Daughters of Revolution, 1932

The Pop Art Tradition – Responding to Mass-Culture

The text below is the excerpt of the book The Pop Art Tradition (ASIN: B082KN6M69), written by Eric Shanes, published by Parkstone International.

Since the late-1950s a new tradition has emerged in Western art. Although its initial phase lasting between about 1958 and 1970 was quickly dubbed ‘Pop Art’, that label has always been recognised as a misnomer, for often it has served to obscure far more than it clarified. If anything, the tradition incepted in the late-1950s should be named ‘Mass-Culture Art’, for when the British critic Lawrence Alloway coined the phrase ‘Pop’ in 1958, he was not applying the term to any art yet in existence, let alone to a rebellious youth-orientated ‘Pop’ culture which was only then in its infancy but which use of the word ‘Pop’ now tends to suggest (and to do so in an increasingly dated manner). Instead, he was writing about those rapidly increasing numbers of people across the entirety of western society whose very multitudinousness and shared values were causing new forms of cultural expression to come into existence and for whom increasing affluence, leisure and affordable technology were permitting the enjoyment of mass-culture. As we shall see, the central preoccupation of so-called Pop Art has always been the effects and artefacts of mass-culture, so to call the tradition Mass-Culture Art is therefore more accurate (although to avoid art-historical confusion, the term ‘Pop’ has been retained as a prefix throughout this book). Moreover, mass-culture in all its rich complexity has inspired further generations of artists whom we would never link with Pop Art, thus making it vital we should characterise the tradition to which both they and the 1960s Pop Artists equally contributed as Mass-Culture Art, for otherwise it might prove well-nigh impossible to discern any connection between these groups of artists separated by time and place. The aims of this book are therefore fourfold: to cut across familiar distinctions regarding what is or is not ‘Pop Art’ by enhancing the latter term; to explore the tradition of Pop/Mass- Culture Art and its causes; to discuss its major contributors; and to examine a representative number of works by those artists in detail.

Edgar Degas, In a Café, c. 1876, The Pop Art Tradition - Responding to Mass-Culture, Eric Shanes
Edgar Degas, In a Café, c. 1876. Oil on canvas, 92 x 68 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The rise of popular mass-culture was historically inevitable, as was the advent of an eventual response to it in art. We are still living through the modern technological and democratic epoch that began with the British Industrial Revolution and the American and French Revolutions of the late-eighteenth century. As industrialisation and democratisation have spread, increasing numbers of people have gradually come to share in their benefits: political participation, rewarding labour, heightened individualism, and better housing, health, literacy, and social and physical mobility. Yet at the same time a high price has frequently been paid for these advances: a political manipulation often rooted in profound cynicism and self-interest; vast economic exploitation; globalisation and the diminution of national, regional or local identity; meaningless and unfulfilling labour for large numbers; growing urbanisation; the industrialisation of rural areas, which has grossly impinged upon the natural world; industrial pollution; and the widespread loss of spiritual certainty which has engendered a compensatory explosion of irrationalism, superstition, religious fanaticism and fringe cults, hyper-nationalism, quasi-political romanticism and primitive or industrialised mass-murder, as well as materialism, consumerism, conspicuous consumption and media hero-worship. All of these and manifold other developments have necessarily involved the institutions, industrial processes and artefacts created during this epoch, although not until the emergence of Pop/Mass-Culture Art in the late-1950s did artists focus exclusively upon the cultural tendencies, processes and artefacts of the era.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, The Pop Art Tradition - Responding to Mass-Culture, Eric Shanes
Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Oil on board, 73.6 x 60.5 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. American Gothic, 1930 by Grant Wood, All rights reserved by the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

