More Popular and Pop Art!
We’ll start Thursday with a Stuart Hall hangover. Still dizzy with the success of Abby’s heady introduction to his work, we’ll continue to contend with the dubious idea of “popular culture,” paying special attention to culture more broadly as a “battlefield,” in which social relations are symbolically contested, involving “the people”–or more accurately, the dominated/oppressed classes–as more than mere passive consumers, un-self-conscious slaves, or mindless drones of the culture industry. Please revisit this piece and give a little extra time to the parts of the essay that talk about resistance, contestation, and non-complicity.
Parker’s nod to Warhol on Tuesday may allow us to see Pop Art as a canny response to commodification and the culture industry; we can debate about whether it’s simply a matter of embellishing the prison bars Adorno and Horkheimer have revealed to us, or may be something more. Hebdige comes out of the same Birmingham School of Cultural Studies as Hall, so he just might offer us an exit out of the Frankfurters’ factory…and into Warhol’s Factory?
Please note! These were not stored in the unrefrigerated banana bin of the Kelvinator’s Foodorama Food Keeper, and may be subject to formal flaccidity and disintegration, or induce the metaphysical disgust of their consumer (cf. Kozloff, Read and Selz).
Luc will help us swallow this spoonful of high culture in poor taste in the post below and presentation on Thursday.
“The pop artist is like those atheists who make a religion out of their disbelief.”
– Herbert Read
What’s up y’all?
So, we’ve examined several iterations of ‘bad’ aesthetic taste and style thus far. Across the spectrum, a theme has emerged of vapidity or triteness covered up by a thick, contrived sheen––particularly with regard to kitsch, philistinism, and poshlost. In these three cases, however, this sheen is intended to conceal the emptiness that underlies it, and give a false impression of education, culture, or affluence. By embracing commerciality, pop art inverts this model, preferring to embrace the style-over-substance reality of mass culture. Rather than attempting to elevate themselves to the level of what Hebdige calls “pure taste,” pop artists drag art down to their level. Pop art subverts the established aesthetic order by smashing the glass ceiling that separates consumerism, commercialism, and other aspects of mass culture from achieving recognition of artistic merit. The painted likeness of a Campbell’s soup can isn’t art––it can’t be! To pop art’s critics, its mind-boggling simplicity and dearth of a deeper message is not only shallow and worthless; it is actively damaging to the (oh so precious) concept of what art is and should be.
So what should art be, and where does pop art stand in relation to it? Herbert Read voices the uneasiness towards an embrace of banality and style in favor in substance and coded message. “Art always was and must remain a mode of symbolic discourse,” he writes, “and where there is no symbol and therefore no discourse, there is no art. Not to affirm this, with all possible conviction, is to betray a sacred trust” (100). The pop artist, to Read, “does not address any audience and does not represent any point of view… a philosophy of nihilism, of extreme egoism, is permissible, but it must be expressed coherently if it is to be taken seriously. And for all of his scorn of moral and esthetic values, of academic standards and artistic categories, the pop artist does want to be taken seriously––otherwise why does he exhibit his works to the public and ask them to pay serious prices for them?” To Read and others opposed to the pop movement, the vapidness at the core of art that embraces “mass values” threatens formalist art, or the established pecking order of tastemakers and arbiters. To the pop artists, perhaps Read isn’t getting the joke.
Indeed, there is an irony at the core of pop art. Its aforementioned vapidness begs for it to be analyzed with one eyebrow raised. By ’embracing’ commercialism, pop artists scorn it. Perhaps, as Anastasia’s preamble to this blog post suggests, pop artists find that they are working within the confines of the metaphorical prison that is Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘culture industry.’ Perhaps the sheen to which I have referred repeatedly in this post is an important one, which cuts up and chews the hopeless desperation of the culture industry into eye-popping, colorful, and easy to digest chunks for the masses to make light of. This is compounded by a blasé attitude on the part of the pop artist. Erle Loran notes that the pop artist does not take sides: “he makes no commitments; for a commitment in either love or anger might mean risking something” (80). Pop art is icily uncharged of political messages, while implicitly casting judgement on its subject matters by merely representing them. It’s as if someone dressing up as the devil were to tell you to buy all 32 Campbell’s soup flavors––you would think twice before accepting his message as sincere. Pop art highlights tensions of the culture industry by representing them in ways that expose their own fundamental emptiness.
– Do you buy my conclusion? Does pop art scorn the commerciality it appears to embrace, or am I giving it too much credit?
– If I am giving it too much credit, what about from a purely aesthetic standpoint? Why do we assume that a representation of a banana or a Brillo box contains less coded meaning than the Mona Lisa?