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An Artistic Response to 1960’s America: From 1950s dissemination of the television, to Andy Warhol’s exploitation of mass-taste, and to subsequent artists who accepted or rejected consumerist, conformist ideology

In the 1950s, America had reached a culture of consensus; a consensus that was more assertive than actual reality, as it is evident that reality did not match assertions. The majority of post-war America ignored societal conflicts, such as the growing civil rights movement, and maintained that America was a homogeneous society, in which harmony and conformity were pervasive themes. President Dwight Eisenhower, an appropriate symbol for the era, was a person who “embodied the kind of sincerity cultivated by downplaying ideology.”[1] With his presidency came the dissemination of a homogeneous America channeled through the implementation of the television. 1950’s television shows reflected and extended middle class values, and revolved around white, suburban, middle-class, highly materialistic families; within these families, a strong attachment existed between homemakers (wives/mothers) and consumer goods. Indeed, the shows, and consequently the majority of viewers, ignored social, political, and racial problems. Television was the way in which America got its news and consumed its culture; the naïve notion that the camera does not and cannot lie was rife in the 1950s. As the 1950s drew to a close, it is evident that the introduction of the television gave way to numerous changes in American culture; among the new conditions was “the quantity and vividness of information about the world at large that began invading private domains of the individual.”[2]

The influence that television exerted on the way in which increasing numbers of Americans viewed themselves and the world around them, particularly channeled through the television’s implementation and adoption of camp culture, became the profound subject matter for the pop artists of the early 1960s. Pop art exploited and exaggerated a non-selective openness to experience by detaching the pervasive images of the media from any specific location in time and place. “Images suddenly floated freely in the mind becoming interchangeable parts of the puzzle that made up the new reality of the 1960s, a reality that subsisted within an electronic consciousness.”[3] The pop art movement was ignited by the television, a conduit to popular mass taste, which was impersonal, detached, gimmicky, expendable, phony, transient, and consumption based. According to Robert Hughes’ acclaimed book, The Shock of The New, pop art “grew by analogy to what it admired, advertising and the media through which advertisements were replicated. And it grew dandyistically, casting itself in the role of the detached, amused, lenient, but inflexibility ironic spectator at the vast theater of desire and illusion, which the mass media of the twentieth century had erected. By far the most powerful of these was the television.”[4]

It must be noted that as industrialization was underway at the end of the 19th century in America, it coincided with a cheap labor force, giving way to a radical surplus of production.  At this point in time during the sixties, however, America functioned within an epic period of consumption and lesion strengthened by the television, a significant shift from its earlier function as a place of epic production.[5] From mass media, through advertising and the television, Americans received an incalculable range of images daily. Because there were too many images for one to process, the advertisements that the majority of people remembered were those that resembled a sign: “simple, clear, repetitious.”[6] Indeed these images were fleetingly famous and transiently remembered, almost synonymous with the obsession of celebrity. No artist understood this notion better than Andy Warhol, who exploited the banality and sameness of the decade. Through his work and his persona, we see explicitly how the culture of conformity submitted to the notion of private versus public self/ superficiality versus depth, permitting pop artists to remake consumerist myths into icons. From this process, evolved a new kind of iconographic painting, surrendering people and events into products of an object-based culture.

Andy Warhol, essentially, is the patriarch of pop art; he exists as the opening wedge to the exploitation and extension of 1960’s banality; a theme which will persist in the works of numerous subsequent artists. With Warhol’s acceptance of 1960’s culture, as promulgated by the television, came artwork, which was morally numb, haunted by death, and inclined to treat all events and people as a spectacle. The repetition within his work subsists as an extremity that promotes indifference; one accident is all accidents, as in Suicide (Silver Jumping Man) of 1963, and celebrity breeds clones, as in Marilyn Monroe Diptych of 1962; “thousands of signs for itself, a series without limit.” These images, as filtered through this indifferent machine-like medium of un-nuanced silk-screening and repetition, have one subject in common: the condition of being an uninvolved spectator.[7] Due to Warhol’s ability to point to the line of least resistance, numerous artists followed in his footsteps, causing pop art to be the reigning form of expression in the 1960s. Significantly, at this point in time, America had become a center for the export of production, and was increasingly concerned with media and image material, whose origins were based elsewhere. As America subsisted within this bubble of mass-consumption, coupled with popularized, ephemeral taste, spread by television and exacerbated by Warhol, it is important to discuss other artists who employed a Warholesque ideology into their work, and, conversely, it is equally crucial to discuss those who did not invite notions of commercialization and commodification to their work for the purpose of understanding the emerging counter-culture of the sixties.

