s we’ve reached the beginning of what were once imagined to be the futuristic 2020s, many of the accomplishments we’d hoped to realize still remain a fantasy. Flying cars do not fill the sky. There aren’t colonies of people living on Mars or the moon. We still rely heavily on gas and other nonrenewable energy sources to provide power all over the world.

These unrealized technological feats don’t discount the many things we have achieved in the past few decades but remind us of the ways that our imagination for the future, our discussions of today to create momentum towards a better tomorrow are not achieved with the wave of the hand. We won’t be able to move forward without looking at what we know from the past and the conditions of the present — the three are not inextricable from each other.

With this in mind, I couldn’t help myself from looking at one of the most widely talked-about and consumed aspects of our present and past in order to learn how to chug ahead in the direction of a desirable future. I’m talking, of course, about culture — an important, ever-present, and potentially subversive part of society that has the ability to shape the way we think and behave as well as question or critique the standard norms we accept in daily life. A particularly interesting piece of culture that most are familiar with but may not understand fully is that of Pop art, with its vibrant and often simple imagery pointing to a larger and looming message regarding the world it inhabits.

The Pop art movement is generally accepted to have started in the mid 1950s and continued throughout the 1960s alongside other critical moments happening in the United States and Great Britain, finding itself at the intersection of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, women’s movement, and Vietnam War. While these movements and the unrest that came with them rightfully steer the majority of the conversation concerning the time, the Pop art movement’s methods and ideas relating to art and the world itself had significant impacts that are still relevant today and deserve to be acknowledged.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl. Lichtenstein’s iconic comic stylization as an object of “high” art raises questions of the ownership and consumption of images. Image via The Conversation.

Making Everyday Objects a Spectacle

A major aspect of Pop art is its focus upon common objects, commodities that have become so normalized that they typically only receive a moment’s glance rather than a deep evaluation.

A movement with an emphasis upon the quotidian and everyday materials within our cultural fabric, Pop art shined a light on things not normally in focus within the art scene. Images of soup cans and celebrities quickly found themselves in the art sphere, begging curators and critics to question what simple and familiar objects mean in our culture, what values we place on them, what suggestions they present to us without any resistance from an eager consumer.

Pop art’s fascination with simple, recognizable subjects and clean lines alongside it’s disdain for  inaccessible subject matter and abstract visions allowed for a major art movement to gain popularity outside of the typical circles art attracted. With even the most clueless art enthusiast able to recognize a figure like Marilyn Monroe or the simple stylizations of the comic strips from their weekly papers, Pop opened up a new market for the world of art. A majority of people could finally begin to feel as if they could enter what used to be a site for only an elite class of the rich and powerful.

In assessing Pop art’s impact upon a more democratized type of art, Andreas Huyssen states:

“A new avenue seemed to lead almost by necessity to the bridging of the traditional gap between high and low art. From the very beginning, Pop proclaimed that it would eliminate the historical separation between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic, thereby joining and reconciling art and reality.”

This exciting new chapter for art not only meant more accessibility for everyday folks but also a larger audience to receive and respond to the messages and questions these artists posed. The cultural gatekeepers of art found themselves alongside everyday people when facing the Pop artists — the style rejects a concept of hierarchy within its own field while pushing a common imagery that most folks had never seen represented in what used to be such an unreachable (and unthinkable) cultural area. Pop calls for a reckoning not only for both of these groups — the critical art world and everyday Americans — but also between them.

Andy Warhol is perhaps the most well-known of the Pop artists, and his image of Campbell’s soup cans exploded the niche movement into a major scene. Image via MOMA.

Pop Art: Endorsement or Critique of Consumerism?

Pop art’s reliance on the everyday and otherwise mundane objects of life begs consumers to ask the question of whether the artist is merely endorsing and reflecting consumerist culture or critiquing it.

Finding its start amidst the immense cultural shift occurring after World War II, the images of consumer goods that Pop artists specifically depicted raise the question of what these simple and realistic pieces might mean. Are they endorsing the rise of global markets and prosperity deemed the “Golden Age of Capitalism?” Or are the images critiquing the rise of consumerism that came with this new era of wealth and spending? It’s not easy to exactly pinpoint what every Pop artist intended, yet it is harder to find the more important answer of how most were affected by these visual displays of commodities.

Shoving an image of something as simple as a soup can in your face begins to raise awareness that would often be lost when merely glazing over the product on the shelf of a supermarket or in a pantry. Yes, the imagery that many Pop artists utilize is not an original design — Andy Warhol did not actually design the Campbell’s soup cans he is known to depict — yet the artists are the ones putting said objects in a new light. The appropriation of the object’s art and images subvert a clear line of ownership and stealing, and do so in a way that additionally subverts an object’s general and understood meaning.

Take Warhol’s Soup Cans again: the image is immediately recognizable for most, and looking at Warhol’s depiction, you can begin to see the aesthetic of design that the can itself offers. Soon, you may even find a detachment from its supposed and obvious use value: food, sustenance, a quick meal. A can of soup is no longer a can of soup — it’s a commodity that means something different to so many different people. An image of soup to someone who suffers from hunger means something else entirely to someone who can afford to pay someone else to make their soup for them. Pop forces you to reevaluate the things that seem commonplace, normal, expected — it’s simple and recognizable imagery invites everyone to question the things we own, desire, and seek. Maybe the art isn’t an answer in the affirmative or negative regarding whether the consumerist culture is desirable but is instead just asking for an honest evaluation from all of its participants.

Keith Haring became one of the later well-known Pop artists of the movement, and his art confronts viewers with intense colors and imagery that, though simple, often broadcasts powerful messages with primal urgency.

So What? What We Can Still Learn from Pop Art

Pointing to the everyday objects and images we confront almost daily, Pop art offers an opportunity to look at the world from a new, more critical lens.

Pop art is subversive — it shines a light on the quotidian and makes it a big, unfamiliar question mark. It’s accessibility in recognizable subjects, sharp lines, and familiar styles blurs the line of whom this art is specifically meant for and even who made it. Pop asks us to simply look at what we encounter everyday, both physical and abstract, and look a little closer. It edges a line that teeters between big, seductive capitalism and critical anti-consumerism. The art the Pop produced and produces may be visually simplistic, but what the art actually carries is complex and weighty.

If you can take anything from Pop art, take its bait to look more closely at the world you inhabit and interact with every single day. We face so many challenges today that still require solutions. So many of the systems we rely on have proven to be faulty and only work for a few, leaving too many either behind or squashed as a result of unsustainable and cruel practices. Finding just an extra minute to unplug from your phone, take a break from the demands of daily life may not be simple (and doing so to look at something like a box of pasta may make the task seem even more unsavory) but you will soon begin to unlock a new understanding of the world and how you operate in it. Sit down and consider the aspects of your life you knowingly or unknowingly don’t give thought to and ponder! Mull! Examine! Appraise! Critique! Open a door to becoming more conscious of the systems you contribute to, the techniques that appeal to you, the objects that call to you. It won’t be a simple task nor one that provides satisfying answers and solutions, but looking at the world as if it’s all a piece of Pop art is exciting and can make you see things in a new light, in technicolor. Want something to start with? Try a can of soup.

Oct 12, 2020