John Adkins Richardson
Pop art appears to be not only a mark on a continuous road but an abrupt turning point as well. Its antecedents are well known. Both it and Surrealism grew out of Dada, though Pop art had also an independent development and is not derived from continental formulas. Like all avant-garde movements it is an attempt to establish norms in opposition to those esteemed by the umpires of taste. Yet, it contains elements that distinguish it from all prior movements of that type.
Pop art could be considered merely naturalistic. Indeed, it has been said of it that it is not art at all but actuality, that things are transposed to the canvas without artistic intervention. And the artists themselves sometimes seem to confirm this, as in an Art News interview when Tom Wesselmann denied the apparent painterliness of parts of his work:
Brushstrokes can occur, but they are often present as a collage element; for example, in one big still-life I just did there's a tablecloth section painted as if it were a fragment from an Abstract-Expressionist painting inserted into my picture. I use de Kooning's brush knowing it is his brush.... I don't attach any kind of value to brushstrokes, I just use them as another thing from the world of existence. (1)
Wesselmann's goal seems to be the attainment of maximum concreteness. The notion of painting as handicraft is almost completely realized by him, and the realization is interesting because it involves such an extreme formalization of reality. The Cubists, too, had emphasized the autonomous object-character of easel painting. Theirs was the first nonornamental painting to represent nothing but itself, to assume a painting is only a painting, just as a building is a building, and that a picture ought to look no more like a segment of real space than a house ought to resemble a baker's roll. And, of course, it was Picasso and Braque who invented the collage. But even they preserved a hierarchy of values that differentiated objects rendered by the artist from objects created by him. In Pop art this distinction between a first and second order of existence is deleted. Still, seeming to be a part of prosaic existence does not, in and of itself, mean that the style is retrograde. It was said of Courbet and other nineteenth-century Realists that their work was too authentic to be anything but banal. And around the turn of the century Impressionism was looked upon as consisting in nothing more than the sedulous registration of color sensations and as becoming, thereby, inartistic in its aims.
Radical versions of representational art have been associated generally with the ascendancy of new social norms or at least with the exposition of them. Impressionism, for instance, was not only the first style to appropriate the mobility of the city for its theme; it was also the first to establish conditions of sensibility modeled on the attractiveness associated with luxury goods and the first to impose those urbane discriminations on the rural scene (so that even landscapes have the look of boulevards). In the United States the rise of the Ash-Can School corresponded to the emergence of America's economy of consumption with its curious admixture of shanty-towns and vital works, of immuring slums and boundless new frontiers. The sheer directness of application in Sloan, Henri, and Bellows is an expression of the individual will to power in a cruel but exhilarating atmosphere. Earlier, in Eakins, one beheld the world of the "insiders" of this dynamic universe - dim masculine interiors seered with dusty shafts of afternoon, the faces of lawyers and surgeons crawling with corpuscular light.
Previous developments in the direction of a highly naturalistic art form have, like those above, entailed a commitment to the values of some social class or sub-class. What sets Pop art off from such socially responsive styles is the emotional tone peculiar to it. Disgust is at the root of the feeling, genuine disgust with a society permeated by the ideological outlook and moral standards of a vastly expanded middle class. While this mood is dissociated from that of any particular social class, it is pervaded by the detachment of High Society, a group whose own hatred of hypocrisy is unmatched by all except the underworld. Thus, Pop's antagonisms and affinities simulate those of the disaffected minorities that Hannah Arendt has called "the Mob." To that extent it is distinct from all other styles inspired by the vernacular forms of modern life. And it differs, too, from the satirical modes that - because of their common disregard of intellectual respectability are often connected with it.
I venture to suppose that it may be useful, or at least diverting, to outline some characteristics of two such modes - specifically Dada and Camp - and compare and contrast them with the mood of Pop.
