How did Pop Art challenge beliefs about consumerism? Discuss with reference to two artists.
In order to discuss pop art I have chosen to examine the work and to some extent lives of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol who were two of the main forces behind the American movement. I intend to reflect the attitudes of the public and artists in America at this time, while examining the growing popularity of pop art from its rocky, abstract expressionist start in the 1950s through the height of consumer culture in the 60s and 70s to the present day.
Roy Liechtenstein, (fig 1) was born in 1923 into to a middle class Hungarian family living in New York, there was no artists on either side of his family and throughout Liechtenstein’s schooling there were no art classes. He used to paint in oils and draw, sometimes sketching musicians he saw playing in Harlem and the Apollo Theatre as a hobby. It was not until ‘1939’ the summer of his last year at high school that he enrolled in art classes in the Art Students League run by a man called Reginald Marsh. Liechtenstein’s influences regarding his painting style at this time had been the European avant-garde artists such as Picasso. These cubist and expressionist styles were rejected buy by Marsh who favoured painting the masses of New York life such as carnival scenes, boxing matches and the subways catching the detail in fleeting brush strokes, in a non-academic easily recognisable way. This style of recognisable American art that used everyday scenes are directly related to the consumer orientated Pop Art that Liechtenstein was to develop later in his life.
Andy Warhol, (fig2) no one, including Warhol him self knows his exact birthday but its thought to be around 1928-1931. Born in Forest city Pennsylvania and christened Andrew Warhola (which he changed in 1949 while living in New York). There are several contradicting stories about his life although he left two autobiographies the factual authenticates are not known, however his parents emigrated to the States from Czechoslovakia in 1909, his father came first to avoid national service and his mother nine years later. His father who worked as a coal minor in West Virginia didn’t play a big role in brining up Warhol, as he was away form home allot. After his death Andrew his mother and his brothers had a very poor existence, during school holidays Andrew sold fruit and helped as a window dresser. He had three nervous breakdowns while at school one at eight, nine and ten years old. He was first introduced to consumer advertising through a summer job in a department store, where he had to look for ‘ideas’ in fashion magazines. He continued his education at the Carnegie Institute in Pennsylvania graduating with a BA in Fine Art. Warhol moved to New York in 1948-49 where he started work as a graphic designer, creating adverts for fashion magazines such as Glamour, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Andy Warhol shot to fame and soon became highly respected as a commercial artist. ”Tina Fredrick, then art director of Glamour” says “She was thrilled by Andy’s drawings but could not find a commercial use for them. She told him his drawings were good, but Glamour could only use drawings of shoes at the moment. The next day Warhol came back with 50 drawings of shoes” footwear being an important part of his advertising career until the mid 1960s.
In 1949 Harvey J Earl of General Motors pioneered ‘Planned Obsolescence’. He realised that by adding fashionable products when new trends come in older products would be discarded in favour of the latest fashion.
This realisation changed consumerism forever and was the start of a consumer culture, which was to spread rapidly. In the 50s it was for the most part an American phenomenon due to the fact that they had the money and manufacturing productivity to make it possible, for example, “the affluence of America meant that almost every family owned a car” and food rationing was unthinkable while in Briton the opposite was true. Other countries experienced the boom in designed consumerism through the media especially television. Audiences were directly targeted through adverts and sponsored programs that were sold to Europe were to a certain extent selling the American way of life (the American dream). However it was not only American influences that affected Europe. Following the unifying political and social changes taking place after the second world war various aesthetics from other cultures like Japanese art and the chic of Italian design began for the first time to be accessible to the general public, these ideals were sold back across the Atlantic to the American public.
With the constant threat of the cold war between America and the Soviet Union the American public had a fear of the unknown, in this case communism and the atom bomb. This fear can be seen for example in countless alien attack and end of civilisation B movies. Another weapon used against communism was consumerism, to be able have more choice and the newest and best of everything. Even if the product was of poor quality. The culture of the time was a form of rebellion, flamboyant and wasteful, cars with racing car engines that do 10 miles to the gallon, fast food and rock and roll. Pop Art fitted in to these categories well and was accepted because it was a non-elitist non-threatening and easily recognisable form of art.
In 1957 the artist Richard Hamilton listed Pop Arts characteristics as:
Popular (designed for mass audience)
Both Warhol and Lichtenstine were unknown to each other while creating similar techniques it was however lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots that set him apart and what Warhol envied most. In 1961 Lichtenstein’s paintings were accepted in Leo Castelli’s gallery in New York while Warhol’s paintings that were submitted a few weeks later were not, was partly due to the expressionist style of his painting. Warhol later said “the territory had been pre-empted” “Right then I decided since Roy was doing comics so well, that I would just stop comics altogether and go in other directions where I could come out first –like quantity and repetition”.
Lichtenstien’s first one-man show at Castelli’s gallery in February 1962 was bought out by influential collectors before opening and his success was assured.
Both artists were intermingled with the consumer philosophy not only with their work but both also strove for commercial and personal success. Lichtenstien, who worked from comic books, adverts and bubble gum wrappers depicted self-contained scenes or a short set of paintings ‘Fig3’ these examples of his work at this time demonstrate man and machine as an indecipherable form. ‘Fig4’ shows the product blending with the user in effortless efficiency, allowing the viewer to admire this without being aware of being sold a product, reflecting the mass produced consumer society where man and machine are working together. The same can be said for Warhol’s soup cans, Brillo boxes and Coke bottles as they show mass produced articles for the American consumer only disconnected from there origins ‘Fig5’. Warhol’s idolisation of the super stars of that era is what set him apart from his contemporaries and immortalised him in popular culture the most famous or these being Marilyn Monroe ‘Fig6’. And this was no accident as his personal goal was to become a star in his own right and he consciously generated a cloak of mystery which made it almost impossible to distinguish the man from the legend “you can only become famous if everybody is talking about you”(Warhol).
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