#13 Pop Art!

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?


7 thoughts on “#13 Pop Art!

  1. Your conclusion definitely strikes a chord with me. I think that pop art is absolutely critical of commercialism, and in many ways attempts to use the pop culture aesthetic to its own ends in a similar way that sots-art adopts the socialist realist aesthetic and then inverts it to create a new message. I wonder if Read has a point, however, that the “inside joke” of pop art creates a new elite, and distances itself from the public? Understanding that words like “elite” and “public” are so loaded with meaning, I will rephrase to expand the scope of thought on this–Who does pop art belong to? Is it an exclusive movement/aesthetic?

  2. I accidentally posted this before I meant to. To elaborate on my first sentence, pop art is certainly critical of commercialism and consumerism, but it is consumed popularly. How might we reconcile these two things that happen simultaneously?

  3. I love this post and these replies, you two. Pop Art definitely spoke the language of advertising in the art gallery, making it something like matter out of place; and polluting the purity of categories Greenberg and others relied on for art’s sake! But even as it used consumer culture, was it consumed popularly by its contemporaries? I think Abby’s first question is keener than the second, namely: Whose art is it? And I’d add: And where’s art? What’s art? Returning to Benjamin, and folding in Luc’s observations, I think we should also ask: What does pop art’s glossy celebration of the indistinguishability between original and reproduction accomplish? What larger sociocultural anxieties does it tickle and throatily laugh at?

  4. I took another look at the Hall reading, and I think he makes a really interesting claim regarding pop art as a cultural battlefield, one in which dynamic cultural struggles are played out. Armed with his argument, I think we could argue that pop art does much more than merely illustrate the culturally hegemonic bars that confine us as consumers. If pop art is “polarized around this cultural dialectic…the process by which these relations of dominance and subordination are articulated” (Hall, pg. 449), then we would not only witness attempts at cultural domination but also a push back against these attempts, a resistance. I think Luc makes a good point here, that perhaps pop art’s use of irony and playing on commerciality is a facet of this resistance.

  5. In response to the question Abby posed, I don’t think that pop art really belongs to either the elite artists or the public. Hebdige describes pop art as being formed “at the interface between the analysis of “popular culture” and the production of “art”” (125). Being in this no man’s land position between the two opposite ends of the spectrum makes it impossible for this type of art to be fully accepted by either group. It is a movement taken too artistically to be fully accessible to the general population but the subject matter is also too low brow for the elite artistic group to be fully willing to stoop to. At the same time since the movement does touch on both the artistic and popular culture side of things, neither the artists or the public can fully reject it and both must feign understanding of the side of the movement that represents the opposite group.

  6. I agree with Erica that pop art doesn’t really belong to any sort of elitist group in particular, but wanted to add another thought to Abby’s question of “who” pop art really belongs to. On page 120 of the Hebdige text, the author touches on four themes, one of which he designates as an owner of pop art; America. I think this is a good point, to compare pop art as America’s form of being “invented as well as discovered” (120), to compare to Europe’s extended art history with “complex codings of class and status” (120). I don’t think pop art is necessarily something that can be claimed by an elite class precisely for the fact that it essentially represents America and its commercialist ideals.

  7. Sorry Luc, I don’t completely buy your conclusion or the critical nature of pop art. Aesthetically, I think it’s extremely hedonistic and seeks to bombard us with images of instant gratification that we recognize from advertisements and the world around us. This can be related to any art movement, though, that simply provides pleasure or significant cultural images in an artistic context- like religious images in medieval art.

    I think this relates to your second question of aesthetic value; we assume the images of pop art are of lesser value because of their birth in the age of commercial and mechanical reproducibility.

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