Pop art has its fans and its critics. While pop art is no where near as polarizing as abstract art (you either love or disdain abstract art), it does find its point missed on many. That is, people may like the “cool” look of pop art, but they never think of it beyond its surface value. This is quite a shame since pop art is among the most emotional art in existence. To a great degree, the simplicity of pop hides its raw and powerful emotional themes. Well, it is only hidden if you do not look for it. That is why it is important to look at the work of three popular pop artists. This will provide the needed insight into the lost emotional content of pop art.
It would seem surprising that Roy Lichtenstein would become such an honored artist. The subject of his material was often sequential art. This type of art is often referred to by its more common name comic art. Considering that most critics and academics hold comic art in such disdain, it is surprising that Lichtenstein would be so praised. Then again, Lichtenstein did not merely reproduce comic art. He delved into the very soul of it and examined it from the brilliant introspective perspective of a unique pop artist.
In the painting, “Drowning Girl,” a tearful brunette is drowning amidst swirling waves while a thought balloon reads “I’d rather sink than call Brad for help.” This is an obvious parody of the soap operatic nature of the old newspaper strips. What is not so obvious is the fact that Lichtenstein is mocking the sentiments many possess when they fall in love. Yes, love is blind but so is obstinance. Clearly, the obstinance of this woman is leading to her drowning. Clearly, this is a symbol of how the relationship is drowning her spirit.
In Lichtenstein’s own words “pop art…appears to accept its own environment…not good or bad…just different…another state of mind.” (Stiles 338) This would infer his understanding that the goal of his paintings is not to reproduce comic strips. It is to strip bare the human emotion underneath such (apparently) minimal artwork. To this extent, he succeeds as his simple representation of what on would find in the funny pages of a newspaper takes on a unique emotional development. To that extent, Lichtenstein shows that pop art possesses the most power to impact emotional. It exists in a familiar environment and this gives it the edge to be powerful.
Of course, the entire pop art movement never truly would have risen to its heights without the input of Andy Warhol. Often dubbed both a shaman and a con man, Warhol truly understood the emotional content within pop art. People can truly only value what they are familiar with. As such, Warhol chose recognizable subject matter to prove his point.
And prove his point he did.
This is most evident in the painting “Marilyn 1967” which features a colorful image of the great Marilyn Monroe. Now, some may refer to this painting as minimalist. True, there is very little in the frame other than Monroe’s face. That is point of the painting as well as a major point of pop art’s common themes. You do not need to be complex or overblown to have an emotional impact. After all, most people are already aware of your subject matter. Hence, your audience is already a fan of your art before experiencing it.
In Warhol’s own words, “I like boring things. I like things to be the same over and over again.” (Stiles 340) As with any Warhol phrase, you must go beyond the surface. Yes, Marilyn’s visage may become “boring” over time. However, the emotional impact she resonates can never be boring. Again, pop art is not about external things as so many misbelieve. It is about emotional impact and content. This is what Warhol’s work is truly about.
Of all the pop artists, Claes Oldenburg is not as popular as many of his contemporaries. One reason for this is that his artwork may draw the ire of even those who enjoy pop art. That is because his work embodies the main criticism commonly levied at pop art: “anyone can do it and it is silly”. Well, that would be a common surface value assessment. However, anyone who probes deeper into Oldenburg’s art finds that he is a deep thinker whose depth is hidden in the simplicity of his work. In a way, this is a clichéd purgatory for artists: no one understands him.
Then again, even diehard fans of Oldenburg would have difficulty defending him for the creation of “Safety Pin”. This work is merely a giant safety pin. That’s all folks. Now, such a work of art invites the aforementioned clichéd “anybody can do that cliché”.
However, this misses the point that the miraculous appears in the ordinary. When you examine Safety Pin, you must take pause and acknowledge that some things are not as they appear. After all, no safety pin is the size of the safety pin in Oldenburg’s presentation. As such, it really is not a safety pin. It can not be. It is simply too huge. Consider Oldenburg’s statement “I am for art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the starting point of zero.” (Stiles 335) That is, something as simple as a safety pin can be or may not be art. Changing the size and shape of it can work wonders in this regard. Again, this follows the theme of emotion (in this case an emotional response to the mundane) is prevalent in Oldenburg’s art.
However, Oldenburg’s disassociated nature undermines his cause. He is seemingly disinterested in art because he does not see art as being anything special. Yet, it houses a unique special nature. Perhaps this very concept is lost on Oldenburg despite his own skills.
Again, pop art is infamous for its ability to hide truly amazing emotional content in its frame. Then again, to say that emotions are hidden would not be an entirely accurate assessment. The emotional content is there for all to see but it is somewhat obscured by the common nature of the subject matter. Of course, it only remains obscured if we take it for granted. To do this would be a great disservice to many amazing artists. They have truly elevated the mundane and made it impacting. Why would we ignore their achievements?