Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fine Art, Pop Art And Andy Warhol

Today and tomorrow I’m going to post in a very quick, superficial way about the use of pop images in the fine art world. It happened thirty or forty years ago and it’s happening now. But the use of images from pop culture in fine art now doesn’t feel quite the same as I remember it feeling back then. I don’t have a specific point for today and, to be honest, I don’t foresee a specific point emerging tomorrow. But I want to get this stuff posted as background in case I ever do think of something interesting to say on the topic.

By “fine art world” I’m just speaking in a practical way about artists, critics and fans who generally live and/or work in or around the New York art gallery scene and who generally see art as an end-in-itself, not as just or primarily a commercial tool. (Yes, even as a working definition there are problems here, but I’m trying to be quick and any quick definition is going to have problems.)

I once mentioned that growing up the artists I heard people talking about were Peter Max, Frank Frazetta, LeRoy Neiman and Andy Warhol. Of those artists, Andy Warhol is the only person who is typically associated with the fine art world and, thinking back, I believe people I knew always discussed Warhol at the same time as Roy Lichtenstein, who also was from the fine art world.

For today’s post I’m going to be talking about Andy Warhol. But, technically, I suppose I should be discussing Lichtenstein because Lichtenstein was doing pop stuff before Warhol.

Legend has it that Lichtenstein was doing abstract images when one of his young children showed him a comic book and said something like, “I bet you can’t draw as good as this, can you, Daddy?” To amuse his children, Lichtenstein did an oil painting of a comic book scene. [“Look, Mickey,” above] Looking at the completed painting, he liked the image and decided to explore the theme further. But I’m not going to talk about Lichtenstein because I’ve never read of him saying anything interesting about the conceptual content of his art. And if I talked about Lichtenstein I’d spend the entire post commenting on his practice of “borrowing” actual comic images created by actual comic artists and using them as his own with only minor alterations. I have mixed feelings about that but I’m just going to ignore the issue here and move on immediately to Andy Warhol.

Andy Warhol now and then did say interesting things about the conceptual content of his art.

I’m going to reproduce here a quote from the Wikipedia entry on Warhol and use this quote as a starting point tomorrow to discuss what Karen Kilimnik and others are doing today.

What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

That’s an interesting view and it creates an actual conceptual framework for Warhol’s work.

Almost always artists speak simply of the “power” of an image or style or technique. Artists usually speak simply of their “emotional reaction” to this or that image or style or technique. But we humans are conscious creatures. The stuff going on in our mind is both emotional and conceptual. The purely visual creation without an underlying conceptual continuity (to borrow Zappa’s typical term) is always going to be incomplete and, in a very real way, dehumanized and dehumanizing.

Besides, I also like this quote because the notion of a kind of all-encompassing consumerism defining America, all America from the bums in the street, to the normal person, to the celebrities and artists and up through and to the President, makes for an intriguing commentary on Warhol’s possibly most famous image of all:

Okay. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about this topic again, but focusing on Karen Kilimnik and others in the contemporary world. But I’ll probably be referring back to some of the stuff from today’s post. (I’m going to try and come up with a specific point to make, but I don’t feel any great confidence anything will present itself to me overnight.)

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