One conceives of Dada in terms of a philosophy rather than in terms of individual artists and writers. If Cubism constitutes the ultimate revolution in the history of artistic innovation, then Dada remains at the extremity of social protests. It is true, of course, that Dada opposed reform as strenuously as it rejected convention; the movement was as unprogressive as it was radical and as disdainful of liberalism as of reaction. Nonetheless, behind its japeries and riddled manifestoes lay a pitiless nihilism that brought every notion of stability into question and threatened the very idea of intellectual respectability. Men like Marcel Duchamp and Louis Aragon had not only got to the point of believing that public morality should be abolished altogether; they at least pretended to despise the entire aesthetic tradition of their culture. Thus, Duchamp added a mustache to a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and captioned it with the letters L H O O Q which pronounced in French create the off-color pun: "Elle a chaud au cul! "
It is customary nowadays to explain the movement in terms of material impoverishment and spiritual exhaustion following the war of 1914. Malcolm Cowley has remarked a pattern in the periodic emergence of a predilection for individualistic and socially passive literature. (2) Such writing appeared after the revolutions of 1848 and 1871, following the disaster at Versailles, and after 1945. There can, in fact, be little question of the pertinence of such commentary. But it is a common defect of criticism of the twenties to exalt the loss of faith in social causes overmuch and give too little attention to the special character of the First World War.
In terms of the history of ideas, that war was unique, for it was conducted as a systematic, rationalized slaughter in which the thousands of dead who participated in desperate acts of horror were merely carrying out routine transactions subordinate to the tremendous effluences of the warring economics. The stalemated nature of the conflict, the ghastliness of trench fighting and the total absence of a decisive strategy on either side emphasized the purely mechanical aspect of the hostilities. It was far easier to think of oneself as a cipher at Verdun than it would have been at Austerlitz, Shiloh, or Sebastopol even easier than later in patrol actions on Guadalcanal or during the fitful firefights for the hedge-rows of the Bulge. The reduction of men to mere instrumentalities was supposed to have ended with the hostilities, but for many the experience revealed the governing forces of modernity and thereby rendered the experience interminable and modern life intolerable.
Besides this business of treating men like machines there was something more that gave to Dada a special character. The features of the machines themselves were peculiarly stark. British historian Correlli Barnett has said of the men who began the war that "both individually and as a group they were as ill-equipped to lead this great machine as a seventeenth-century coach-man would be to drive a Mercedes-Benz." (3) Nonetheless, the angularly upright surface vehicles and the new aerial weapons with their scaffoldlike silhouettes seem rather Edwardian somehow. Their internal combustion engines are like old perpetual motion machines, exposed rocker arms and cylinder heads being ranged around a central crankshaft; they remind one of the metaphysics of some nineteenthcentury determinist. Vickers guns, Spandaus, Browning rifles, so completely dependent upon mechanical reciprocities, trip hammers, sear pins, gears, and cogs are highly intricate rather than complex. Compared to the dynamics of belligerency, they seem quaint and almost ludicrous, the toys of a corrupted tradition. Duchamp, a sort of proto-dadaist even before the war, had sensed this irony from the very outset. He and his followers cast all engines into roles absurd or menacing.
The plethora of useless mechanisms and displaced appliances in Dada art exudes a kind of gallows humor. The elaborate and merrily pointless linkages of painted apparatus, the delusive "ready mades," and, finally, the cunning self-denigration of the Dada exhibitors who supplied viewers with axes to smash their works, all not only reflect the machinery and inanity of war but also challenge the most matter-of-fact notions of the bourgeoisie. Considering the nature of the First World War, it is not so terribly surprising that alongside the anarchic individualism of the movement ran a feeble stream of pro-Marxist sentiment. For the most part, however, Dada had taken for an opponent the culture at large, and it opposed every convention with unreason. The Dadaists would have said the dose was homeopathic.
