes art for the janitor—art that should be thrown out.
Duchamp (Modernist) made art of a factory piece, in which the example was inferred to be an excellent example of its (low) type. Warhol (Post-modernist) satirized this by presenting replicated examples (boxes, cans)—obviously not excellent. Post-post modernism seeks an even more iconic, primitive statement to escape this modernist chain of mockery—and so it arrives at what is essentially trash—but trash which cannot be thrown away by workers (janitors) who perform this important function within the institution. A hierarchy is established by the presentation of the lowest imaginable low (trash) which nonetheless is untouchable (janitors cannot touch it) because it “belongs” to the artist and curator, who are higher on the professional chain than the janitor. If this comes across as pathetic, it is; but let the reader attend any contemporary exhibition these days at a college or a museum, and see what is now passing as “art.” The janitors’ hands itch.
Preventing the janitor from doing his job, the “art” (trash) is displayed in a gallery and receives accolades, and no one is allowed to toss it. The Post-post artist re-positions himself outside democracy by frustrating the worker (janitor) and (symbolically) makes himself an “elite,” a person who is—excellent.
Capitalism and democracy are excellent examples of the ready-made and the throw-away, and it is easy to see this “excellence” in the culture, the politics, and art.