Photo of special Campbells soup cans based off the work of Andy Warhol.

Pop Art: How Consumer Culture Changed Art

American culture made a noticeable shift after World War II and into the 1950s. Culture had been becoming more conservative and religious. Middle-class and wealthy white Americans were leaving urban areas for the new suburbs. Without much damage done to the country itself from the war, unlike in Europe and Asia, America was able to go through a massive economic uptick. This boost the economy experienced, in turn, led to a rise in consumerism. This consumer culture is the backdrop for the Pop Art movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Developing simultaneously in both England and the United States, the Pop Art movement took everyday consumer items and transformed them into art. This is an art style that is still recognizable even today. The bright, graphic look of the art, like pieces by Andy Warhol, has been referenced and parodied for decades. This style, combined with the mundane subject matter, makes for one of the most unique artistic movements.

This article will serve as an explanation of the history of the art movement. That, alongside the way consumer culture of the 1950s had an impact on art and how people experienced it.

Pop Art piece of a bathroom done in a black and white comic book-style.
Roy Lichtenstein, Bathroom, 1961 1/15/ 18 -whitneymuseum, photo by Sharron Mollerus (Flickr), CC-BY-2.0, found on Wikimedia Commons

Creation of Pop Art in Europe and America

The Pop Art movement was created in two different places in the world independently of one another. The original, and earliest, was in London in 1952.

England

The Independent Group was a large collection of young artists and creatives who all met together. They began the Pop Art movement through their discussions of all things modern. From how fine art fits in with consumer culture to capitalism, to pop culture, and even technological and scientific advancements. Generally speaking, the group had a more ambivalent view towards American consumer culture. England was still recovering from the war, and so they could only experience the economic boom from afar. They did not like how rampant consumer culture was becoming. In contrast, they did enjoy pop culture elements of modern culture, like the different shows and movies of the time. (artincontext.org)

America

The American group had quite a different view on things, however. Being right in the middle of all these products being mass-produced left the American artists with a unique viewpoint. They were constantly bombarded with them, after all, in comparison to other countries. It was also a backlash against the previous Abstract Expressionism movement, and a return to representational art in America. (The Art Story Foundation)

Beginning in the 1950s in NYC, the Pop Art movement slowly gained popularity until the 1960s. This was the decade when it really took off, especially in public opinion. It also gained strains in other cities with their own unique aesthetics, like Los Angeles.

Other Places Around the World

As the movement took off in England and America, it started to make its way through the rest of the world. Other European countries, such as Germany and France, began to take part in the movement in the 1960s. They each had their own goals. Some were focused on critiquing consumerism, others were more concerned with representing objects.

Why Pop Art?

The origin of the name Pop Art has been met with some level of controversy. Many seem to have different ideas about where it could have come from.

The first piece of Pop Art is considered to be Richard Hamilton’s 1956 work, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?. In this now famous collage, a man is shown covering himself with a Tootsie Pop. There was also an article from Ark Magazine in Britain from the same year that used the term. (Wolfe)

Lawrence Alloway is also often given credit for his usage of the word in an essay he wrote from the year 1958. There is also another collage by artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi titled I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything that uses the word “pop”. Being made in 1947, however, it predates the Pop Art movement entirely. (Wolfe)

It seems only fitting that a quirky and playful movement would have such a varied account of where its name came from. These same Pop Art qualities play heavily into the methods that artists used to create works for the movement.

Pop Art image by Roy Lichtenstein, woman drawn in red with yellow background. The woman is smiling.
Head-red and yellow, Roy Lichtenstein, 1962, found on Wiki Art

The Style and Techniques of Pop Art

Pop Art was a movement with a very playful, colorful, and graphic style. (The Art Story Foundation) While different artists used different methods, there were many things in common between them. One of the most common things was a bright color palette.

They were concerned with showing the ways in which things are connected, with certain methods strengthening this theme. One way was with collage, which was utilized in many different parts of the movement. Work by Claes Oldenburg used sculptures to represent the average American store. Oldenburg would create sculptures replicating items like underwear and food items. He had actually rented out a storefront and sold his recreated goods as if they were actual commodities. This also hints at the subtle playfulness that many Pop Art works include. (artincontext.org)

Pop Art artists use a wide variety of methods to create their art. The more average ones, like painting and sculpture, were present. However, to go along with their themes of mass-reproduction and consumerism, many were more mechanical. Andy Warhol, for example, used screen printing to create some of his most famous pieces. Pop Artists in Los Angeles would use car paint as a medium. One artist went through the effort of hand-painting individual comic book-style dots. Acrylic paint was also a relatively new medium at the time that made the rounds in this movement. (artincontext.org)

Some would even change their methods to better fit their themes. Andy Warhol had not always used screen printing. His Campbell’s Soup painting was originally done by hand. However, he switched to screen printing to better hammer in his idea of mass-reproduction. This shows Pop Art as a movement is not afraid to switch things up to fit its ideals. An artist can change their medium at any time.

Pop Art Themes

The themes in Pop Art all revolve around the artist’s reactions to modern day culture. However, in much of their art, there was a sense of detachment. With that aspect, it made it hard for critics to tell what the art was trying to say about it. (The Art Story Foundation)

One interpretation was that the art was criticizing modern consumer culture. In some cases, this is true. As mentioned, the Independent Group was not particularly keen on the more capitalist focus in the modern day. There was also the German group, which made a point of going against this aspect of the culture.