When Lawrence Alloway wrote of ‘Pop’ in 1958, he belonged to a circle within the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London called the Independent Group. Its members were artists, designers, architects and critics who had come to recognise that by the mid-twentieth century the enormous growth of popular mass-culture and its characteristic forms of communication needed to be addressed – it was not enough snobbishly to consign such matters to the dustbin of lowbrow taste. Naturally, it is only in the modern technological epoch that those wishing to appeal to the growing numbers of consumers of the products of industrialisation have increasingly possessed the large-scale means of doing so. The newspaper printing press, the camera, the radio, celluloid and the film projector, the television set and other mass-communicative technologies right down to those of our own time that make their predecessors look exceedingly primitive (and which supplant their forerunners with increasing rapidity), have each produced fresh types of responses and thus new kinds of visual imagery, all of which obviously constitute highly fertile ground for the artist and designer to explore. Moreover, popular mass-culture possesses energy and potency, and very often its means of transmission such as the cinematic or televisual image, the advertisement, and the poster and magazine illustration, enjoys an immediacy of communication that is not shared by works of greater intellectual complexity: you have to labour a little harder to appreciate, say, the plays of Shakespeare, the symphonies of Beethoven and the canvases of Rembrandt than you do the average Hollywood movie, pop record or billboard poster. So in the 1950s, a decade which saw recovery from war and a growing sense of materialistic well-being in the western world, the Independent Group’s suggestion that artists and designers should draw upon the energy, potency and immediacy of mass-culture proved most timely. Indeed, the very relevance of their notions explains why so many other creative figures further afield soon arrived at exactly the same conclusions independently of the British group and, indeed, even of each other.

But where, finally, does Pop/Mass-Culture Art stand within the historical continuum of art? Has it just been a passing phase, or has it constituted something more lasting and significant?

Salvador Dalí, Mao/Marilyn, The Pop Art Tradition - Responding to Mass-Culture, Eric Shanes
Salvador Dalí, Mao/Marilyn, cover design, December 1971-January 1972 issue of French edition of Vogue magazine, Condé Nast publication, Paris. Photo: Philippe Halsman.

To attempt an answer to these related questions, we need to go back to the end of the 1960s, when Pop/Mass- Culture Art had already firmly established itself as a valid area of cultural expression. At that time, many within western art circles increasingly concluded that Modernism, or the positive response to the challenges posed by living in an industrialised epoch, had come to an end simply because it had supposedly exhausted its potential. Where painting and sculpture were concerned this meant that a sequence of movements that included Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism had eventually and most logically culminated aesthetically in Minimalism and Conceptualism, with Pop Art as a transient, unimportant aberration or side-show. Beyond conceptualism there seemed to be nothing left to explore, for where do you go beyond empty spaces or blank canvases, written statements denying the validity of art that you pin to walls or pop in the post, and the notion that art is simply a concept whose existence does not require any physical realisation whatsoever? The tradition of Pop/Mass-Culture Art as it has developed over the past four decades supplies the answer, for that creative impulse has utterly negated the validity of ‘Post-Modernism’.

Sir Peter Blake, Children Reading Comics, 1954, The Pop Art Tradition - Responding to Mass-Culture, Eric Shanes
Sir Peter Blake, Children Reading Comics, 1954. Oil on hardboard, 36.9 x 47 cm. Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, Cumbria.

This is because Pop/Mass-Culture Art is quite clearly an artistic dynamic that for the entirety of its comparatively brief history has been wholly rooted in the Modernist outlook, with all its technological, cultural, social and visual complexities. One just has to look at the core concerns of its contributors to perceive this very easily, as hopefully the present book will demonstrate. Artists who have subscribed to the Pop/Mass-Culture Art tradition have in fact completely sidestepped the supposed ‘end of history’ created when a barren formalism and an even more arid conceptualism ran artistic Modernism into sterile ground and ultimately led to the invention of ‘Post-Modernism’. In doing so, they and their heirs have made no end of relevant comments about the contemporary, Modernist world. The promulgation of observations about the arena in which humankind lives has always been a prime purpose of art, and those creative figures who have specialised in exploring mass-culture have therefore proven both highly relevant and aesthetically innovatory. In the light of all this, Pop/Mass-Culture Art can therefore legitimately claim to be the central creative area of the visual arts in our time, with hopefully still much to give us in the future. We look forward to things to come…

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