Discuss the Influence of American Art and Culture on British Artists of the Period

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The 1950s are seen by many as a time of post- war austerity, rationing had ended in 1954 and mass productions of new technologies were celebrated by the media, such advancements included the development of such things as domestic appliances, automobiles and even the first commercial jets, there were also technologies developed during the war that were now becoming commercially available for the mass market, these included such things as nuclear power penicillin and pesticides. Also notably during this period new forms of media were introduced, these featured the BBC radio and television shows, non-silent films in the cinema, advertising in such places as magazines and newspapers and also an increased potency of photography, the time, it has been said, became saturated with imagery and thus it can be argued that there was no place for such traditional art forms as the oil painting.

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It is important to note that the beginning of the sixties differed so greatly from the end of the sixties, in the beginning there was a great focus on radio stations having to job of getting people to work and back, with the broadcasts being limited to certain times of the day, even though the war had been over for twenty years or so the society of the time was still strictly regulated with the catholic church having a great impact on societal beliefs, with strict rules on homosexuality and contraception for the unmarried. However towards the end of the nineteen sixties we see a sort of cultural shift, a sort of retreat of the social controls that had been in place years before, the introduction of the lottery, encouraging gambling, more and more women at this time were relying on various prescription drugs and such illegal drugs such as cannabis LSD and amphetamines became widespread with over 1.2 million users. An important factor of this time is the growing consumerism, enabled by the newly developed transport and communication platforms, it is quite evident that the growing consumerism had a big effect on the art of the time, a consumerism which is quite possible through the influence of the Americas. Some examples of this influence can be found in the artworks that follow by the artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, what is interesting about these two artists is their chosen medium and their chosen subject matter.

The first piece of artwork that I chose to look into was ‘just what is it that makes todays homes so different, so appealing?’ by Richard Hamilton in 1956. This particular piece is a collage and is approximately 10.25 inches by 9.75 inches. It features many different pieces of advertising taken out of their original setting and instead placed in this sort of home. Upon close inspection of this piece we can see that it portrays many pieces of ‘new’ technology of the time, there is a television in the right hand side, a woman is hoovering on the left and there is some sort of projector on the bottom of the piece, there are also more symbols alluding to the mass market in which the clippings themselves came from, with branded items being shown and also newspapers. The two figures in this collage are both in a state of undress possibly representing the pin up sexualised culture of the time, also the male figure seems to be holding some sort of gigantic lollipop with the word ‘pop’ written on the top, this piece of confectionary has hugely been accredited with the term we use today ‘pop art’.

This collage, created by Richard Hamilton in 1956 as part of his contribution to the ‘this is tomorrow’ exhibition at the Whitechapel art gallery. The ‘this is tomorrow’ exhibition took place in 1956 in which there were twelve exhibits each worked on by a different group of three artists or sculptors on the theme of modern living there was a total of thirty eight participants and each group had a fifty pound budget to create their installation, popular themes of the installation of this particular exhibition included many references from popular culture, this did not come as a surprise since the focus of this exhibition was on modern life and the life of the modern human in the 1950s was becoming increasingly clouded by advertising and different aspects of American culture that had filtered through into the artists of Britain. In planning this collage a list of possible themes were recorded by Hamilton these included ‘man, woman, food, history, newspaper, cinema, domestic appliances, cars, space, comics, television, telephone, information’ (quoted in Richard Hamilton, 1992, p.149) the imagery that was used in the picture were sourced from a stash of American magazines that McHale had brought back from a visit to the states and the title was found from a caption to an illustration in one of the magazines used. The artist himself is hugely credited with being a key founder in the movement that we now know as pop art with the lollipop in his collage from this is tomorrow being possibly the reason that the movement got its name,

This is a quote from the artist and it is completely clear how he followed this aesthetic in his work, his work being so popular low cost to make, sexy and gimmicky, however I believe that with this statement he compares the art to many of the values of the time for everything was mass marketed and becoming gimmicky and glamorous compared to the years that preceded it. Hamilton as an artist was fully immersed in the popular culture of his time having affiliations with the rolling stones and the Beatles, for whom he designed an album cover for, bridging the gap fully between higher art and the culture of the consumers possibly paving the way for others such as studio 54 and Andy Warhol. Although this artist gained many of his inspirations from the American culture, the circle continues with artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg looking closely at his work to come up with their own ideas, it is incredibly interesting that Pop art itself is a term and an art style primarily created in Britain by a group of artists who got together in the 1950s to discuss aspects of the culture that were not part of the classical artists interest such as movies, household appliance and science fiction most of which were imports from America. Before coining the term ‘pop’ art the movement was known as ‘the new brutalism’ as it was seen as more of a deliberate assult on the general art themes that hamiltons imagery depicts.It is interesting that the logo of ford was used as the central image of this collage as it is a predominantly an American brand and the epitome of American motoring. All of these all-American images, when used by British artists for a predominantly British exhibition obviously reflect how big of an impact the American culture must have had on the British as a whole, our idea of consumerism arguably came directly from the states and this is clearly illustrated in pieces such as this.

