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Why Is Pop Art Controversial ?

July 23, 2022 12 min read

Why Is Pop Art Controversial ? - The Trendy Art

After World War II, the British and American art movements known as pop art were born. The movement challenged fine art traditions by including imagery from popular and mass cultures, such as advertisements, comic books, and mundane mass-produced objects. Since its inception, the crux of pop art has been to gain inspiration from people, places, and things happening in pop culture. By breaking found in standard forms of mass-consumed media like packaging, television, and advertisements, the pop art movement aimed to challenge the conventions of art by bridging the gulf between high art and contemporary culture. The agenda of pop art is that there exists no hierarchy of culture, and artists can produce art by drawing inspiration from any source.

Some early pioneers that shaped the pop art movement include Richard Hamilton and Eduardo, Paolozzi in Britain, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, and others in the United States. Some other prominent names of the pop art style include Andy Warhol, Wes Wilson, and Roy Lichtenstein. Moreover, the predefining characteristics of Pop Art include the use of bright yellows, reds, and blues. The color palette's vividness and high saturation set them apart from other forms of color usage. In addition, the pop art style is also distinguished by visually removing material from its context and then isolating or combined with unrelated materials. Now that we know the essential factors of the pop art movement let us dovetail into its nitty-gritty.

I) History Of The Pop Art Movement

As mentioned above, Britain's Pop Art movement began in the 1950s. A group of painters, writers, sculptors, and critics called the Independent Group started the pop art movement in Europe and gradually began to branch off into the United States. Most of the movement's roots were galvanized by a cultural movement led by a group of artists who desired to restructure a social order ruled by conformity. Many believe that it was UK Pop pioneer Richard Hamilton's 1956 collage – 'Just what is that take makes today's homes so different, so appealing' that marked the official inception of the cultural phenomenon that pop art came to be after it appeared in the Whitechapel Gallery in London. After the movement's popularity within the United States quickly became a global phenomenon.

1) Proto-pop Art

Some European artists like Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia predate the pop art movement of the 1950s in their exploration of capitalism and modernist themes. Some American artists pointed to the development of modern Pop Art as early as the 1920s.

Proto-Pop Art

2) The Independent Group

The Independent Group formed in London in 1952 is primarily regarded as the precursor to the new Pop Movement. The group would regularly meet and discuss developments in the world of technology, science, the found object, and the position of mass culture in the new Pop Art.

The Independent Group Pop Art

II) The Various Dimensions Of The Pop Art Movement

1) Definition

The pop art movement is perhaps the most well-known artistic development of the 20th century, as it emerged as a reaction to consumerism, mass media, and popular culture. The pop art style transitioned away from the methods used in Abstract Expressionism. Richard Hamilton described the features of the Pop Art Movement as being popular, transient (short-term), expendable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass-produced, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, aimed at the youth, and big business. Thus, pop art was a movement aimed to solidify the idea that art can draw inspiration from any source, and there is no hierarchy of culture to disrupt the inspiration of art. As such, the rudimentary definition of pop art is that it shifted from the direction of modernism, which it deemed empty and elitist.

2) The Origins

In the United States, the pop art style was a response by artists against high art by going back and reclaiming hard-edged compositions and figurative art. The movement had intended to challenge the personal symbolism, painterly looseness, emptiness, and elitism of the 'abstract expressionism of the time. On the other hand, the origins of pop art in post-war Britain were more academic and premised on irony and parody. Instead, Britain looked at American pop culture's dynamic and paradoxical images to see how they could be used to sway public opinion around the globe. Moreover, the pop art movement was both an expression and repudiation of Dadaism – an Avant Garde European art movement of the early 1920s.

3) Perceptions

It is noteworthy to remember that the pop art style was widely loved and appreciated by the masses since its inception, owing to its simple style and fun ways. The contents of pop art style could be grasped quickly, which provided the movement a massy appeal. Drawing away from the widely held notion that good art is always difficult to decipher, pop art changed the contemporary perceptions of the time being legible to everyone. As such, pop art saved the viewer's efforts by making interpretation easy and perceivable, as against the norm created by the abstract expressionism of the time.

Pop Art Canvases

4) Visual Characteristics

The three main aspects that defined the Pop art movement include recognizable imagery, bright colors, and the incorporation of irony and satire. The utilization of commercial items like a soup can, celebrity photos, road signs, newspapers, etc., was common in the pop art movement. Even brand names and logos were a significant part of the movement's iconography. Likewise, vibrant hues of primary colors – red, yellow, and blue – provided flesh and blood to the pop art style. It is noteworthy that these colors made a prominent appearance, especially in the works of the stalwart pop artist – Roy Lichtenstein. Consequently, as we have already hinted, humor was a ubiquitous component of the pop art style. Artists co-opted various subject matters and contemporary events to poke fun at fabs and criticize the status quo.

