To what extent can it be argued that Pop Art offered a successful critical commentary on mass culture?

orange-torso-female

Pop Art as a term is problematic in itself, Lawrence Alloway credited with coining the term in his essay The Development of British Pop, explained that the term changed meaning, ‘what I meant by it then is not what it means now. I used the term, and also ‘Pop Culture’, to refer to the products of the mass media, not to works of art that draw upon popular culture.’[1] Robert Indiana describes Pop as ‘love, for it accepts everything. Pop is dropping the bomb. It’s the American dream, optimistic, generous and naïve.’[2] Tate defines Pop Art as ‘an art movement that emerged in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s in America and Britain’.[3] In 1957 Pop artist Richard Hamilton listed the ‘characteristics of pop art’, I believe his list defines both the meaning of Pop Art and of mass culture ‘Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth)… Big business’.[4]

Mass culture more specifically can be defined as ‘Cultural products that are both mass- produced and for mass audiences. Examples include mass-media entertainments—films, television programmes, popular books, newspapers, magazines, popular music, leisure goods, household items, clothing, and mechanically-reproduced art.’[5] Mass culture also incorporates mass politics, the politics of big political parties with wide stretching views and influence, political influence is spread through mass media and, particularly in America mass politics is intertwined with big business.[6] Thus American culture, the culture perpetuated by the mass media is riled against in political protests by Pop Artists.[7]

In this essay I will examine International Pop as ‘Pop Art was never just a celebration of western consumer culture, but was often a subversive international language of protest.’ [8] International Pop Art showcases the themes of Western Pop but in a more direct response to the fallout of WWII, the conflict in Vietnam and the rise of Communism.[9] Specifically European artists working throughout the decade of the 1960s, as they ‘were far more political than their American or British counterparts. While Peter Blake basked in warm nostalgia and Andy Warhol anatomised bland celebrity, European artists attacked American militarism.’[10] European artists attacked mass culture, the themes of western and American culture that were swamping indigenous culture.[11] European Pop Art critiques mass culture through images of war, the body, and advertising.

The critique of war is a major theme in European Pop Artists work- Rancillac’s A Silhouette slimmed to the Waist juxtaposes war with the consumption of the female body.[12] It is part of a series from 1966, in which Rancillac decided to illustrate all key events of that year because he “realised that political events had an impact on me (the Vietnam War)”.[13] He juxtaposes, an image from Paris Match of ‘South Vietnamese soldiers drowning a Viet Cong prisoner to the waist and an advertisement for women’s underwear that defined the waist.’[14]

rancilliac

Fig.1. Bernard Rancillac. (Enfin silhouettes) affinées jusqu’à la taille, 1966. Multimedia. Grenoble: Musée de Grenoble. Purchased from the artist in 1980.

A Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist can be hung either way, in order to emphasise either the advertisement for ‘female underwear or the horrors of the Vietnam War.’[15] Rancillac explained the didactic quality of the piece ‘the viewer is forced to choose a visual and hence political orientation. Comfort here, torture over there.’[16] Every exhibitor of the work has to decide whether to place more importance on the horror of war, or ideals of beauty and the fashion of commercial culture.[17]

By making the canvas ambiguous in its hierarchy of forms, Rancillac is referencing the ubiquitous images of both the female body as a product in catalogues, and war as a product in newspapers and news shows, and how images lose power if they are repeated. Warhol played with this idea in America, but Rancillac draws attention to the real danger of repetition of images in the mass media.[18]

The title is a visual pun, as the piece shows a soldier plunging a Vietcong prisoner headfirst into a large water barrel, he pushes his boot down on his captive’s back, gripping his twisted leg, the soldier submerges the man to the waist. While above/ below are five women in corsets, with labels akin to those found in commercial catalogues, advertising the slimming quality. The piece draws attention to the fetishization of the Vietnam war, with American soldiers and American culture being triumphed throughout the campaign as moral, just and heroic.[19] Through placing war alongside the female body, Rancillac points out how both are fetishized.