However, many people saw an ambivalence or even admiration for the objects they were putting into their works. Without making it clear through more emotional work what they thought, it could lead people to assume they were celebrating consumerism. Or, at the very least, they didn’t care about it.

Another theme was the idea that everything was connected. In a modern age where we could have access to almost anything immediately, it was hard for things not to be interconnected. This sense of interconnectedness is represented in many Pop Art pieces. (artincontext.org)

One other major part of Pop Art was challenging what “art” really was. Like the Dadaists before them, Pop Artists would purposefully turn random, “lowly” objects into fine art. However, they had a different approach than the Dadaists who did it to challenge intellectual norms. The purpose for Pop Artists using their subjects this way was simple. It was to prove that, in the world we live in, everything was a commodity, including art. Taking subject matter from pop culture, reproducing their own works en masse, all of this worked as part of that theme.

Abstract Expressionist painting, different colors and shapes across the surface.
Interchange, William DeConing, 1955, CC-BY-SA-4.0, found on Wikimedia Commons

Inspiration from Opposites

One of the biggest inspirations for the movement was Abstract Expressionism, at least in the United States part of the movement. Although, the term “inspiration” here is used loosely. The Pop Art artists did not wish to imitate what the Abstract Expressionists had done. No, instead they went against everything they did. It was inspiration in the idea that they took what Abstract Expressionism did and made a point of going against every aspect of it. (artincontext.org)

Abstract Expressionism was a very personal movement, one where the main point was to express the emotional state of the artist. It covered “the trauma of the soul”, as some would call it. In return, Pop Art was not emotional. It had a more detached feeling. Art was not an individual expression of an artist’s genius, nor was it free from being commodified. It covered the idea of trauma manifested through the mediated culture and advertising of our modern world. (The Art Story Foundation)

Influence of Neo-Dadaism

Neo-Dadaism, and the original Dada movement by extension, also had a large influence on the movement. In particular, the idea that art was what we make of it. There was no idea that only certain things could be art. This is represented in the mundane subject matter of much Pop Art. Think pictures of soup cans, comic book panels, and even famous actresses. Popular culture was just as worthy of being seen as art as any kind of “higher” culture. (artincontext.org) Dadaism also inspired the critique of modern capitalistic culture as well as the popular and “intellectual” opinion on things. It embraced the everyday, the ”low” culture, and found a way to turn it into a real art movement.

Graphic and Commercial Experience

Graphic and commercial art techniques also played heavily into influencing the styles of Pop Art. After all, many of the artists in this movement got their starts in this field. They knew the way to advertise to people and could combine that experience into their fine art pieces. (artincontext.org)

Sculpture featuring red letters stacked to spell the word "Love" in the middle of New York City.
LOVE sculpture NY, Hu Totya, September 15, 2006, PD-self, found on Wikimedia Commons

A Widely Known Art Movement

Pop Art was, and continues to be, well-known to the public at large. Images like Robert Indiana’s LOVE or Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans have been placed pretty much everywhere. This can be in either their original form, or some kind of remix or parody. The movement also had a huge amount of popularity at its outset, at least amongst audiences. The subject matter was familiar, and that held a huge appeal to the “every man” in a way that other modern art movements could not. The average person could more easily understand and enjoy what they were seeing. This is because, like the artists themselves, audiences were always bombarded by it. (Wolfe)

Critics, as mentioned earlier, were more split in their opinions. While there was praise, many critics at the time saw the art as overly congratulatory of modern society. They saw the subject material as lowly and balked at it. They balked even more at the way in which they thought such things were being praised. Even to this day, the debate still continues in the art world.

Regardless, the art did very well with the public, which meant good sales of art. Even today, Pop Art can cost quite a bit for one’s collection. (Wolfe) Clearly, the appeal of Pop Art continues to saturate even the 21st century market.

Pop Art Decades Later

Pop Art began to fall out of favor in the 1970s, and it gave rise to new forms of creating art. However, the influence of the movement never fully went away. This very graphic-influenced style of art can still be found even to this day.

It is unsurprising that a movement based around common objects and made with commercial techniques continues to be popular. In their time, the work they did was unique. It was a look at the burgeoning consumer society and the way it affected people. A celebration of pop culture, a critique of capitalism, all of this represented how people in that time felt. However, this is a style of art that still holds up now. If anything, it may be better understood.

Since the creation of Pop Art, the very things the art had criticized or commented on have only increased. Now, more than ever, things are being commodified. People are overly involved in each other’s lives through social media, where we post every part of ourselves for the world to see. Nothing is private, or can be deleted, in the world of the internet. Products continue to be churned out at fast rates with practices like fast fashion. In this way, the Pop Art movement was well ahead of its time. This may be part of why it continues to be so popular. The quirky qualities, iconic subject matter, and bright colors are only part of the appeal. What keeps people coming back is for relief for the 21st century trauma of the soul. The trauma defined by our obsession with consumerism.

References:

The Art Story Foundation. (n.d.). Pop Art Movement Overview. The Art Story. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://www.theartstory.org/movement/pop-art/

artincontext.org. (2021, December 8). Pop art – A history and analysis of the brightly colored pop art movement. artincontext.org. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://artincontext.org/pop-art/

Wolfe, S. (n.d.). Pop Art Movement: Artists and Artworks. Artland Magazine. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://magazine.artland.com/art-movement-pop-art/

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