In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace Danto tries to find a way to mark the difference between Andy Warhol's "Brillo Boxes" and their commonplace counterparts in supermarkets as well as to understand why Warhol's "Brillo Boxes" are works of art while the supermarket ones are not. In sorting this business out, Danto finds himself exploring the differences, if differences there be, between works of art and mere real things, and later, between works of art and mere representations.
Danto "sees" the problem of contemporary aesthetics as follows: since we know that some things are not works of art, the philosophical problem is to explain what marks the difference. And this problem becomes especially intractable when the art-object resembles, in all particulars, an object that is not a work of art. To quote Danto, "a work such as Brillo Box cannot obviously be distinguished, on formalist grounds, from the ordinary object it resembles: a photograph of Warhol among his boxes looks just like a photograph of a stock boy among the cartons in the stockroom." In other words, we cannot define art in terms of how things look.
What distinguishes the art-work from "a mere real thing" for Danto are two criteria that the art-work has and that its counterpart that it looks like does not have: "an artwork must have content, that is, it must possess aboutness; and it must embody that content. Of course, brillo boxes have content; they contain soap pads, so we need a larger story to understand fully what Danto is claiming. The grammar of the prepositional phrase by itself does not mark the difference. The design of a bottle of Coca-Cola announes its contents, as literally, a soft drink. The outside of a brillo box promotes its contents, as literally, soap pads. But as Danto wants us to think: "one may be certain that this is not what Andy Warhol's Brillo Box is about."
It has been said that "the work of a small number of exceptional individuals can always be found to anticipate the problems that will preoccupy successive generations." Picasso, shortly after the turn of the last century, already worked to upset the assumption of a painting as a "window on reality" by pasting pieces of real newspapers into his Cubist paintings. He claimed that he was merely seeking to replace the very idea of trompe l'oeil ("fooling the eye") with, in his words, trompe l'esprit ("fooling the mind"). Through the pasting of pieces of newspaper into the paintings, "reality was introduced into the work." Picasso: "Reality was in the painting."
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