5) Innovation

Another dimension that defined the pop art movement was the use of innovative techniques in pop artworks. For instance, many pop artists engaged in printmaking processes, which enabled the quick reproduction of images in massive quantities. Likewise, the most famous pop artist of all time – Andy Warhol – used silkscreen printing, wherein he transferred ink onto paper or canvas through a mesh screen with a stencil. Likewise, Roy Lichtenstein, apart from the use of vibrant colors in his body of art, was also renowned for the lithography technique of printing from a metal plate or stone to achieve a signature visual style.

6) Mixed Media and Collage

Another dimension that defined the pop art movement was the use of blended materials and different types of media. For instance, Robert Rauschenberg, Tom Wesselman, and Richard Hamilton combined ostensibly disparate images into a single canvas to produce a strikingly modern narrative form. Likewise, the famous sculptor of the pop art movement used diverse materials to represent figurines.

7) Love-Hate Reciprocals

Although one section of the population massively loved the pop art movement for appealing to the masses, it was also the epicenter of heated debates on what exactly is an art and is there is a hierarchy of culture, and if yes, then what is its justification or premise! Several detractors of the movement deemed pop art style banal, useless, and hollow. Likewise, many opined that continue to opine that the pop art movement is led by artists who create easy, slow, and lazy work sans any depth. Another point of contention has been the movement's self-proclaimed challenge to high-art of elite abstract art. Some people believe that by appropriating iconic icons in the first place, the pop art movement is a facilitator of capitalism and a mirror image of the society wherein higher-ups take over the novel ideas of those without power and turn them into moneymaking machines. Thus, a kind of love-hate response from the people was a dimension of the pop art style that made it truly unique and scintillating.

Pop Art Controversial

III) Crucial Facts About The Pop Art Movement

By creating paintings and sculptors of famous icons like the Coca-Cola can and media stars like Marilyn Monroe, the Pop Art Movement aimed to blur the boundaries between ostensibly higher and lower art.

The contemporary art that 'rivaled' pop art – Abstract Expressionism' searched for trauma in the soul. In contrast, pop art searched for traces of that same trauma in the everyday world through its mediation via advertisements, cartoons, and popular images. Thus, pop artists were probably one of the first to realize that 'an unmediated' access to anything, even the soul or the natural world is a facade.

Much of the work that characterized the pop art movement was emotionally removed. In stark contrast to the 'hot' expression of the gestural abstraction that preceded it, the Pop Art style is illustrative of being 'coolly' ambivalent.

Pop artists wholeheartedly embraced the post-War boom of manufactured images and served as enthusiastic endorsers of the capitalist market and the goods it circulated.

Some of the most renowned pop artists started their careers in commercial art. For instance, Andy Warhol was a highly successful magazine illustrator, James Rosenquist was a billboard painter, Ed Ruscha was a graphic designer, and so forth. Thus, their background in the commercial world trained them in the visual vocabulary of the mass culture and enabled them to merge the realism of high art and popular art.

Since we have discussed the several dimensions of pop art, let us break down one of the most crucial aspects of the movement: the controversy it carries.

Marilyn Monroe Pop Art

IV) The Controversy Of Pop Art

To begin with, art and controversy go hand in hand. Even if we move away from the notion of pop art and look at our contemporary surroundings, we will observe an overwhelming account of events where a public debate on what constitutes art and its limitations continues. For example, humor or stand comedy is one domain of art that has gathered steam after the recent debacle between Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars. A discourse around what comedy can appropriate and how power dynamics fare within those spaces has propped up everywhere. As such, art and contention are two sides of the same coin as people have different perspectives, and not all of them can be in harmony. Anyways, moving back to the controversy associated with pop art, it is essential to remember that most of the skirmish surrounding pop art was premised on its ostensible garishness and mundane approach. Most Pop Art critics of the 1960s and 1970s opined that some of the greatest works in the pop art movement, such as those created by Andy Warhol, were boringly 'unoriginal.' One of the biggest criticisms of pop art style was that it came from pop artists that lacked training and pedigree.

Two notable trends impacted pop art's birthplaces following World War II. For the United Kingdom, the war had brought severe socio-economic and cultural damage, barely leaving any space to think about arts solemnly. On the contrary, the United States of America was enjoying unprecedented prosperity and an economic boom. With massive wealth came the formation of a pop culture industry, whose influence seeped into nooks and crannies of the world, culminating in the rise of an unbeknownst phenomenon – consumerism. It is in such a context that the pop culture movement was born. As pop artists began searching for inspiration in everyday consumer goods and mass media items, modernist critics were transfixed with repulsion. In due course of time, pop art came to be seen as a challenge to traditional art.

Andy Warhol Pop Art

VI) Pop Art As A Threat To Traditional Art

Pop art was seen as a threat to traditional art because of the following reasons :

1) Pop art was intended for the public; most artworks are affordable, free, and easily accessible. On the contrary, traditional artwork was expensive, and people would pay millions of dollars for famous works of art.