The chief achievements of Dada, apart from a very few first-rate works of art, were to be found in the liberating force of its example and in its revelation of the power and sensitivity of unreason. As the product of an elite underground intellectual group it was inevitable that Dada should eventually be domesticated by the blithe sophisticates who populate the allied worlds of Fashion and High Society. Their appetites for novelty are so rapacious that they will consume the most pungent items as though these were delicacies created solely for their delectation. From digestion by the aristocrats of bourgeois taste it is but a single step to popularity. So, in ridiculing the values of Western civilization, the Dadaists added to the component strength of middle-class convention. In that, we know, there is nothing particularly unusual. By now such occurrences have become so familiar as to be routine.
According to Susan Sontag, in her now famous Partisan Review article, reverse changes are being rung on that old routine today by what is known as Camp. The term derives, probably, from Australian police slang for Criminal, Adult, Male, Prostitute, and is defined by Eric Partridge's slang dictionaries as: homosexual; addicted to actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis; pleasantly ostentatious or affected; disreputable; bogus; and effeminate. (4) For Miss Sontag it is all of that but more. Specifically, it is a perverse mode of aestheticism. It is "art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is 'too much."',, Its whole point is to dethrone the serious; being campy permits one to be serious about frivolous things and to treat the serious with frivolity. Typically, it is androgynous, delighting also in various kinds of inversions other than sexual ones, such as Art Nouveau objects cast in the forms of flowering plants. A campy person might, I suppose, be fond of Vargas pin-ups in which exaggeratedly feminine silhouettes are tendered masculine by treating the breasts as malformations of the pectorals, in effect deleting the glandular repose of the female nude and substituting for it a sort of phallic potentiality. Appreciation of just such queerness is the way of Camp. Sontag asserts:
The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual estheticism and irony.... The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the esthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness. (6)
This is not to say that all campy people are homosexual anymore than that every Jew is a liberal; it accounts only for a "peculiar affinity and overlap." A-nd in painting Camp also overlaps with Pop.
Neither Larry Rivers nor Jasper Johns is independent of the Pop movement although each man is so exceptionally talented that both seem to stand apart from their contemporaries. Actually, both of them anticipated Pop's emergence in this country and Rivers is,, in a sense, a precursor of the Camp sensibilities associated with it. In his recent The Second Greatest Homosexual, a construction based on Jacques Louis David's Napoleon (the famous pose of which struck him as unnatural and effete), Rivers would seem to be working very obviously within the mental set of Camp. And in Dutch Masters and Cigars of 1964 Rivers produced what amounts to a philosophical work expressing a Camp ideality.
His selection of the theme is itself significant since that particular cigar has a certain prestige among intellectuals because of Dutch Masters' sponsorship of the TV comedian Ernie Kovaks, a somewhat campy character. Moreover, the Dutch Masters commercial, entailing animation of a Rembrandt, is - as is using his The Syndics for a trademark clearly an instance of honoring greatness with levity. Rivers reverses this direction by memorializing the trivial and making the cigar box into a cultural monument that synthesizes past and present. The coupling of his adumbrate drawing style with Rembrandt's figure dispositions produces an extraordinary effect of renewed vitality. There is a kind of Baroque counterpoint occurring between the two new compositions in the rhythmic play of angular blotches that move through the figures, helping to articulate them at one point, seeming to erase them at another. That kind of exquisiteness obtains also in the patterns of the cardboard cigars, their leaves, the two paper rings. Those cigars are as impervious as macadam and, for a fact, the converging diagonals at the base suggest the traffic lanes and divider strips of the Long Island Expressway where the billboard that inspired this painting stood.
Jasper Johns in his encaustics and, to a lesser extent, Robert Indiana, do with the emblems of our age - flags and targets and signboards - what Rivers has done with a cigar box, with franc notes, and pictures out of books. The woman Marisol Escobar is to sculpture what the men are to painting. And among dramatists one can find a fairly exact parallel in Edward Albee who, Dr. Marion Taylor has suggested, took Strindberg's Dance of Death and by "camping it up" created the plot of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (7), a work that incorporates wisecracks in much the way that Rivers uses his vernacular material.