There are also themes of mortality in this piece, as the bodies of the soldiers are in danger, and the bodies of the women are in their ‘prime’ physicality, with perhaps hints of the obsession with the female body and the idea of the ultimate demise of the flesh.[20] Rancillac’s imagery in this piece is directly from ‘pictures from the media covering these events.’[21]

The placing of consumer goods next to a scene from war showcases that both the female body and the terror of war have become consumable.[22] This may be a reference to the use of art and the female body in the propaganda of both the U.S.A and Vietnam forces throughout the conflict.[23] [24]The exaggerated pink of the female body suggests the figures are western in ethnicity, perhaps a point against western mass advertising, as America could be seen to be attempting to re-write indigenous beauty ideals to conform with the western view.[25]

poster

Fig.2. Vietnamese Government propaganda poster, “Colonialists, international traitors, think carefully before you take Vietnam,” 1960. 38cm x 27.2cm

axell.png

Fig.3. Evelyne Axell, Valentine 1966. Oil paint, zip-fastener and helmet on canvas, unconfirmed: 1330 x 830 mm. London: Tate Collection, acquired 2016.

Belgian Pop Artist Evelyne Axell plays with body politics in her work, reclaiming the female body from the male gaze of the mass media. She often exhibited under her gender ambiguous last name alone, critiquing mass culture as she plays with the audience’s assertion that ‘the artist’ is always male.[26] In her piece, Valentine she references Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman and also the first civilian to go in to space.[27] [28] Axell places a helmet and zip on the canvas, the zipper is an allusion to the eroticized act of undressing, the viewer is invited to ‘peek’ at the skin beneath.[29] The reference to Tereshkova is key, as the astronaut’s achievement was belittled by descriptions of her physicality in the mass media; her looks and her body superseded her act of discovery.[30] Axell recognized the inequality inherent in the mass media, that women are celebrated not for their achievements but for their body, and what makes them unique is their rarity in certain fields, rather than their own personality traits or talents.[31] In this piece, the critique of mass culture is a critique of a male-dominated culture, and a male-dominated art industry. To highlight further the juxtaposition between men and women in the media, Axell staged a reverse striptease, where a model began naked, only wearing a helmet and proceeded to put on clothes, highlighting very obviously the blindness in which mass culture views women, mostly ignoring everything internal and focusing on the external flesh.[32]

richter.jpg

Fig.4. Gerhard Richter, Folding Dryer, 1962. Oil on canvas, 99.3 cm x 78.6 cm. Stuttgart: Froehlich Collection.

lichentstein

Fig.5. Roy Lichtenstein, Kitchen Range (Kitchen Stove), 1961-62. Oil on canvas, 173.0 x 173.0 cm. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, purchased 1978.

Gerhard Richter’s work Folding Dryer is based on a newspaper advert for a clothes dryer, Richter recalled that the first piece of Pop Art he ever encountered was a reproduction of Lichtenstein’s Kitchen Stove.[33] Richter responded to the piece ‘because it was anti-painterly. It was directed against peinture’.[34] Richter’s piece is completed in oil paint, but like Lichtenstein, it is the subject matter that is the protest.[35] The woman’s face is smudged and resembles a mask, creating an anonymity that is unsettling and perhaps representative of the mass consumer, hidden as an individual and only defined by capitalist society through their purchases.[36] Richter is thus creating an art that is against the past conventions and hierarchies of art, inspired by American Pop Artists. He is also riling against the mass perception of what is ‘good’ art and what is not, challenging the mass audience to insert this piece, a recreation of a newspaper advert, into the timeline of art history. The motif of the clothes dryer is significant, Richter said he ‘didn’t find the clothes-dryer ironic; there was something tragic about it, because it represented life in low-cost housing with nowhere to hang the washing. It was my own clothes-dryer, which I rediscovered in a newspaper – objectivized, as it were.’[37] Richter goes further than to criticize the mass perceptions of art in this work, he critiques mass culture and consumerism by using a motif that is tragic as it represents shortage of space, a loss of well-being and quality of life.[38] Richter, an Eastern German artist, living in West Germany at the time of this piece, witnessed the cultural shifts that were promoted via the NATO alliance and the Americanization of West Germany.[39] The clothes dryer represents the failings of a capitalist society, modelled on the American system, to ensure equality and opportunity for its inhabitants, as it is a statement of lost space, of space as a consumer good, not as a human right.[40]

