Warhol’s Empire: Cost-Benefit in Conceptual Art

Aside from a brief oral defense on my cinema paper, as of today I am officially done with finals. I haven’t received any grades yet, but they should be adequate in all my classes except phenomenology. I had a grueling, four-hour written exam early this morning. The professor is irrepressible philosopher-playboy Claude Romano, who, upong seeing my expression when I realized that I arrived an hour late, gave me a cool, ‘C’est pas grave,’ along with an extra hour. I needed it. The subject of the course is Linguistic Phenomenology, but I was so confused in class that I chose instead to read through two general introductions (Sokolowski and Moran, if you’re interested).

I only slept two hours last night, so I spent the first part of the test performing a painful balancing act with my forearms, ostensibly covering my eyes and swaying in deep thought, while actually in the throes of an un-refreshing demi-sleep. In France, you can actually leave the building during a test to smoke a cigarette (no, really), so I grabbed a coffee and spent the remaining two hours writing and flipping furiously through the dictionary I’m allowed to haul to tests. The product of my efforts was two pages. That’s not a lot of pages for four hours’ toil, but maybe my brevity will be appreciated (or, better yet, mistaken for authority): ‘Enfin! See? Zees Americans are no-nonsense!

Also, I don’t want to be too self-referential, but Krapp’s Last Blog received 100 hits in the last 24 hours, which is about six times average daily traffic and something of a milestone for me; hits are the only way I can tell if people are actually reading what I’m writing, after all. Thanks, Heath. Last night, googling ‘Heath Ledger dying’ led you right here! So, I salute you, citizens of the world (touched by the angels) who searched ‘Heath Ledger dying’ and not ‘Heath Ledger dead’ or ‘Heath Ledger death.’

Here’s another paper @ 1,700 words. This one isn’t perfect, either, but the thesis seems both novel and solid. I examine a discrete cost-benefit consideration present in art consumption through a discussion of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film, Empire. Cost-benefit affects all of our daily decisions. We devote a certain amount of money and a certain amount of time to actions whose benefits we deem a worthy trade for our time or money. In art, when we elect to see movies that are two hours, or listen to songs that are two minutes, we demonstrate that we think the time devoted to those acts is worth it for, well, whatever pleasure it is we derive from art. Epic conceptual art (marathon art, I call it) magnifies this dilemma by demanding large portions of a viewer’s time, sometimes with little promise of benefit. The length of marathon art makes us feel justified in discussing it wholesale what we’ve only been exposed to an excerpt. I don’t take any stance on the cost-benefit ratio or the practice of showing art in excerpted form. I merely indicate its existence, and describe how epic proportions increase its salience. I also make fun of Peter Bogdanovich.

You’ll notice that the paper is written in English. That’s because students in my program have to write philosophy papers in English or German (in addition to French). I was originally the only student in the German class, but I was so inept that the teacher literally canceled the course. (Ouch. Ego.) He invited me to his English class instead. His name is Klaus Speidel and he’s a bad-ass. This paper was written for his Master 1 English philosophy seminar, La Sorbonne, Paris-IV. Krapp’s Last Blog © 2008. I’m actually submitting this for fun to an academic journal (for young artists) that a friend is starting. Please write with suggestions, questions or requests for a more official copy of the paper.


Warhol’s Empire: Conceptual Art and the Inconspicuous Cost-Benefit

Andy Warhol’s film Empire (1964) lasts approximately eight hours and five minutes. A single, unmoving camera on the forty-fourth floor of the Time-Life building in New York is trained on the Empire State Building. The dozen silent reels of film would last only six hours if projected at 24 frames per second (standard film projection speed), but Warhol requires the film to be projected at 16 frames per second. This reduction complements Warhol’s declared intention for the viewer: ‘to see time go by.’[1] Something happens in Empire, but not in the narrative sense. There is no plot, no protagonist, no dialogue, no moral or intrigue, no nudity or special effects. The lights of the Empire State Building cycle on and off. The sky darkens. We see time go by.

Due to its length, Empire is traditionally shown in excerpts. Geralyn Huxley, a curator of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, insists that, unless a viewer has seen Empire in full, he has not really seen Empire.[2] Certainly. If one does not watch Empire from beginning to end, one has not seen Empire, in the same way that one has not seen Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane if one has only viewed the scenes with Agnes Moorhead, in the same way that one has not heard a recording[3] of Karl Böhm conducting Wagner’s Rheingold if one has only heard the overture, and in the same way that one has not seen Vermeer’s The Kitchen Maid if one has only seen a few square centimeters of it.