As one might suppose, the work of artists more commonly associated with Pop bears less relationship to Camp than to what we call commercial art. In England, where the movement began, the term Pop art was first used to describe the various genres of commercially improvised art. Some of those genres contain designs that are identifiable works of art in the sense that Lautrec posters or Daumier cartoons may be. For the most part, however, they and the serious artists inspired by them present traditional criticism with a blank. Moreover, the critic's problem is compounded by the fact that the different kinds of commercial work have spawned diverse schools of Pop art.
Painters like Rauschenberg and Durkee have based their styles on a tasteful kind of advertising design the chief hallmark of which is an artfulness in which the artistry is genuine but its self-consciousness gruesome. The specialist in the graphic arts of commerce who does that kind of work has a craftsman's appreciation of the qualities implicit in printing media. He has learned from collage that drastic juxtapositions tend to emphasize the individual qualities of fragments and he has appropriated the resultant impact for the ends of mass communication. This artisan will love the "blown up" detail from an antique engraving because it contains large scale linear developments induplicable by any other means. The essentially "expressionistic" property of the magnified fragment is recognized; a reed pen sketch by Tintoretto, ten times enlarged, is seen as having a great deal in common with Franz Kline's more simplified striations. And since only modern technology can sustain this recognition, the resulting image is all the more contemporary. Involved in the success of such high-toned salesmanship is a common sort of good taste shared by its consumers and operating at the approximate level of the chic hostess. Rauschenberg's combinations of collage with photo-serigraphy, monoprint, and painting have resulted in something more ironic and lyrical than that of the agency designers but it is no more different from their best work than bouillabaisse is different from clam chowder. Indeed, his work forms a kind of link between the high campiness of Jasper Johns, with whom he once worked, and common Pop with which he is identified.
At a far remove from advertising for the culturati stands Prole art, containing everything from those plastic Madonnas of the Dashboard and tawdry comic books to billboards advertising dental paste, brassieres, and E-Z Loans. For our lumpen proletariat these hackneyed forms of illustration and cartooning constitute the ultimate ground for representational art although they resemble, more than anything else, the stereotypes of ordinary adolescent drawing. Among those unenlightened by either age or education the secondary attributes of things tend to take precedence over fundamental attributes. Thus, in pictures by or for them, eyelashes and irises are given more importance than the geometry of the eyeball in its socket. Chiaroscuro as a means of revealing form is unknown; what we get instead is "shading" in which darks exist as autonomous spots. Cloth seldom folds, it bends and loops. Anything visible is also inorganic since everything appears to have been turned to phenolic plastic or perhaps to neoprene.
Today's intelligentsia are fascinated by the sheer strangeness of this submedial culture. For one superior to it - in a position to sentimentalize about it - Prole art has become exotic. Like the totemic carvings of some savage tribe, the low-down comic book and the hard-sell ad seem to signify queer inexpressible yearnings of the irremedially brutalized, yearnings that linger just beyond the grasp of civilized intelligence. Looking at things from so elevated a point of view can lead one to relish the crudest artifacts as poignant expressions of emptiness. The high-brow, of course, is led to an indulgence of vulgarity by the same route he took first to Bohemia and then to Jazz and Zen. It is all a question of finding models of behavior and taste to set up over against conventional middle-class ideals of progress and propriety.
Rosenquist, Warhol, and Lichtenstein express this interest in Prole art with a detachment that is virtually archaeological. By formalizing its properties or by magnifying them so that they dominate our attention, they produce its grotesqueries as a style, as delightful manifestations of the debased. And their intention is not satirical, at least not in the usual sense of conscious social commentary. There is, in point of fact, no more reason to equate the use of plebian motifs with an attack on materialism than there is to assume that the use of African ritual objects by Picasso was meant to oppose French imperialism. Many Pop artists incorporate barbarous cliches into their work in somewhat the same spirit that writers make use of coarse idiom - neither to emulate nor to scorn but simply as a point of departure. That is borne out by James Rosenquist's preference for images from the decade 1945-55, images of things too old to be captivating and yet not old enough to induce nostalgia. Rosenquist himself has said that such "images are like no images. There is a kind of freedom there." (8) That is the kind of freedom that Andy Warhol finds in soup cans and coke bottles and that Lichtenstein attains by imitating comic strips of the most banal and anonymous kind. The painting of these men is as dispassionate as the Op art that so often shares a gallery with it.
