“Images so familiar to us today it’s nearly impossible to believe they were once considered quite shocking—so shocking that in 1964 Life Magazine wondered if the artist who created them, Roy Lichtenstein, was quite possibly the worst artist in the U.S. That’s not a question anymore.”

This quote comes from a piece that CBS News ran last year about famous Pop Artist, Roy Lichtenstein. I include it here because although the word ‘postmodern’ does not appear in our readings, there is something undeniably postmodern about Pop Art: Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” a seminal essay that we read four weeks ago, aligns startlingly well with revelations in Lawrence Alloway’s “Popular Culture and Pop Art.”

Jameson’s big point, you might remember, is that postmodernism is not found necessarily in the creation of new content for society, but in new forms for that content, new interpretations of it; art that was once taboo becomes acceptable, even revered. This is why CBS News prefaced a story about Lichtenstein with his rise from the shunned outskirts of the art community. Pop Art had to very postmodernly overcome the biases against it that, as Alloway notes, originated in an eighteenth-century belief that something was not art unless it could be categorized as painting, sculpture, architecture, music or poetry. Postmodernism is the unification of high and low culture, and Pop Art—a medium that erases differences between the tableau (traditional painting cherished since ancient times) and the tabular (“the mediated image-word bite that hails us from magazines, billboards, television, and now computers too” [Hal Foster’s “On the First Pop Age”])—represents an identical unification. The clearest indication that Pop Art is art for the people is that when one looks up 'Pop Art' on Google Image, what comes back are images of people who are instantly recognizable to almost everyone: Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Princess Di, Jimi Hendrix, Martin Luther King, Jr., Audrey Hepburn, Barack Obama. To contrast, what the Western world haughtily called "art" for millennia depict scenes, subject matter and contemporaneous cultural references that would be lost on most people today.

Both Jameson and Alloway also pinpoint the post-WWII era as the launching point for postmodernism and Pop Art, respectively, Jameson noting the rise of travel, leisure, fashion, advertising and consumption, Alloway the rise of color photography, vinyl records and television. This is more than coincidence because it speaks to the fact that Pop Art is “a social experience” and “a network of messages and objects that we share with others” (Alloway). I’d like to relate this to the notion of
three-dimensional communication I recently learned in a political science class. According to political scholar Josh Koster in his essay “Long-Tail Nanotargeting,” there are three kinds of communication: one-dimensional, two-dimensional, and three-dimensional. One-dimensional communication occurs when one party talks at another party. Two-dimensional communication involves a party talking to another party with the second party having a chance to respond. Third-dimensional communication is the key to modern politics—not only does one party talk and another respond, but the members of the responding party also talk amongst each other. Pop Art is three-dimensional because it draws inspiration from pop culture, which by definition is collectively experienced and discussed by ordinary citizens.

Pop Art is also three-dimensional for that fact perhaps in no other subgenre of art is it so clear that new entries are descending from and responding to older entries;
cryptomnesia, or the disremembering of original authorship (Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Plagiarism”), seems less a problem in Pop Art than it normally is. For instance, several quadrilateral prints in different colors of the same subject make even laypeople think of Andy Warhol. The same goes for ironic comic book scenes, especially highly pixilated ones, and Lichtenstein. To again reference Jameson, sometimes this imitation is parody, or done to make a meaningful statement, and other times it is pastiche, or done for the sake of imitation. It often seems to be pastiche--wanton and gratuitous--which is probably part of the reason both Foster and Hamilton have doubts about the sincerity of Pop Art. Foster notes it seems to have an “ironic identity,” while artist Richard Hamilton in his letter to architects Peter and Alison Smithson calls it “pseudo-sincere.” I think it is only natural for one to wonder about the sincerity of an artform that can be very effectively imitated using software entitled 'Pop Art Studio' (see below).