My intent is not to condemn the methods of museums or chide the museumgoer for a lack of commitment to uncompromised artistic experience; epic works in any medium present logistical problems. My intent is to examine this phenomenon: given only partial exposure to the work, one feels more entitled to say that they have ‘seen’ Empire, to analyze and discuss it, than one would in the cases of partial exposure to Welles, Wagner and Vermeer. Considering scenes, selections, and details of narrative film, music, and paintings is a logical way to present works of art in a classroom or otherwise limited setting. Yet one would never embark on a detailed, comprehensive discussion of those works after a few minutes of exposure the way one does with Empire.

Some works of art demand presence more than others. When Robert Rauschenberg sent a telegram reading, ‘This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say it is,’ as his entry for a portrait collection at the Galerie Iris Clert, few felt the need to view the piece of paper. (It was initially tossed in the garbage.) The objective of Rauschenberg’s so-called portrait was aesthetic, but not a visual aesthetic. A film exists of Chris Burden’s infamous Shoot, where a friend of the artist discharges a rifle into his arm, but no scholar writing about the piece would spend hours poring over the film. The images serve more as documentation than artifact. The same is true of a performance John Cage’s 4’33, a silent piece of music, which several artists have recorded.

The portrait of Iris Clert is pure conceptual art. Shoot and 4’33 are half conceptual art, half performance art. Empire has conceptual leanings (its length and immobility), but despite its treatment and reputation, the experience is ultimately a cinematic one. Its power is not hors d’oeuvre[4]; the concept of the experience is not the total experience. Possibly because the image is so striking, Warhol’s accomplishment is a genuine object for inspection and reflection, not merely another contribution to the question of the definition of art.

There is no specified time to spend in front of a painting. Common sense tells us that the longer time spent in front of a work, the more familiar with it we are, the more qualified we are to discuss it. Film is different. Although one can watch a film more than once, the nature of film—when projected traditionally[5]—entails a determined time limit spent in the presence of the film: its own running time.[6] The reason that Empire is felt to be understood so thoroughly when viewed only partially is because its audience blurs the distinction between plastic art and film. Its length is daunting—for each generation of dedicated aesthetes, I doubt more than a handful has watched the film in its entirety[7]. Its image is (virtually) static, just like a painting. The unspecified time one can spend contemplating a painting is appropriated and applied to film. This is an ontological confusion. The nature of film and plastic art demand different experiential engagement: a film necessitates a time limit; a painting can be viewed perpetually. One is hesitant to say that an excerpt is the ‘wrong way’ to experience Empire, but showing the film as an excerpt undeniably betrays Warhol’s temporal intention. As of this writing, a six-minute excerpt of Empire is available on the website YouTube. The excerpt does allow one to see time go by, just not for the amount of time Warhol specified. Also, whereas a full showing of Empire reproduces Warhol’s vision unfiltered, the content of an excerpt depends on the discretion of its editor.

Empire belongs with other instances of what we might call marathon art, which sustains a curious popularity with the public. No one is intended to see R.W. Fassbinder’s fourteen-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) or the equally long four operas of Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen in one sitting—although both have been presented without interruption to throngs of eager, caffeinated fans as if that were the artists’ intention[8]. In 2007 at Lincoln Center in New York, a single-day run of the three plays of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia had theatergoers the world over clambering for tickets[9]. The seven and a half hours of Béla Tarr’s Satantango (1994) are indeed intended to be experienced uninterrupted, as are the six hours of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet II (1983). The challenge of endurance is apparently part of the appeal. Empire, still, silent, is perhaps the most exacting of all.

Whether or not this marathon art is worth the effort is, as always, a subjective matter. But their length amplifies an aesthetic question less vital concerning shorter pieces. Consider an argument Jerrold Levinson makes examining the utility of honing one’s taste to maximize the efficiency of one’s time spent in the presence of art:

It is of course possible that in some cases the answer will be… that even though one experience is ultimately preferable to another, the cognitive, emotional, or physical preparation required in order to be able to have the first is sufficiently laborious or unpleasant that is not clearly rational to undergo such preparation, rather than that, by hypothesis less demanding, which is required for the second. Cost-benefit considerations have their place, even in aesthetics.

Cost-benefit is a ratio most art lovers are loathe to discuss. Cost-benefit is the concern of business, not the sublime. Yet, the longer a work of art is, the longer it must sustain its interest for the viewer. Consider the following:

(a) is Citizen Kane.