That is not, however, true of all Pop; some of it does hold American society up to ridicule. One branch bases its radical objectivity on what is best described as a "revelation of the obvious." What is usually revealed is the sort of antiseptic sexuality that has played so massive a role in advertising. Here, the eroticism insinuated by the ads is made explicit. Wynne Chamberlain makes it startling by removing all the clothes from people done in a crisp commercial style and by rendering pudenda with the precision billboard artists accord similarly incidental detail. The final effect is one of desiccation and sterility. All those who work in this vein, including Wesselmann, are virtuosos of at least one thing: they are as obsessed as any preadolescent youth by pubic hair - a substance that appears to demarcate the last frontier of the avant-garde. Such emphases are antagonistic to convention and are pretty obviously satirical. As a matter of fact, they are part of a modern tradition extending back at least to Manet's Déjeuner sur I'herbe and his Olympia whose matter-of-factness impugned the hypocritical moral content and indirect sexuality of much Salon painting. Manet, too, depended on vernacular art forms - mostly on the newly invented medium of photography but also on popular illustration - for casual postures and motifs he introduced into his pictures. Today's revelations are not unprecedented; they are just more lurid and their dependence upon prosaic sources more evident. The work of Chamberlain, Ramos, Wesselmann, and others is of a piece with Terry Southern's Candy, a novel that carries every cliche of mass pornography to its logical conclusion with a hilarity that results at last in tedium.
Some of Pop is deliberately satirical and some is not. Nearly all of it, however, contains an element of mockery. While it is impossible to determine how firmly its practitioners have their tongues implanted in their checks, it is clear that a great many of them have assumed an attitude towards their patrons not unlike that of jazz musicians towards their audiences. Negro performers particularly, but white ones too, are properly skeptical of the sincerity of middle-class whites who form the staple for prosperous clubs where jazz is played. Aware that most of the customers are patent aficionados who cannot, in fact, tell the professionally accomplished from the inspired, some jazzmen have created masterpieces of condescension in a kind of tour de force as enthralling to the lay enthusiast as it is recognizably affected to the "hip." Because the performance of these "put ons" requires great technical facility and inasmuch as they are done with grim good humor they are not offensive to any one, least of all to the rare white man who comprehends their purpose. This latter likes to think, of course, that he at least is not "ofay." If, for the racial overtones in all of this, one substitutes an impatience with convention he will have the predominating attitude of Pop.
With such exceptions as the campy art of Rivers and Johns, Pop art is anti-social without being at all anti-cultural in the overwhelming sense that Dada was. One of Andy Warhol's host of young adulators, Larry Bell, has written of his idol that "he has taken a super-sophisticated attitude and made it the art, and made the paintings an expression of complete boredom for esthetics as we know it." (9) Pop is an artistic program of total rejection of the values of the so-called Establishment. It amounts to a rejection of the aristocratic Apollonian, rationalized conception of Art that has dominated education since the Renaissance with notions of coherence, integrity, and excellence. Dada had resisted concessions to that aesthetic in the same way that it challenged the viability of all Occidental culture. But Dada's own intellectual consistency and imaginativeness made it easily accommodated by the very system of thought that it opposed. Pop art presents a very different problem because, unlike Dada, it openly accepts the morbidities of mass society. It discriminates against the best in order to purify and commemorate the worst.
Seeing an enemy in the person of the cultivated bourgeoisie who has arrived at a perverted broadmindedness in his absorption of artistic novelty, the new artists have turned him into a sort of victim. His tolerance is a direct result of the competitive merchandising of the gallery-museum world. How fitting, then, to secure his patronage with the same devices advertisers employ to arrest the attention of passers-by, speeding motorists, and idle readers.