2) Pop artists had to sell copies of their creations to make money and earn a profit. On the contrary, modernist critics opined that 'real art' is singular, and one piece of artwork can reap a considerable profit for artists.

3) Another challenge to traditional art was seen in the pedigree and scholarship of the pop artists. For example, most pop artists, including its Founding Fathers, had no formal training. On the other hand, traditional artists trained for several and spent even more money on exposure through exhibitions.

4) The Pop Art Movement had an 'anyone can make it'll approach against the untouchable and elite structures of the traditional art of the time. For the former, the consumers also make the producers of content, and the latter opined that no two artworks ought to be identical, even if the same artist produced them.

5) One of the starkest controversies that abound pop art style was that it was available for mass consumption. On the other hand, modernist critics felt that the place of 'real' art was in museums, galleries, and private exhibitions.

The measure of good pop art was based on what most of the public liked. Contrarily, the measure of an excellent traditional or high-art piece was premised on the judgment of well-educated and revered critics.

Therefore, the five pointers mentioned above marked the bone of contention between pop art and traditional art. One section of the critics and the public felt that the ubiquity and accessibility of pop art repealed the sanctity of real art itself.

Colorful Pop Art Canvas

VII) The Dualities Within The Pop Art Movement

One of the distinguishing aspects of pop art is its removal and isolation of anything highly emotive. Pop artists often explore culturally diverse attitudes and integral aspects of social life calmly and agreeably. This quality of pop art style has compelled historians to question whether pop art's distant and unemotional approach towards crucial markers of the way of life is a shocking withdrawal from the cultural themes or a passive acceptance! Consequently, one of the biggest dualities that color the pop art movement is its appropriation of cultural icons. Going back to history, we can observe that Pop Arts embrace the media and manufacturing boom of the post-war era. Thus, many view commercial advertisements in Pop artworks as an endorsement of the capitalistic market. Others, on the contrary, find an element of cultural critique buried within pop artworks. As the Pop Art movement elevated everyday objects to the status of fine art or at least tried to do so, the entire movement was hinting at the reality that 'art itself is a commodity and it does exist in a vacuum or above the clutches of capitalism. Nevertheless, some opined that even in propagating a layered message about art being a commodity, the pop art movement is a part of the problem that fostered faster consumption and flagged off consumerism within art. Likewise, another argument that critics brought in is that instead of looking at mass consumption as simply an extension of the capitalistic society, it is crucial to view the phenomenon as the democratization of art.

VIII) The Controversial Pioneers Of Pop Art

1) Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol is rightfully regarded as the most known face of the pop art movement. He premiered the concept of 'pop art' paintings in 1961 that focused on commercial goods, which were mass produced. Critics were appalled and scandalized by Warhol's open embrace of consumerism, which set the tone for his reception for a long time. In 1962, in the 'pop art' conference held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Warhol was attacked for giving way to consumerism. However, many celebrated Warhol as somebody who represented the spirit of American popular culture and elevated pop art to the status of museum art.

Andy Warhol

2) Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein was a pioneering pop artist of the second part of the twentieth century. Roy's fully achieved paintings were based on images lifted from comic strips and advertisements and rendered in a simple and shabby printing process. His paintings altered the face of modern art, and he created more than 5000 paintings, prints, drawings, murals, and other objects celebrated for their wit and invention. But, like Warhol, Lichtenstein is also heavily criticized for fostering consumerism and appropriating from a power dynamic, which it is essentially trying to criticize.

Roy Lichtenstein

3) Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha was one of the most illustrious Pop photographers, printmakers, and painters. Much of his work focused on a unique and colorful blend of Hollywood imagery, the Southwestern landscape, and commercial culture. Many see Ruscha's early experiments as an interplay between text and language, something that he went on to build later.

Ed Ruscha

Concluding Thoughts

Despite the many controversies surrounding the Pop Art style, the movement's popularity and its mass appeal only kept growing. Today, pop art is everywhere, and its influence reiterates in various visible and invisible forms, from mass-produced Instagram content to short videos on social media and popular images, logos, and 'memes,' the influence of pop art ripples through almost every aspect of the current world. Although for the Gen Z fellows, the term 'pop art' might not ring a bell, and the art style, undoubtedly, does not twinkle with the same glamor it once did, people can feel the snowball effects of the movement even now. We can assert that the Pop Art movement has unintentionally allowed social media stars like Kim Kardashian to follow the blurring of the boundaries between high art and low art. Furthermore, pop art confronted and forced pop culture into the art's snooty and exclusive game and refused to shy away from enjoying the titillating mainstream culture. Thus, despite its limitations, the pop art movement has made art accessible and disrupted the hierarchy of culture by destroying the gates of elitism and pretension.

Thus, looking back at the controversies surrounding the pop art movement, we can see that it opened crucial discussions about the legitimacy of fine art and the power dynamics within art itself.


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