Original on the left, parody on the right

Original on the left, pastiche on the right

Yvonne Junya YuanWithin every one, there is a definition of pop art. On my mind, pop art is the purest form of art ever. No type of art is wrong, merely non-acceptable. All works of art have life as their source, as life never ceases creating new things, fresh art forms are doomed to mushroom. I regard the advent of pop art is the tide of the times, an inevitability of history for the following reason. As far as we can discern, the truest expression of human being is the delivery of consciousness, which pop art accurately caters to. The direct impression of pop art is always related to concepts like freedom, exaggeration, impromptu, mass production and young. The strike might be transient, but deep going. Pop art has refuted the theory that all great art must be abstruse and understood only by a small group of people. By doing collage and copy at batch size, pop art makes itself accessible to everyone. It is the instant coffee, it is the wide screen, and it is the art of the whole population. The infectivity is as expansive as its scope; it embraces everything without judgments, and never exclude the aspects appear to be common and shallow. I would like to say that pop art is a kind of emotion-fetishism as Hal Foster mentioned in the beginning of his article On the First Pop Age.I call it an emotion because before I acquaint myself with pop art, I was totally hooked up by its enchantment without notice. When we get lost at the crossroads of realism and ideality, the pop art really enlightens us. Unlike the classic works which stubbornly stick to the realistic principle, pop art “frequently changes the level of our perception” ( Roland Barthes,<That Old Thing, Art…>), its background is no longer the neglected clouds but powerful textile/grid, and its colors are subject to its certain style, regardless of its nature.
Lichtenstein's Wistful Dream
Cy Twombly The New York City

The critics once scored Cy Twombly that no one would paint New York like he did in his famous work <The New York City> . However, everybody who has lived in New York City for a time wouldn’t agree more that that is the real NYC: a city always blackened with crowded people, heavenkissing skyscrapers; crime and violence of every shape lurk here and there; assorted nobles as well as hippies shuttles back and forth… the thickness makes people feel so cramped and depressed. You can say it's a grand metropolitan concerto, or an endless chaos. It is the emotion I talked about earlier, which fascinates us not for its superb painting skills but for its sincere awareness. Visual concussion of distinct personality, together with vehement quiver of emotion forms the purist art. No affected accent, no reserved attitude, and no superior stance.

Twombly has raised the abstract expressionism to a level of where connotation is abounded while form is concise. All those rambling lines, carefree brush strokes and raffish colors melted to create a magical narrative effect. The dropping pigment looks wet and sexy, portraying the burning sun-like flowers, telling us vivid mental image of love and lost.


People who love pop art enjoy the pleasant sensation of expressing the innermost feelings, throwing off all the spiritual shackles. A decrepit tire or a carton could enter the palace of art, and become popular. The most ordinary subject could associate with art, there is no line between high and low. Audiences may strongly disagree and make trenchant comments, but at least they could understand. We don't have to refer to certain systematic art knowledges and canonical rules. The purest art deserves to be treated with the purest mind.

Jasmine Wee

Tom Wesselmann: Sexuality and Semiotics

As our readings this week have indicated, Rauschenberg (and arguably also Jasper Johns) was the first artist to truly embrace pop culture and everything found in life, from the most ordinary to the bizarre, in his artworks. Claiming that he wished to narrow the gap between “art and life”, Rauschenberg achieved precisely this with his assemblages, where newspaper cutouts, blankets, tires, and even stuffed animals coexist and form a singular artistic work. Needless to say Rauschenberg was highly influential, and one of the artists whom his work made a huge impact on was Tom Wesselmann.

Wesselmann (1931 – 2004), who started his artistic career as a cartoonist in Cincinnati, initially began working in collage, using found materials such as magazine cut outs and photographs from contemporary advertising and actual objects from consumer culture. However, it is his later work, especially his Great American Nude series, which I find most fascinating and most relevant to Umberto Eco’s concept of “cultural encyclopedia.”

There are many layers which could be read into the Great American Nude series, but obviously this could not be done unless viewers are already equipped with the semiotics and language required to decipher the many codes and signs in his paintings. In this series, Wesselmann portrays naked women, but instead of rendering the subject’s face, Wesselmann provides only the most sexually charged features, such as the lips, nipples, and pubic hair. In the example provided by Klaus Honnef (p. 92) painted in 1967, the breast is quoted by a large and fleshy orange; the box of tissue and the cigarette are all-too-obvious sexual innuendos. This image serves two functions: one, it showcases the American woman as a commodity, seductive and depersonalized, just like how all celebrities are “advertised” and “consumed” by the masses; and two, simply by juxtaposing a woman with a piece of fruit, a box of tissues and a cigarette, immediately the objects are imbued with new meaning, just as how the objects provide a context to the nude woman. However, Wesselmann did not invent these references and signs—instead, they are informed by the society’s cultural dictionary, which knowledge is reinforced by the “redundancy” of mass media (Alloway), and the semiotics of mass American culture were essentially brainwashed into people. Additionally, Eco maintains that there is not right or wrong understanding, but merely the viewer needs to show comptence in adapting the “learned codes” to decipher cultural products around him/her. Similarly then, the faceless sexuality Wesselmann evokes in his art may appear to be critical of mass-consumer eroticism, but it is ultimately up to the viewers—and the cultural encyclopedia they possess—to determine the personal value and meaning of the artwork to themselves.