Of these two thematically distinct artistic groups, which were both responses to 1960’s acceleration of consumerist, advertising, media driven culture, one group would invite consumerism and the other would blatantly oppose it. It is necessary to note that within these works, the processes always match the final product; therefore, if the artist were pro-consumerism, his process would incorporate materials and techniques aesthetically and conceptually apt for achieving that end result and message, as we see in Warhol’s use of the unadjusted, impersonal silk-screen. Some artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella, wanted to mirror the impersonality of mass culture, thus turning their work into objects. Other artists, such as Robert Smithson, deliberately shunned consumerism, creating works that could not be bought, sold, or commodified. As with Smithson, performance artists would also reject consumerist ideals by creating a work with the impossibility of being purchased and with the intention to make spectators aware of their own body, space, and time. In this paper, some artists’ attitudes towards 1960s consumerism will be discussed as well as their reactions to mass media culture, as engendered by the television and intensified by the work of Andy Warhol.

In response to 1960s consumerist based society, Roy Lichtenstein focused on mechanical construction, simulating techniques of mass production and reproduction into his work; through this media, he felt he could bridge art with modern life, which would appeal to popular culture. From 1961 to 1963, Lichtenstein based his work not on an actual object but on a reproduction of that object as seen in magazine and newspaper images, specifically focusing on cartoon-like images. In 1963, Lichtenstein said, “One of the things a cartoon does is to express violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style.”[8] He felt that this mediation of the mass media was very important because it made the image further removed from reality, making viewers focus on how they perceive the world through mass media. To attain this notion, he painted impersonally, trying to eliminate interjection of his feelings and sentiments by making his works look mechanically produced, giving the works a “cool,” deadpan anonymity. With use of the Ben Day dot pattern, Lichtenstein was able to reproduce a mass media technique from reproduction of those images from magazines. His artistic method began with the gluing or taping of images from magazines or comic books. He would then make drawings from these pictures while frequently incorporating parts from one comic or advertisement into another to combine them into a new and semi-innovative work of art. After the image was chosen, Lichtenstein would stretch and enlarge the work, then transfer the sketch using an opaque projector to the canvas. Once the outline of the image was on the canvas, Lichtenstein would fill in the dots.This technique is applied to Hot Dog of 1962, in which Lichtenstein focused on a single, commonplace object, and encased it in a blatant, thick black outline. In outlining the hot dog (or any other object), he knew that no one could mistake it for anything but a drawing. By simplifying these objects, Jonathan Fineberg says, the work, now objectified, “hangs as though self-contained in a vacuum—it does not relate to the visual ground or have spatial context.”[9] In stripping the work from all contexts, its meaning is straightforward and honest—its references are completely explicit. Hot Dog, for instance, alludes to America’s “Kitchen Culture.” The work, like American culture in the sixties, is centered not only on food but also on America’s obsession with consumption of that food.

Like most pop artists, Lichtenstein respected common, everyday life and urban environment; as such, he glorified objects relating to mass media culture (i.e. the hot dog), and made it clear that the technique he employed would positively mirror our mass media culture, as he painted “a bigness and brightness that is important, and it is industrial. It stands for the actual world we are in.”[10] In fact, due to Lichtenstein’s acceptance and exploitation of America’s “Kitchen Culture,” the advertising industry borrowed Lichtenstein’s relevant, topical visual style to sell consumer goods to female shoppers. “These advertisements reclaimed Lichtenstein’s style and powers of transformation for mass culture, but did so in a manner that did not challenge basic assumptions prevalent after World War II about the relationship between homemakers and consumer goods.”[11] In that, Lichtenstein helped to facilitate and extend America’s culture of conformity. Advertising, a critical medium to consumerist based society, utilized Lichtenstein’s aesthetic to further America’s overpowering need and desire to consume.It is evident that Lichtenstein sought to paint artificially, clearly seen in works in which his style demonstrates a deliberate rejection of the authenticity of Abstract Expressionism.