(b) is Citizen Kane plus one hour of unappealing sound and imagery.

(c) is Citizen Kane plus twenty-two hours of unappealing sound and imagery.

(d) is Citizen Kane plus (n – 2) hours of unappealing sound and imagery where n equals the instant of your death.

Most people that have seen the film would agree with (a) is a worthwhile investment of one’s time. In terms of the aesthetic experience it offers and its historical-cinematic interest, 119 minutes could hardly be spent more efficiently. The film is so potent that one might even want to watch it more than once. Many would agree that, despite an unfocused last hour, (b) is still worth the effort. Few would agree that that (c) was a pleasant experience. One still sees everything the other viewers, but if only 1/12 of the time you devote to Citizen Kane is worthwhile, the investment becomes increasingly unattractive. No one would agree to (d)[10], which would occupy your entire life until two hours before your death, during which you could feasibly reflect on seeing a very long film. Of the lifetime devoted to the film, only an infinitesimal fraction of it was rewarding.

This sounds ridiculous; no one is forced to make choices like this. However, it highlights as an aspect of art we rarely have the chance to reflect on because, generally, two minutes before a painting, forty minutes before a symphony, and ninety minutes before a narrative film are deemed likely worthwhile investments of our time. Even if one is not sure that she will enjoy a new, half-hour chamber music piece by a controversial young composer that is scored for three strands of dental floss—even if she has been assured by reliable journalists, scholars and co-workers that the piece has virtually no worth—the art-interested person might still choose to attend. She is only devoting thirty minutes of her day, after all. If the new piece of dental floss chamber music lasted ten hours, however, she might not attend.

When a marathon work of art like Empire extends beyond the standard length, the otherwise ignored problem of cost-benefit ratio in art consumption becomes crucial. This is an issue one addresses unconsciously every time one chooses to experience art. Its significance and salience increase proportionally to the length of the artwork. Empire is often discussed authoritatively after partial exposure because, even as we consider its length as part of our admiration for the film, when subjected to our cost-benefit test, Empire does not pass.


Levinson, Jerrold. “Hume’s Standard of Taste: The Real Problem.” Contemplating Art: Essays in Aesthetics. Oxford University Press. 2006.

Rosenberg, Karen. “A Controversy Over ‘Empire’.” New York Magazine. November 15, 2004. http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/art/10422/

Schulman, Michael. “Extreme Theatre” The New Yorker. March 12, 2007. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2007/03/12/070312ta_talk_schulman

[1] Rosenberg.

[2] Ibid.

[3] I use the example of a recording to avoid the quagmire that is performance theory—although I’m not suggesting that recording is unproblematic.

[4] Unfortunately for my purposes, the French term hors d’oeuvre (lit. “outside of the work”) has culinary connotations. It would otherwise be perfect to describe the kind of artistic experience derived from a work not spent in front of the work itself.

[5] That is to say: (1) from beginning to end, without interruption, (2) as the focus of an event and not secondary to or merely part of a larger presentation, and (3) attempts are made by the presenters to project the film in the manner intended by its creator: upright, loyal to the color and framing, and with only the appropriate soundtrack.

[6] What if Empire was infinite and had no running time? What if the camera was still pointed out the window, a proto-webcam forty-three years and running, transmitting the image directly into a museum across town?

[7] Callie Angell, the director of the Warhol Film Project at the Whitney museum, suggests that it’s possible no one had seen the film in full before: “[Warhol and Jonas Mekas] were shooting it from the office of the Rockefeller Foundation in the Time-Life building, and when they changed the reels they’d turn the lights on. In three reels, they started before they turned the lights back off, so you can see a reflection of Warhol and Mekas in the window. No one had ever mentioned that before. Probably no one ever had sat through the whole thing.” (Rosenberg)

[8] Alexanderplatz was originally a television production. The Grand Rex cinema in Paris played the fourteen episodes consecutively on October 6 – 7, 2007. Wagner intended the Ring’s four operas to be played in four consecutive days.

[9] Schulman.

[10] Maybe Peter Bogdanovich.


~ by ohkrapp on January 24, 2008.

2 Responses to “Warhol’s Empire: Cost-Benefit in Conceptual Art”

  1. […] academic departments if I try to be comprehensive here, so I’ll only mention the two matters I know most about, taste and ontology, and someone more informed can fill us all in on the philosophy of art’s […]

  2. […] of my focuses in aesthetics is art consumption: how viewers are exposed to works of art, why and how often they […]

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