To conclude, European Pop Art is filled with the ‘subversive international language of protest.’[41] Artists such as Rancillac question the priorities of mass culture, he ‘copies and pastes’ motifs from consumer catalogues, and juxtaposes the frivolous imagery with the harshness of war. Female artists such as Axell sought to highlight the discrepancies between the mass media’s representation of women and men, and highlight the ridiculousness, with humor. Such as in Valentine the viewer is invited to ‘peek’ beyond the exposed zipper at the naked body beneath. Richter in his art work, Folding Dryer directly references the mass media in copying from an advert, he re-appropriates images to showcase his discomfort at the loss of wellbeing being objectified and celebrated, catalogues are full of objects that are congratulated when really they are the product of the loss of space and the capitalism system commodifying the simplest of presumed rights. I believe European Pop Art is successful in its critique of mass media and culture, it highlights difficult questions and plays with the presumed nature of art by the masses, and also the everyday motifs seen in society. Subversive, playful and nuanced, the examples I have cited utilize the resources of mass media, by incorporating stories from mass media (Valentine), distorting popular images (Affinées jusqu’à la taille) and copying adverts and consumer based images (Folding Dryer), within a new context.

[1] Lawrence Alloway, “The Development of British Pop,” in Pop Art, ed. Lucy R. Lippard (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2004), p. 27.

[2] Klaus Honnef, “Robert Indiana- The Big Eight,” in Pop Art, ed. Uta Grosenick (London: Taschen, 2004), p. 45.

[3] “Glossary of terms: Pop Art”, Tate online, accessed February 20, 2016.

[4] “Pop Art: Characteristics and Critical Response”, Tate online, accessed February 20, 2016.

[5] “Overview: Mass Culture,” Oxford Reference Online, accessed February 20, 2016.

[6] Edward P. Morgan, “Roots of the Sixties: Contradictions between Capitalism and Democracy in Post-war America,” in What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010), p. 22.

[7] Ibid, p. 26.

[8] “International Pop,” Tate Online, accessed February 20, 2016.

[9] Darsie Alexander, Bartholomew Ryan, International Pop (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2015), p. 23.

[10] “The Politics of Pop Art: A Dissenting World View”, BBC Online, last updated 17 September 2015, accessed February 20, 2016.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See Figure 1.

[13] “Artist Interview: Bernard Rancillac”, Tate Online, last updated September 2015, accessed February 20, 2016.

[14] Liam Considine, Screen Politics: Pop Art and the Atelier Populaire, Tate Papers No.24 (Autumn 2015): 25, accessed March 2, 2016.

[15] Elsa Coustou for Tate, September 2015, in “The Politics of Pop Art: A Dissenting World View”.

[16] Considine, Screen Politics: Pop Art and the Atelier Populaire.

[17] “Colour me Beautiful: Pop Art at 50”, The Economist Online, last updated September 12, 2015, accessed February 20, 2016.

[18] Elsa Coustou for Tate, September 2015, in “The Politics of Pop Art: A Dissenting World View”.

[19] Caroline Page, “Introduction” in US Propaganda During the Vietnam War, 1965-73: The Limits of Persuasion (London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 1996), p. 12.

[20] Morgan, “An Awakening Democratic Dialectic: From Action to Empowerment in the 1960s”, p. 42.

[21] “Artist Interview: Bernard Rancillac.”

[22] Coustou, “Bernard Rancillac.”

[23] “Introduction” in US Propaganda During the Vietnam War, 1965-73: The Limits of Persuasion, p. 3.

[24] See Figure 2.

[25] Page, “The Body”, p.43.

[26] Liesbeth Decan, Axellereation: Evelyne Axell 1964-1972 (Tielt: Lannoo International Publishing, 2012), p. 7.

[27] Elsa Coustou, “Evelyne Axell”, Tate Online, September 2015, accessed February 19, 2016.

[28] See Figure 3.