The second piece illustrating Americas influence on British artists work is an example by the artist Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) first I want to look at the piece of his entitled ‘real gold, BUNK!’ art collage, c1950 this is another collage made up of clippings from American magazines, I find it very interesting that so many pieces of work were made using cut-outs of advertisements, this was a time that was ‘flooded with images’ and the artists of the time made full use of this fact. The picture in question is made up of a sort of pinup girl as the central image, possibly putting the strain onto the sexualised nature of the media, she is accompanied by the image of mickey mouse, an icon of American pop culture at the time and also a can of ‘real gold California lemon juice’ all three of the main images here are very heavily American items, again pointing us to the fact that a lot of the mass market of the time was dominated by American culture, that Britain wasmbeing extremely influenced by the American market.

The works of Paolozzi were created whilst he was part of the independent group, a group formed from the institute of contemporary arts, this institute was founded by Roland Penrose and Herbert read who wanted to create a space in which intellectuals and artists could debate their own ideas outside the royal academy. They were an educational charity whose aim was to support contemporary artists. The initial meetings of the independent group were primarily focused on how science and technology affected the country however these discussions seemed to slowly turn to popular culture of the time. The artwork that they produced was responding to modernity and the climate in which they lived, a climate which it seems was saturated by advertising. During one of the first meeting Paolozzi fed a series of coloured images extracted from various publications through a projector, the images had been taken out of their original setting and seemed to acquire a mythical aura and subsequently were coined as the first examples of pop art, many of these images went on to feature heavily in other works by Paolozzi. Again the fact that a group focussed primarily on modernity and popular culture was choosing to look at clippings from American magazines is interesting, as after the war America was leading in the mass production market and also in the marketing front, so many of the images of advertising that these artist would have seen on a daily basis would have been taken from American sources again proving just how influential the American market was on the British artists.

Another work by Paolozzi that represents this fully, I believe, is a piece entitles ‘BUNK!’ of the same year, this is yet another collage that depicts a very muscular man in a body builders pose hoisting a Cadillac above his head, there is an image of masculinity and another pinup girl again very heavily alluding to a sexuality driven society again this was created at the time in which palazzi himself was part of the independent group, a group in which had three main ideas about art, the idea that ‘art can no longer function in its traditional form and must acknowledge the impact of mechanisation’ this was known as the machine aesthetic and basically states how art must evolve with the time and accept the changing times and adapt to new audiences. The second key idea of this group is the cultural continuum which basically strives to break the high and low art divide by placing different elements into a picture that themselves can be seen as high or low therefore making the idea of fitting the piece as a whole into a category redundant also making the artwork much more easily appreciated by different classes of people. And the last aesthetic that this group shared was the expendable aesthetic, this highlighted how consumer capitalism was on the rise and there was a much stronger emphasis on the throwaway society than there had been so previously, things were not designed to last but were rather designed to be very easily replaceable. With these aesthetics in mind the group made its art, depicting the cultural values of the time, which could be seen as being imported directly from America. Paolozzi himself was an artist most known for his marriage of the early forms of surrealism with the new elements of popular culture technology and modern machinery, Paolozzi’s love of the culture in America lead him to collect much paraphernalia from the country that would in turn lead him to make collages, launching the pop art culture into full swing, he was very interested in the way that the American magazines portrayed a shinier happier lifestyle assisted by all these new technologies. Another interest of Paolozzis was the relationship between man and machine, he throughout his career often depicted sort of biomorphic forms and often used pieces of scrap to create figurative forms of the body again demonstrating the influence that technology had upon his work such an idea is demonstrated in his work ‘cyclops’ from 1957 in which a rudimentary human form seems to have been made from some sort of metal riddled with holes possibly representing decay and it was created using a technique favoured by such surrealist artists as Dali. Another influence of his was cubism, and regardless of the medium we can often see a subconscious direction towards the disjointed forms and imagery.

To conclude, the notion that the artists living and working in Britain at the time of these artworks creation were very heavily influenced by American culture at the time is very true, and is clearly illustrated through their chosen format, the fact that both of these artists have chosen to collage a collection of images taken from their time is very interesting as these would have been images that the public at the time would have been very used to seeing as advertisement but maybe not necessarily considered as an art form again blurring the divide between high and low art, or the cultural continuum aesthetic. I believe they both wholly capture the spirit of the American influence on great Britain and full embody what we would now refer to as ‘pop art’ through their bold use of colour and branding reminiscent of a piece of advertising themselves, branding, possibly for the decade in which they come from.

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