The Truth about Pop Art

Having just received a promotional copy of Scholastic Art magazine’s December 2017 issue, entitled American Pop Art: Working with Ideas, I’m moved to comment. But there is so much wrong with it that I scarcely know where to begin.

A logical starting point, I suppose, would be the cover, featuring an Andy Warhol Campbell’s [Tomato] Soup Can (1964). What ideas, we might begin by asking, is it “working with”? In an article entitled “Ideas that Pop,” we’re told that Pop artists “found inspiration in daily life” and “presented complex and serious ideas about the world through the subjects they featured and the techniques they used.”

As for how a literal rendering of a single Campbell’s soup can conveys a “complex and serious idea about the world,” nothing is said. But Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Cans—an installation of 32 framed canvases of single soup cans differing only in the names of the soups, and grouped side by side in four rows of eight each—is said to “reflect the abundance of choices a shopper see in any large grocery store.” By making them look “mass-produced” and displaying them this way, Warhol purportedly “points to a culture fueled by mass consumption.” That, then, would appear to be his “complex and serious” idea.

On another page, however, we learn that Warhol “claimed [he painted the soup cans] because he had eaten Campbell’s soup for lunch every day for 20 years.” Not what most people would call a “complex and serious” idea. We’re also told that Warhol “frequently had assistants produce his silkscreen prints in an assembly-line system”—in his New York City studio, dubbed “The Factory.” Indeed, while the aforesaid soup can pieces were oil paintings, the bulk of Warhol’s later work consisted of mass-produced silkscreen prints.

Most important is what we’re not told by Scholastic Art—that is, why Warhol adopted a minimally artistic, industrial approach for his work. Warhol himself made it abundantly clear, however. As he explained in an Art News interview with G. R. Swenson in 1963, he chose not to create paintings because he didn’t “love roses or bottles or anything like that enough to want to sit down and paint them lovingly and patiently.” He further confided that it was “threatening” to paint something “without any conviction about what it should be.” He used mechanical methods, he said, because he wanted “to be a machine.” Surely bizarre sentiments for a would-be artist. Yet they were entirely consistent with the zombie-like demeanor Warhol generally exhibited, leading clinical psychologist Louis Sass to compare his words and actions to those of a typical schizoid personality.1

No hint of such dysfunction is offered by Scholastic Art, however. Instead, we get this tidbit, reported without critical comment:

Warhol also made movies, but most were conceptual and without a narrative or plot (for example, he filmed a man sleeping for more than five hours).

Are students and teachers to regard that as serious movie-making?

Finally, there was Warhol’s approach to portraiture. Of his Self-Portrait (1966), we’re informed that he portrayed himself “more as a product than as an individual.” True. He also did so for his acclaimed celebrity portraits. But doesn’t that controvert the very point of a portrait? And shouldn’t teachers and students be made aware of that?

“Elevating the Everyday”

As for Pop artists in general, Scholastic Art credits them with “explor[ing] the mundane aspects of daily life” and thereby “elevating the everyday.” Works that “look like they belong in the pages of a magazine” or on “television commercials” (as the magazine notes) don’t “elevate the everyday” or “explore” anything, however. They merely replicate commercial trivia.

Nicolaes Maes - Young Woman Peeling Apples

Nicolaes Maes, Young Woman Peeling Apples (ca. 1655). Oil on wood, 21.5 x 18 in. (54.6 x 45.7 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman.

For examples of art that truly elevate the everyday, teachers might turn instead to seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting—works such as Jan Vermeer’s Milkmaid or Lacemaker, or the less-well-known Young Woman Peeling Apples by Nicolaes Maes, shown here. Such paintings elevate their subjects by sensitively depicting them in quiet concentration on simple everyday tasks. In so doing, they also convey a sense of what life was like in their time and place.

In contrast, Edward Ruscha’s Standard Station (1966) makes no “statement about contemporary culture” worth asking students about (as prompted by Scholastic Art caption for the image). It merely resembles a billboard sign.