[29] “Think you know Pop Art?”, Tate Online, last updated 11 September 2015, accessed February 19, 2016.

[30] Coustou, “Evelyne Axell”

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Think you know Pop Art?”

[33] “You can kiss a Lichtenstein, but you can’t kiss us”, Tate Online, last updated May 13, 2013, accessed February 29, 2016.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Gerhard Richter: Folding Dryer”, Gerhard Richter Official website, last updated January 2016, accessed February 29, 2016.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Interview with Sabine Schütz, 1990in: Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007 (Thames & Hudson, London, 2009), p. 253.

[38] “Gerhard Richter: Folding Dryer”

[39] Ibid.

[40] “Preface” in an Interview with Sabine Schütz, 1990 in: Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007, (Thames & Hudson, London, 2009), p. 3.

[41] “International Pop”

Bibliography

Books

Alexander, Darsie, and Ryan, Bartholomew. International Pop. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2015.

Alloway, Lawrence. “The Development of British Pop.” In Pop Art, edited by Lucy R. Lippard, 27-68. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Decan, Liesbeth. Axellereation: Evelyne Axell 1964-1972. Tielt: Lannoo International Publishing, 2012.

Honnef, Klaus. “Robert Indiana- The Big Eight.” In Pop Art, edited by Uta Grosenick, 45. London: Taschen, 2004.

Morgan, Edward P. What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.

Lippard, Lucy R. “Introduction.” In Pop Art, edited by Lucy R. Lippard, 11. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2004.

Page, Caroline. US Propaganda During the Vietnam War, 1965-73: The Limits of Persuasion. London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 1996

Online Papers

Considine, Liam. “Screen Politics: Pop Art and the Atelier Populaire.” Tate Papers No.24 (Autumn 2015): 25, accessed March 2, 2016. ISSN 1753-9854

Websites

BBC Online. “The Politics of Pop Art: A Dissenting World View.” Last updated September 17, 2015. Accessed February 20, 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/gzDdqkjdkcKsFkxRvTNFvq/the-politics-of-pop- art-a-dissenting-world-view

Coustou, Elsa. Tate Online. “Bernard Rancillac.” Last updated September 2015. Accessed February 20, 2016. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ey-exhibition- world-goes-pop/artist-biography/bernard-rancillac

Coustou, Elsa. Tate Online. “Evelyne Axell.” Last updated September 2015. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ey-exhibition-world- goes-pop/artist-biography/evelyne-axell

“Gerhard Richter Official website. “Gerhard Richter: Folding Dryer.” Last updated January 2016. Accessed February 29, 2016. https://www.gerhard-richter.com/en/art/paintings/photo- paintings/household-icons-39/folding-dryer-5473

Oxford Reference Online. “Overview: Mass Culture.” Accessed February 20, 2016.

http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100138730

Tate Online. “Artist Interview: Bernard Rancillac.” Last updated September 2015. Accessed February 20, 2016. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ey-exhibition- world-goes-pop/artist-interview/bernard-rancillac

Tate Online. “Glossary of terms: Pop Art.” Accessed February 20, 2016.

http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/p/pop-art

Tate Online. “International Pop.” Accessed February 20, 2016.

http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/p/pop-art

Tate Online. “Pop Art: Characteristics and Critical Response.” Accessed February 20, 2016.

http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/p/pop-art

Tate Online. “Think you know Pop Art?” Last updated September 11, 2015. Accessed February 19, 2016. http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/think-you-know-pop-art

Tate Online. “You can kiss a Lichtenstein, but you can’t kiss us.” Last updated May 13, 2013. Accessed February 29, 2016. http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/you-can-kiss- lichtenstein-you-cant-kiss-us-0

The Economist Online. “Colour me Beautiful: Pop Art at 50.” Last updated September 12, 2015. Accessed February 20, 2016. http://www.economist.com/news/books-and- arts/21664052-pop-art-50-colour-me-beautiful

Interviews

Interview with Sabine Schütz, 1990 in: Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007. Thames & Hudson, London, 2009.

https://www.gerhard-richter.com/en/art/paintings/photo-paintings/household-icons- 39/folding-dryer-547

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s