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The notorious Campbell’s soup can painting- Was Andy Warhol a great artist fighting materialism or was it trite radical realism unworthy of artistic critical review? This style of art, known as Pop Art, was coined by the English critic Lawrence Alloway in 1958 (Web museum, 1). The pictorial themes of Pop Art are motivated by every day life (”Pop Art”, 1). Some of the most common icons include: ice-cream, seven-up, Pepsi-cola, tooth paste, canned soup, cigarettes, and match boxes. With such trivial subject matter, does this movement qualify and deserve “real” artistic acclaim? A better understanding of the ideas that propelled Pop suggests that it is, in fact, commendable.
To some extent, the age of the critic might play a role in the appraisal (Duncan 87). Older generations born before the 1960s remember the exuberant optimism that lay at the core of Pop, superficial, maybe, but promising a fresh world of demotic feeling (Bann, 121). In the 1960s, the shock of Pop, the excitement of happenings, and the cool of minimalism, provided an emergence of a new attitude. According to Jahn, “happenings directly challenged viewers’ perceptions of social patterns and of conformity to conventions” (66). Pop, like so many other styles of art, raised questions of meaning: Was it art? What was the message? Was it the celebration or parody of the mass-consumer world? Happenings and Pop Art evoked strong emotional response during this era. Artworks in this style challenged social conventions and offered models for new ways to relate to our culture and to one another (Gablic, 20), thus making an important social contribution while prompting a change. Pop culture and lifestyle became closely intertwined in the 1960s (”WWW. Pop Art, 1). During the radical events of this time, viewing habits and behavior changed to a new understanding of objects and art. If art is assessed by the relevance to its’ society and the message it conveys, then surely Pop Art is worthy of being a credible movement.
First, it is necessary to examine the source of this style. Most authorities agree that it arose from a rebellion against the accepted, yet “pretentious and over-intense”, Abstract Expressionists (Kulterman, 58). Pop Art brought art back to the material realities of everyday life, to popular culture (hence “pop”), in which ordinary people derived most of their visual pleasures from television, magazines, or comics (Harrison and Wood, 683). People were no longer relating to passive abstractions. It was time for something new, a technique that created a reality check.
Although Pop Art really began in Britain (Hubbard, 40), it was the US that nourished it to its’ peak. American Pop art was the child of a newly found self-confidence and was reinforced with each new painting . The subject matter which provided the initial impulse was Americanism itself (”Pop Art in America”, 1). No longer wanting to be dragged off into someone else’s dreamland of Abstract Expressionism, Pop artists took contemporary everyday subject matter and turned it into paintings that were hung in the office.
In contrast, many believe that such a technique can not truly be called art. It has further more been said that Pop is vulgar, aggressive, jokey, ephemeral, and sensation-seeking (Edwards, 84). The fact that it could evoke such strong feelings, suggest that it was powerful and with purpose. Pop Art has been handicapped with a freakish and flamboyant history, partly as a result of mishandling in the public news media, so that many people, including the artists, now respond to it with ambivalence. Certain critics
still exclude it from serious consideration, and a proportion of the public think that it is some sort of joke (Bann, 122). It is ironic to say the least that the very source of Pop, the mass media, has placed such a negative stigma upon it. The distaste which Pop arouses may be due to a fear, prevalent to those same people, that they will be dragged down from the summits of high art into precisely the environment from which they had been hoping to escape (Welchman, 68); however, distaste alone can not exclude Pop from owning an artistic title.
In most arguments contesting the legitimacy of Pop Art, it is Andy Warhol that annoys people the most (Hubbard, 41). When Warhol first showed pictures like the green coke bottle paintings from Buffalo, it was hard to get beyond the triviality of the basic motif. Stated by Gablic, ” the fact is that any common object, if looked at hard enough and long enough, will lose its’ temporal identity and become an abstract form “(48). For example, the old style Coke bottle, then one of the most familiar objects of everyday life, is now extinct. This painting now has a real historical value of a look into a long gone consumer era. One look conveys a message of ever changing humanity.
Historically, Pop Art can be said that it reacted from a contemporary culture in which reality was subordinated to the interest of art. It is conceptual. Pictures become things and things become pictures. Furthermore, Pop Art can be seen in conjunction with any other realism in the history of art whose aim was to give a routine, harmonious appearance to the contradictions and absurdities of the material world (”A Retrospective”, 1). In conclusion, while many see it as superficial and trivial, Pop Art is still deserving of its’ place in art history.
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