In Little Big Painting of 1965, Lichtenstein mimics Jackson Pollock’s detail from Blue Poles of 1952: he ridicules Pollock’s spontaneity by freezing a blown- up brushstroke of drips and poured paint, making it impersonal and mechanical-looking with use of the Ben Day dot pattern and slick brushwork. Here, Lichtenstein transforms something once genuine into a commodity.  The denunciation of Abstract Expressionism, the detachment, and the “objectness” demonstrated in Lichtenstein’s work can also be seen in the works of Frank Stella. In fact, according to Fineberg, “Above all, Stella attacked the introspective motive in abstract expressionism.”[12] Stella said, “My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object…you can see the whole idea without any confusion…what you see is what you see.”[13] Therefore, Stella’s work does not allude to sentiment, emotion, or symbolism, nor do the works have any outside relationships or contexts. To orchestrate this idea, Stella eliminated all sense of foreground and background; he painted in a single motif of stripes in free hand, which would show all imperfections of the brushwork, making clear that his work is entirely disclosed. Furthermore, Stella painted using a 2.5 inch house-painter brush and used stretchers of identical width as the bands of paint. His paintings would project 2.5 inches from the wall, transforming his art into an object through the consistency within the image and within the structure of the canvas itself.Stella’s formation of an object is best seen through use of his shaped canvases, which, like his unshaped canvases, relate to the sculpture and form of the work, however this also allows for optical movement across the canvas, pure consistency, and unity of shape. Using this technique, Stella could reveal the mechanical, consumerist nature of the 1960s with Luis Miguel Dominguin (Aluminum Series) of 1960. In this work, Stella used aluminum paints to evoke a visual relationship with industrialization.

Although one may see an architectural motif in terms of color and rectilinear forms, Stella’s intention was for the viewer to have a pictorial experience and not an architectural one. Again, he wanted the focal point to be the paint and the interactions of the lines. He said, “I began thinking about traveling of the bands. Moves along, jogs to the side, turns again to resume its original direction. That makes up a given unit: a band with a jog in it. Then it continues.” The paint and geometrical designs, which are the work’s core, shun any spatial illusions and add to the object’s presence as an object, making it as flat as or even flatter than Lichtenstein’s work. Moreover, because of Stella’s technique, he is able to be completely non-referential, while also creating an object, unlike Lichtenstein who deliberately referred to his culture to elicit a certain object.Although many artists exploited the commercialization of the time, certainly not all artists were pro-consumerism. These artists mostly appealed to the nature of Minimalism, in which art is dependent on space and the viewer’s relationship with that space. In this mode, a theatrical situation can be presented as if on stage to demand interaction between the object itself, its container, and the person moving within it. Furthermore, Minimalist art is increasingly concerned with the outside world and the self-awareness of the spectator. These works employ a complex array of optical shapes, varieties, and directions, which depends only on the artist’s creativity and skill, and not on any particular site.

Robert Smithson, for instance, rejected art centering on human beings and their popular culture desires and decided the only art to be valued was that which was experienced and not framed, visibly and conceptually distinct from works of Stella or Lichtenstein. In Untitled of 1964-65 , Smithson formed crystalline structure geometric designs, which related to mathematics and would ridicule traditional art. He incorporated elements such as neon plastic colored mirrors connected by a steel frame in open areas to make fun of materials used in formalist art and criticism. In formalist criticism, specifically that of Clement Greenberg, emphasis was placed on the physical qualities of a canvas as being rectangular and having a frame; instead of canvas, Smithson employed a neon mirror, and, instead of a simple rectilinear canvas and frame, he employed complicated crystalline structures. Within the realm of consumerist art and objectivity, the goal of art is to reflect the state of the world, as seen in Lichtenstein and Stella’s work. Here, Smithson is literally mirroring the world, instead of creating an illusion of reflection as paintings usually do. Consequently, the mirrors mirror each other: the art mirrors itself as well as the outside world. Therefore, art ridicules itself. Not only is Smithson mocking the function of art in the world, he is also deriding the recently derived shaped canvases of Stella, which blatantly translate art into object.Additionally, in his Enantiomorphic Chambers of 1965 , Smithson forms crystalline compounds that have molecular structures that mirror each other instead of mirroring the world, so that when people stand before them, they will see reflections of reflections and their vision will be split.

The manipulation of these structures negates a central vanishing point and presents an illusion of an illusion, causing the spectators to be imprisoned by the art, defying newer traditional ideas in art, as promoted by critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Smithson, therefore, parodied artists like Stella, who claimed that what you see is what you see and nothing is hidden. Here, Smithson actualized what Stella implied by showing the act of seeing. Smithson felt that through these mirrors, he could help put order to the world by allowing people to directly experience art. In that, people would view their physical being and recognize its transience via the distortion of the mirrors. This personal transience, Smithson thought, would translate into the acknowledgement of the deterioration of all human beings, and thus, onto the entropy of the world, making aware the inevitable and steady deterioration of society. 