Tom Wesselmann,"Great American Nude No. 98" (1967)
Tom Wesselmann,"Great American Nude No. 98" (1967)

Jen Lennon
I didn’t know much about pop art before looking through some of the examples for this week. My first reaction was that this type of art seemed surely postmodern, as it bucked the trends preceding it and broke out of the rigid confines of modernism. Pop art also seems dialogic in that it used and referenced things that happened previously and built on the trends. What set pop art apart, however, is what I found the most intriguing about it – the fact that this was the first occurrence of bringing in mass media and pop culture and mixing it with more old school art ideas to make something new. This form of hybridity was viewed as borderline offensive because there was such a divide between “high” culture and “low” culture, but what was considered “low culture” was what the average person encountered and was surrounded with on a daily basis. Pop artists used images that people could recognize or at least assign a meaning to, but used them out of context and in their own way to take them out of their original meaning. This brings up interesting questions around the “cultural encyclopedia” that Eco refers to because it would seem that pop artists were pulling from these symbols that have at least some predetermined meaning towards them, but also uses them in different ways. I’m still a little fuzzy on what kinds of meaning pop artists were trying to impart, or if it was just a comment on the mix of the high and low and the mass media that had become so much more prevalent in the 1960s.

What I found particularly interesting about pop art was the reception that it received from the art world. Crimp describes in “From the Death of the Museum” so many different viewpoints from thinkers who denounced the beginning of postmodern art. He quotes Kramer saying, “Modernism exerted a moral as well as an esthetic authority that precluded such a development. But the demise of modernism has left us with few, if any, defenses against the incursions of debased taste.” This notion of debased taste seems so harsh and judgmental. But then Crimp describes how a good example of a modernist painting is Manet’s “Olympia.” This is a painting that directly references, or from my standpoint basically copies, an earlier painting, “Titan” by Venus.



This seems perfectly legitimate in the art world at the time. Focault said of modernist art and literature, ”They both produced works in a self-conscious relationship to earlier paintings or texts-or rather to the aspect in painting or writing that remains indefinitely open. They erect their art within the archive. They were not meant to foster the lamentations-the lost youth, the absence of vigor, and the decline of inventiveness-through which we reproach our Alexandrian age, but to unearth an essential aspect of our culture: every painting now belongs within the squared and massive surface of painting and all literary works are confined to the indefinite murmur of writing.”
So then you look at a pop artist’s version of appropriation. Rauschenberg’s “Corpus” references the “Rokeby Venus” by Diego Velazquez.



The appropriation in this sense isn’t as appreciated. Crimp noted that helicopters and trucks would have never made it onto Manet’s “Olympia”, and it’s not just because those things hadn’t been invented at the time. It’s more because it doesn’t fit with the preconceived notion of what the composition of a painting should be. So it would seem the reaction to pop art was the disgust of mixing the high and low, but also the fact that the work itself was composed differently – it tactically felt differently, it was even three dimensional at times. This rocked the notion of what a painting is at its core.

Baudrillard talked about different stages of signs in “Simulacra and Simulation”, ranging from a copy that reflects something perfectly to a perversion of reality to a copy of something that doesn’t actually exist to pure simulation where signs merely reflect other signs and nothing is truly real or original anymore. These were broken down by time period in which the unique forms are related to premodernism and I would argue modernism. This is where the original is revered and only the truly unique is praised. But Baudrillard mentions that once the mass reproduction of items begins to occur after the Industrial Revolution, then image and reality start to separate because a commodity’s ability to replicate something drags down the original’s reality. Baudrillard viewed postmodernisn to be associated with the final order where the simulacrum precedes the original and the difference between original and symbol vanishes because everything is referencing everything. I can see why Rauschenberg could spark that kind of conversation. Rauschenberg started to use images that were screenprinted, which already hints at mass production. His use of the Venus image in “Corpus” is similar to the way that modernist artists appropriated images, so it’s a reference to modernism, which is referencing, say the Renaissance, but done in a way that utilizes photography – one of the ultimate forms of simulation – as well as three dimensional objects and regular paint.

Pop art is an interesting place to study hybridity and definitely takes my former views on it and turns them on their head. I was never one to think that pop art was low brow, necessarily, or using pop culture somehow made something less genuine. But I did sometimes wonder what the big deal was with Andy Warhol and what was so hard about printing 20 images of the Cambell Soup can? But the fact that this is all mixed with what’s come before and how this sparked the postmodern period of mixing culture with high brow art makes pop art extremely fascinating.