Duchamp had shown the way but his readymades remained for a long time encapsulated and quarantined within the transgressive aura of Dadaism. With Warhol, the integration of the artist into the market becomes overt: “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” From this point on, the untenable model of the avant-garde artist operating on or outside the margins of society survives only in fantasy. The critics, rightly fearing that in the age of Pop, their hieratic expertise was becoming irrelevant, did their best to ironicize Warhol’s perfectly explicit declarations of his crass ambitions. The true irony, however, was that their efforts ensured the market value of work that might otherwise have failed to return a price above that of what it appropriated. A good part of Warhol’s genius, such as it was, was to recognize that there was virtually no limit to the intellectual self-contortion his critics were willing to undergo in order to safeguard the mystique of the avant-garde and the benefit they derived from positioning themselves as the avant-garde’s esoteric intermediaries.
But Warhol also accomplished something else. Photography had threatened to make even the most uncommon objects common, at least as representations. Warhol turned this photographic devaluation of the uncommon on its head. He was able to turn the most debased photographic representations into objects of uncommon consumption. A can of soup, a bottle of Coke, a discarded picture of Marilyn, all these and others became superlative luxury items via the performative magic of Factory appropriation.
Warhol was famous for saying that he made a painting of Coca-Cola bottles because the popular drink was something that he and the queen could equally enjoy. What he left unsaid was that after the transformation of vernacular image into Art, only royalty could afford to purchase his particular brand of Coke.