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Andy Warhol and the Politics of Pop Art

One of most enigmatic artists of the 20th century, Andy Warhol’s influence on art and culture is ubiquitous. The Pennsylvanian-born introvert spearheaded the Pop Art movement which mirrored the rampant celebrity and consumer culture.

Pop Art was conceived out of a dissatisfaction that young artists felt towards art schools during the 1950s and 1960s. They felt that none of the styles or movements being taught reflected what was going on in their lives and was simply rehashing what had already come and gone. Creativity is commonly a consequence of banality – Pop Art was no different. This was a time where consumerism and sex symbols started to envelop society; where actors and musicians were becoming more influential than politicians; and, most importantly, where a generation of post-war children were starting to revolt against the establishment.

Popular (designed for a mass audience); Transient (short-term solution); Expendable (easily forgotten); Low Cost; Mass Produced; Young (aimed at Youth); Witty; Sexy; Gimmicky; Glamorous; and Big Business.

Richard Hamilton on Pop Art
Times Square, 1965

Andy Warhol shot to prominence with his appropriation of recognizable images: mass products (Campbell’s Soup), and personalities in the public domain (such as Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, and Elvis Presley). Having been obsessed with celebrity status, the rise of consumerism, and the palpable nature of the counterculture movement, Warhol was quick to reflect this through his art. Pop Art is so quintessentially mid-20th century America as it embodies the fetishism of both products and people. Whether he meant it or not, by appropriating the iconography of the 1960s and 1970s, he too became a symbol of this era.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe (1967)

We have seen throughout history that there is a common thread of introverted artists that create influential art. Perhaps it is in the nature of the introvert to not partake, but to observe, bringing to light that which cannot be seen by those who are consumed by the world around them. Warhol is a true artist in this sense. He was peculiar man, both in character and appearance, but this mysticism that he carried with him meant that you were never quit sure what you were going to get.

In a society that was increasingly in need of more stimulation, Warhol’s brilliance lay in the way in which he captured the mundane. In his video art, such as Empire (1964), which was 8 hours of a video fixed on the Empire State Building, there was a welcome reminder for the public not to get too caught up in the madness of everyday life, and to simply notice the world around them. Another testament to this love of the monotonous was his involvement in Jørgen Leth’s self-explanatory short film “Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger”.

Politicians and actors can change their personalities like chameleons.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol was considered to be politically neutral, but his status among pop culture meant that he was used as a political pawn in order for politicians to gain support from younger generations. When the Democrats asked Warhol to do a piece for their candidate George McGovern in the 1972 election, the artist morphed the face of Richard Nixon (the Republican candidate) before adding “vote McGovern” beneath the disfigured image. Furthermore, President Jimmy Carter got in contact with Warhol to do his portrait for his 1976 election campaign, which he would go on to win.

Andy Warhol, Vote McGovern (1972)

Although Pop Art is thought of as a US-centric movement, Europe had thought-provoking images in keeping with the unmistakable Pop Art style. You had UK artists such as Richard Hamilton and David Hockney painting artworks that were indelibly linked to the Pop Art movement, but it was the work coming out of mainland Europe that was the most intriguing.

Compared to the often whimsical artworks that came out of the Anglo-American interpretation, mainland Europe was in the throes of a divisive time where the Iron Curtain split the continent in two. While one half was barraged with advertisements and the endorsement of fame as an indicator of success, this was an alien concept for the other half which was under stringent ruling that disallowed the competition of which consumerism thrived on.

We see The Smile by Poland’s Jerzy Ryszard Zielinski powerfully capture the repression that existed in the Eastern Bloc. With a pair of red and white lips stapled shut – also culturally significant when comparing to The Rolling Stones’ Tongue and Lips logo, symbolic of the anti-authority sentiment in the West – the viewer is immediately aware of the silence that was imposed under this regime.

We also would see America come under fire by European artists. Criticizing America’s involvement in Vietnam, French artist Bernard Rancillac’s At last, a Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist depicted female torsos dangling amidst the jungle setting of the Vietnam War while American soldiers mock a member of the Viet Cong.

Bernard Rancillac, At last, a Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist (1966)

Pop Art was prophetic in its capturing of celebrity culture and its fusion with politics. However, it was perhaps the unintentional foresight of Warhol and his Pop Art contemporaries to conflate the two to the extent where the personal lives of politicians became of interest to the public. What started off with the extramarital affairs of the charming John F. Kennedy garnering attention, has now festered into a reality TV show host leading the most powerful country in the world.

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