How refreshing, too, to discard the mask of hypocrisy. Merchandising, after all, is what modern America is all about. The elite will applaud the substitution of advertising motifs for more pretentious themes, partly because of their enchantment with the submedial and partly because unveiling the reality behind the "art game" is such superior fun. Unfortunately, that fun is apt to be self-defeating since it comes very close to accepting the standards of the mob and at least tolerates the suspicion of the masses that the appeal of modern art is based upon duplicity. In this kind of behavior, says Hannah Arendt, the elite shows its "lack of a sense of reality, together with its perverted selflessness, both of which resemble only too closely the fictitious world and the absence of self-interest among the masses." '(I An affinity of the highest orders of society for its lowest reaches has often been remarked, but never outside of totalitarian regimes - where all art is a form of propaganda - have their tastes so nearly coincided.
It is not without significance that the same people who seek freedom from sanctified aesthetic values through an involvement with Pop art are frequently those who are most impatient with the moral code of the democratic liberal. Generally, they and the liberal will support the same causes. But they will support them for very different reasons. For instance, the customary liberal argument against suppression of Henry Miller's books is that they are Art and therefore not obscene; the Pop supporter's argument is apt to be a justification of the hardest core pornography.
When so many hold in contempt the virtues they publicly parade, it is to be expected that some will proclaim the superiority of mankind's coarsest instincts. Likewise, when avant-garde painting and sculpture are given a role in the prestige stratagems of the Cold War and made celebrities by the state, there will be men whose misguided sense of justice compels them to promote the retrograde as the thing that is really and truly representative of their nation.
That popular culture is the truest expression of a people's values can, of course, be questioned. Four years ago Marshall McLuhan asked that question of himself and answered affirmatively indeed. For him, history is a kind of vast spectator sport in which technological revolutions have already transformed the human psyche over and over again and in which tradition is invariably faulted and novelty always wins the game. Mass culture is by no means aberrant; on the contrary, its media and its methods are benign whereas easel painting and serious poetry are deviant because they have become anachronistic. McLuhan's followers would argue that the success of Pop is just another evidence of the correctness of their conclusions and the appropriateness of their optimism.
On the other hand - even should McLuhan be right - we still must recognize that individual works have qualities surpassing any time or any movement. For instance, the single known work of Praxiteles holds an interest for us that is more than antiquarian. And the paintings of Poussin or Ingres, Picasso, Ernst and Klee far exceed the ambits of the movements they used to signify. The fact is that clumsy Classicist art and mediocre Cubist works are now exempt from serious criticism. So are the monuments to banality produced by obscure Surrealists and by the less adept German Expressionists. In art as in life, one tends to recollect and relish the good while repressing the bad and neglecting the indifferent. Surely, a few artists now committed to Pop will be commemorated as individuals when the movement itself has all gone by. For this reason, if for no other, the question we should ask becomes not what best represents the people but, instead, what represents their best.
1. Tom Wesselmann, quoted by G. R. Swenson in ")"at is Pop Art?," Art News (February 1964), P. 41.
2. Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return, 3rd ed. (New York, 1951), pp. 156-157.
3. Correlli Barnett, The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War (New York, 1964) P-5.
4. Eric Partridge, Dictionary of the Underworld (London, 1949), P. TOO; and Eric Partridge, A
Dictionary of Slang and Uncon ventional English (New York, 1956), pp. 122-123.
5. Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp." Partisan Review, XXXI (Fall 1964), PP. 52-53.
6. Ibid., pp. 511-52.
7. See Marion A. Taylor, "Edward Albee and August Strindberg: Some Parallels Between The Dance of Death and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Papers in English Language and Literature, I (Winter 1965), PP. 59-71.
8. James Rosenquist, quoted by G. R. Swenson op. cit., p. 41.
9. Larry Bell in a statement made after seeing an Andy Warhol exhibition, September 1953, Artforum, III (February 1965), P. 28.
10. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1958), P. 335.
11. See Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (London, 1962),passiin.
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Summer 1966: 549-58