Nor does Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey (1961) “reinterpret an image from popular culture” in any significant sense. As reported, he created it only because his young son had challenged him to paint something “as good as” a Mickey Mouse illustration they were looking at together. All he did was greatly enlarge the image and make some minor formal changes such as simplifying the background and using dark outlines—nothing that substantially alters its significance. In fact, his paintings were little more than abstract formal designs to him. “I paint my . . . pictures upside down or sideways,” he once declared. “I often don’t even remember what most of them are about.”2

True, Lichtenstein’s work “grabs the viewer’s attention”—by its size alone—much as a billboard does. But does it hold one’s attention or prompt reflection the way the Dutch paintings cited above can? I don’t think so.

Also contrary to Scholastic Art’s assertion, Lichtenstein’s work scarcely “elevates an illustration from a children’s book to the level of high art.” If it “invit[es] viewers to think about what qualifies as art and why,” shouldn’t teachers guide their students toward recognizing the fundamental ways in which it differs from fine art? Moreover, shouldn’t they question whether “blurr[ing] the lines between popular culture and high art” constitutes progress—or should be rejected rather than embraced?

Further, if “the use of commercial art as subject matter in painting” is an earmark of Pop art—as Lichtenstein once said in an Art News interview—wouldn’t it be appropriate to point out that the subject matter of fine art has always been principally drawn from life itself, not from product ads or cartoon illustrations? And shouldn’t students be guided to think about the essential differences?

Pop Art in the Classroom

Teachers (and students) are attracted to Pop art for an obvious reason. It is much easier to create hands-on projects imitating Andy Warhol than Vermeer or Nicolaes Maes. A case in point is the Hands-On Project featured in Scholastic’s December issue. Entitled “Paint in Pop,” it aims to “use what you’ve learned about American Pop Art to explore repetition and variation.” But how much does that teach students about the distinctive cultural value of fine art?

Hanson Wu, Self-Portrait. Gold Medal for prints, 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Scholastic Art, December 2017.

Similarly, the “Student of the Month” work is a Warhol-like self-portrait triptych. Awarded a Gold Medal in the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, it was created by 14-year-old Hanson Wu, who digitally edited a photo of himself and then used it to produce three self-portrait prints varying only in color. Asked whether the images reflect his personality, Wu answered “Not really.” That, too, is in the spirit of Warhol. Happily, Wu doesn’t aspire to become a fine artist, however, just a graphic designer.3

The Underlying Truth

What teachers, students, and everyone else should know about Pop Art is the truth about the primary motivation behind it. The chief aim of the Pop movement was to challenge the Abstract Expressionists—not to make any “complex and serious” statements about contemporary culture. Thus the path the purveyors of Pop took was merely to do the exact opposite of whatever the Abstract Expressionists had done, no matter how trivial or meaningless the result was.4 Philosophers, critics, curators, and much of the public fell for it and welcomed it into the realm of “high art.” It’s long past time for everyone, especially art educators, to exercise greater discretion.

Further Reading

• “The Apotheosis of Andy Warhol,” review of Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Aristos, December 2012)
• “EXHIBITION: Non-Portraits” – brief review of Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered at the Jewish Museum in New York (Aristos, Notes & Comments, June 2008).
• “Portraiture or Not? The Work of [Pop artist] Chuck Close” (Aristos, February 2012)

Notes

  1. Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 344–345.
  2. Roy Lichtenstein, quoted by Robin Cembalest in “Inside the Shrine With the Straight-Talking Artist,” New York Times, August, 24, 1998.
  3. It is worth contrasting Hanson Wu’s self-portrait with the very different one by Grace Lin, another Scholastic Art award winner—who was inspired by traditional art, not Pop. See the closing paragraphs of “How Not to Teach Art History,” For Piero’s Sake, August 7, 2017.
  4. For more on this point, see Torres & Kamhi, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Chicago: Open Court, 2000), 265–270; and Who Says That’s Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts (New York: Pro Arte, 2014), 70-79.