Pop Art as Essential Part of Art

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Jamie James argues that, Pop Art is essentially ‘high art mimicking low art,’ it takes aspects of popular culture and elevates them to what would conventionally be referred to as Fine Art. The Pop Art movement first emerged in the years following the end of World War 2, first in Britain, and then reaching its full potential in the USA. 

Britain was still suffering from the aftermath of the war while the American economy had started to flourish. This shift in the two societies created a distinct and visible difference between the two counties in the eyes of the public. Pop Art thus, was initially an expression of what British artists saw as an ideal existence; America, with all its visually colourful and booming commercial culture infused with a newly found energy and motivation.

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Pop Art found its origins in London, among a group of artists calling themselves the Independent Group, who had grown weary of the restrictive framework still prevalent in the art world. This group included Lawrence Alloway, the critic credited with coining the name of the movement, architects Alison and Peter Smithson, Paolozzi, a sculptor, and the artist Richard Hamilton among others. They came together in 1952 and revived the rebellious spirit of the Dada movement by challenging artistic conventions. 

They began using clippings from magazines and newspapers to create collages filled with images of American products of mass-consumption. The term ‘Pop Art’ is often said to have originated from one such collage made by Richard Hamilton in 1956, Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing?; The work showcases a cut out of a buff half-naked male with a Tootsie Pop in hand, placed near his pelvis suggestively.

Meanwhile in America, Pop Art made its first appearance a few years later in 1955, through New York artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who started producing art reflecting the urban life experience found outside the studio by often mounting objects onto picture planes, and taking familiar objects such as maps, beer cans, flags and flashlights, and rendering them in the skilful and precise manner an artist-craftsmen would. It was a counter-reaction against the rigid ideals held by Abstract Expressionism on what art should be. Though these pioneers of Pop Art were briefly referred to as Neo-Dada, the term was scrapped and they are now referred to as Proto-Pop artists.

The cultural climate at the time was perfect for such artistic innovations. The booming American economy allowed for societal advancements, growth within the manufacturing industry which started producing products of mass-consumption, the increasingly prominent role of the media in society, advertisements and branding that became embedded in everyday life, all of which cultivated a consumer culture. It was this climate that influenced the development of the distinctive style which Pop Art embodied in the early 1960’s.

According to Selvin, Pop Art directly benefitted from such a cultural climate; taking common items or even the artists themselves, created as a result of capitalism, as vessels of consumption, and in a way, mocking them. Capitalism also benefitted from popular culture as Selvin states that ‘We can grasp from political studies the idea that the world is becoming more harmonious and in fact capitalism realizes it so as to serve a common culture by taking for granted the differences of classes: popular culture,’.

Several key figures define the Pop Art movement. Most notably, Andy Warhol became the face of Pop Art in the United States with the use of his revolutionary screen-prints of celebrities and portrayals of ordinary commercial products. Two of his most iconic works are Marilyn Monroe, a screen-print immortalising the cultural icon who had recently died, and Campbell’s Soup, a painting of the ordinary commercially available product.

According to Herbert, what made Warhol’s art stand closer to the world of pop culture than the art of other leading artists, was that he took images directly from the world of popular culture and then simply altered them in either scale or size. His contemporaries preferred reimaging or imitating the style of elements of popular culture and fusing them with their own work.

Roy Lichtenstein was another notable figure in the Pop Art movement, most known for his large canvases of comic strips, bold and colourful, elevating comic book culture to the level of fine art. His work was criticised for lack of originality and created much debate, but nonetheless, his work revolutionised modern art. Another popular pop artist was Claes Oldenburg, who had his first notable achievements in the art world with his installations The Street and The Store. His work eventually grew in size and the artist remains iconic for his large-scale sculptures of lipstick, a bow and arrow, and other simple mundane objects in enormous sizes, playing with what we define as reality. 

James Rosenquist was a pop artist who had found his humble beginnings in billboard painting. This influenced his work immensely as he created pop art using the airbrush technique and advertising imagery to create art on a large scale resembling a billboard. His signature style contained cars, writhing pasta, and home appliances.

Pop Art shook the world by taking images of items one finds in shops or of people one sees on television, turning them into art, and sending these artworks folded with the mail and printing them on shopping bags, or just having them mass-produced by the thousands. Artists made screen-prints, reproduced them and reproduced the reproductions, using them as a way to ‘enhance the fundamental principles of the Pop aesthetic’, relaying their messages and ideals on originality, reproduction, uniqueness and repetition to the capitalist, mass-consumption obsessed world. 

Pop Art took the world by storm and print making has not been the same ever since. Though Pop Art was a short-lived art movement, its legacy lives on. Artists such as Takashi Murakami with his colourful work which infuses Japanese tradition and popular culture, continue to represent the spirit of the movement even in the 21st Century.     

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