Pop art is one of the seminal art movements of the mid 20th century: brash, bold and instantly iconic. Whilst it was arguably initiated in Britain, it took root in the advertisements and commercialism of the modern American landscape, designed to appear lightweight and vacuous. However, as host Alastair Sookes states in the documentary Soup Cans and Superstars: How Pop Art Changed the World, pop art has far more depth than it is often given credit for, being utilised to ‘expose the dark side of the American dream.’
What exactly is pop art? In 1957, pop artist Richard Hamilton defined it as the following: ‘popular (designed for a mass audience); transient (short term solution); expendable (easily forgotten); low cost; mass produced; young (aimed at youth); witty; sexy; gimmicky; glamorous; and big business.’ In short, it seeks to emulate the industry of its eponymous popular (pop) culture, mass media and advertising that it so often commentates on, bringing commercial art into the gallery.
Unlike many art movements, à la Dadaism, Futurism, Symbolism, Realism, Surrealism, Cubism and more, pop art wasn’t initiated with a strict manifesto regarding its boundaries or its foundation. However, like many of these movements, pop art plays with the boundaries of what is considered to be art, creating syncretism between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. The majority of the pop art movement was formed in isolation, made cohesive by the spirit of the time rather than commonality with other artists. Indeed, as curator Henry Geldzahler stated to Andy Warhol, ‘It was like a science fiction movie- you pop artists in different parts of the city, unknown to each other, rising up out of the muck and staggering forward with your paintings in front of you.’
Many famous pop artists, such as Warhol and James Rosenquist had their start in advertising. Their artwork often plays with the concepts of consumerism, celebrity and media, of mass reproduction, and the advertising ideal of happiness being a commodity. Advertising as we know it today had its genesis in the late 1940’s and 50’s, with the introduction of television advertisements, and pop art, coming to the forefront in the 1950’s and 60’s, was very much a reactionary framework for artists. As Sookes notes, pop art ‘holds up a mirror to the times… in all its Technicolor, tarnished glory.’ Against the backdrop of the Cold War and in a post WWII society, the glossy façade of celebrity and mass media was increasingly apparent, with the dichotomy between their projected optimism and artist’s cynicism being a frequent theme, prominently displayed in works such as Warhol’s ‘Marilyn Diptych’, Rosenquist’s ‘F-111’ and Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’
Pop art is a unique movement, in that in often directly participates in perpetuating the very aspects it is commenting on. A perfect example of this is Warhol’s infamous ‘Factory’, which cemented him as one of the first ‘business artists’, a model that has found favour with many contemporary artists (Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst spring to mind). Warhol’s method of screen printing allowed him to mass produce his work, this mechanical, accessible art style being a direct representation of Western consumerism, with Warhol noting that what was wonderful about America was that they ‘started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola… you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola… you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke.’ This is further extrapolated in his famous ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’, playing with everyday, highly recognisable imagery, and in doing so, taking art out of the gallery and into everyday life.
Whilst pop art is often intrinsically linked with the golden age of advertising in America, Sookes is also quick to note that it didn’t only find its home in the U.S.A. Pop art stretched to Britain, France, Germany and the USSR, often finding its beginnings as protest art. However, it consolidated its place in China’s late 20th century economic boom, as they embraced political reform and opened their doors to Western society. Long after the NY Times had declared the pop movement as ‘dead’, pop art found new life in China’s ‘tiger economy’ of the 1980’s, something that has continued into their current day art scene, reflecting an inherent fascination with the deeply embedded role that the nation has in the culture of consumerism and mass production.
Pop art is one of the major art movements of the mid 20th century, however, its reach stretches far beyond the typical association with the so called ‘golden age of advertising’ from the 1950’s and 60’s. Pop art has undoubtedly informed our perception of art today, serving as a direct commentary on our culture and influencing the business model of many current artists, utilising mass production and an assimilation of popular culture as a means of furthering their reach. The documentary Soup Cans and Superstars is an excellent resource in the study of this fascinating movement and will undoubtedly assist students in their understanding.
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