In challenging and threatening one’s sense of limitations and meaning set by contemporary culture, Smithson spoke to the anti-consumerist set who sought a deeper connection with the world. Smithson and other artists who operated under this ideology attempted to visually prove that America was a “flawed and self-destructive Eden, a paradise based on exaggerated and obsessive consumption of images and things.”[14] These artists who strove to illustrate this notion into their work functioned within the same conceptual space as the Beat generation of the 1950s, as a group that did not accept the status quo.

Like Robert Smithson, performance artists felt that a work of art had to be experienced and not framed, in that the artist’s actions at any given place and time would compose the work. In conflict with the mode of the painting or sculpture in which an object is formed, performance artists focused on time, body, space, and the relationship between themselves and their audience. Therefore, their art is based on achieving spiritual and physical awareness and not on exploiting subject matter that would merely appeal to the shallow instincts of mass media culture.  Hence, performance artists felt freer to express political rebellion, in which establishment was questioned and ridiculed in performances. In relation to the art world, in the late 1960’s, artists attacked the commercialization of galleries by creating exhibitions as performances; performances could not be bought or sold or be a pawn of the art markets, as they were intangible and were solely making spectators aware of their own existence. Furthermore, performance artists used the body as a medium because they felt their ideas would be optimally expressed through use of the body. Laurie Anderson’s For Instants of 1976 also questions the definition of art and its boundaries. In this work, Anderson focuses on an autobiographical experience and reconstructs private, public, and past memories via phonograph. Through her narratives, she threatens the organization of time and space; again, like Smithson, she eschews all forms tangible and commercialized. According to Rose Lee Goldberg, Anderson’s work can be described as “an appeal for help. About the media culture that controls, it appeals to a generation exhausted by its artifice.”[15] These performance artists attempted to make the pettiness and transience of popular culture known to whoever would listen.

The effectiveness of these performances was moderate or minimal because most modern day people were primarily attracted to the “bigness and brightness” of pop culture art.Clearly, a distinct split between pro-consumerist attitudes and anti-consumerist attitudes presents itself in these artists’ bodies of work. Pop artists who accepted consumerist culture were extremely successful because their art was a reflection of the state of the world at that time. People valued objects and representations of their own culture, which is why artists like Lichtenstein glorified things associated with 1960’s America. Stella, too, was appreciated because his art was pure object, which appealed to those who valued consumerism. Simultaneously, Robert Smithson and performance artists came about to bash notions of consumerism, maintaining that only the ineffable should be highly treasured, as the superficial is fleeting and ultimately destroyed. These artists expressed the transience of physicality and commodified goods in their work, frequently through Minimalist mentality and methodology.

Although their ideas are insightful and necessarily true, people tended to respect pop culture art more because of its superficial quality and visceral attainability. By the 1960s, America was a product of the television, as the television was the way in which Americans consumed their culture; therefore, regurgitations and extensions of mass-taste were highly praised and quickly accepted, as seen in the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Stella. Anything that clashed with 1960’s consumerist based society, like Minimalist art, was rarely considered by the masses; instead, it appealed to the alternative set, a group, fervently opposed to a conformist, object-based, culture.

[1] Altschuler Lecture, February 2, 2009

[2] Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (second edition). (Prentice Hall, Inc., 2000): p.244

[3] Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (second edition). (Prentice Hall, Inc., 2000): p.244

[4] Hughes, Robert. The Shock of The New. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2002): p. 344

[5] Altschuler Lecture, April 8, 2009

[6] Hughes, Robert. The Shock of The New. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2002): p. 346

[7] Hughes, Robert. The Shock of The New. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2002): p. 351

[8] Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (second edition). (Prentice Hall, Inc., 2000): p.261

[9] Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (second edition). (Prentice Hall, Inc., 2000): p.260

[10] Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (second edition). (Prentice Hall, Inc., 2000): p.260

[11] Whiting, Cécile. “Borrowed Spots: The Gendering of Comic Books, Lichtenstein's Paintings, and Dishwasher Detergent.” American Art, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring, 1992): p.10

[12] Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (second edition). (Prentice Hall, Inc., 2000): p.299

[13] Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (second edition). (Prentice Hall, Inc., 2000): p.299

[14] Hughes, Robert. The Shock of The New. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2002): p. 354

[15] Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (second edition). (Prentice Hall, Inc., 2000): p.351

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