My third year exams begin tomorrow with a theory exam on Pop art and consumer culture. The focus of my study for this particular module was one, Elvis Aaron Presley, the King! I am a huge fan, so I really have enjoyed this module, and am actually looking forward to the exam tomorrow. I thought I would share with you my essay assignment, for which I received a really good mark. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Assignment: Pop Art and Consumer Culture.
I will select one social icon which appears in three paintings by different Pop artists and which represents consumer culture and awareness in one way or another. Within a Pop art framework I analyze these paintings in terms of the above and locate them within an historical understanding of the consumer culture.
Although Pop art is said to have originated in Britain, it was in America that it took root and, via American artists, came to real prominence. This was American Pop that was full of confidence as a result of early American artists who had asserted themselves against Europe and its influences, and mirrored the rise of the United States to the position of the leading nation of the world. America, after the Second World War, experienced unprecedented economic growth with accompanying rises in mass production and mass consumer market, each driving the other. CW Mills notes: “…at the heart of ‘mass society’ are mass media and ‘wanting and not having of commodities and of women held to be good looking’” (Mills: 318). The consumer culture that Jean Baudrillard theorised about, and which artists such as Warhol commented upon and criticised with their work, is a significant feature of Pop art; the taking of ordinary and everyday objects and playing with their import by situating it within an art framework. It should be remembered that these Pop artists were also refuting Modernism, and thus establishing themselves as anti-Modernist with these actions and works. French theorist, Baudrillard, said “our society has given rise to a general aestheticization…it is often said that the West’s great undertaking is the commercialization of the whole world, the hitching of the fate of everything to the fate of the commodity”, his conclusion however is, “that great undertaking will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world” (Baudrillard 1994:16).
Andy Warhol revised his famous prediction of “everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes” in 1979, claiming “I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, ‘In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous’” (Warhol 1979:48). At the very essence of these predictions is that of instant recognition, and it this fame (we sometimes forget that the word familiar is a poor cousin of the word fame) of everyday objects and of celebrities that he juxtaposed and critiqued with his techniques of reproduction and mass production. It was Neil Gabler, culture critic, who commented that Warhol made soup cans into celebrities and celebrities into soup cans (Gabler: 1998). There is one social icon, in my mind, that is the epitome of this juxtaposition of those two words: the banal familiar and the desirable famous and all those two words encapsulate. He…or rather, it is one, Elvis Aaron Presley, born 8 January 1935, died 16 August 1977, and he has been referred to as the Big Bang of the world of music. John Lennon is often quoted as saying that before Elvis there was nothing. Elvis, Alan Clayson, the writer, says “…left such an indelible impression on the complacency of post-war pop that his own later capitulation to it was dismissed initially as the prerogative of glamour…his omnipotence is such that veneration has yet to fade…” (Clayson: 1). “…they will be afraid that for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state and aught to be prohibited” (Plato: 109). These words of Plato could almost have been written by the thinkers of the day about Elvis, he was seen as such a threat by the establishment in the 1950’s.
Elvis’s transformation from this anti-establishment figure to a social icon and consumer product, a brand, if you will, I feel, parallel’s the rise of popular consumer culture in America as well as the expansion of multinational corporations. In fact, in my opinion, apart from Coca-cola, he has remained one of the most lasting, recognisable brands world-wide. It was a case of being at the right place at the right time: serendipity. The infant Pop culture was in search of a face that consumers would be able to identify with, and who better than Elvis: the rags to riches white boy from humble origins, polite yet dangerous, sweet yet sexy, adored by both mothers and their daughters. Christin Mamiya, an art history professor and published author, says that in America in the 1960’s “[mass] consumption took on overtones of a national religion.” (Mamiya 1992, 3), she says that advertising was “a form of religion” that promoted mass consumption to the point that it became like a “body of doctrine” (Mamiya 1992, 18). Therefore Pop Art was not merely a commentary on “marketing, advertising and the mass media” but a product of them (Mamiya 1992, 18). America had usurped Europe as the centre of the Art world now she searched for royalty of her own, and the King was born!
Ray Johnson (1927-1995) said of himself, “I am the only painter in New York whose drips mean anything”, drips which run like tears of blood from the eyes of Elvis in his work, Oedipus (Elvis #1) (1956-57) (Figure 1) (Gablik 1969: 17). Oedipus was a mythical Greek king who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, upon discovering the truth his mother kills herself while blinds himself. Knowing this, I feel that Johnson is perhaps criticising the so-called ideal normal patriarchal family units of the day and of the American dream, and hinting at the dark undercurrents of suburban life. Perhaps it also reflects his own male, love-hate feelings with regards this icon of heterosexual America. Another signifier Johnson uses are the irregular collaged shapes which fill the space in front of Elvis’s mouth, perhaps I feel, an indication of his ability to make real the words he sang, as the embodiment of Dionysus, Greek god of ecstasy and ritual madness. Johnson’s moticos as he called them, of the 1950s, celebrity collages which included James Dean and Shirley Temple, were “a precursor of the post-modernists” according to art journalist John Suiter (http://www.warholstars.org/andywarhol/articles/rayjohnson/ind.html). His tinting and rubbing of the surface of the Elvis image gives it the intimate feel of an image in someone’s personal diary, feminizing it with a rose hue in the process as well. It has been claimed that much in the same way Pop art was a reaction against the genius, white, heterosexual male dominated art of the Modern Abstract movement, so Johnson and his contemporary, Andy Warhol, with their homosexual orientation, also used their art and their vision to undermine the patriarchal association of authority, power and masculinity made by society with regards its icons.
“The Colonel’s vision of the future centered on mass exposure…television was key to the deal. The Colonel realized it…” (Guralnick 1994: 240). Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, realized that television was at the centre of media culture. It was in fact this medium that robbed Elvis of his vital individuality, which was compounded by the commencement of his career in Hollywood in 1956, followed closely by his taming and final assimilation into society and popular culture with his conscription into the US Army in 1958. Ironically in the decade of the youth, the 1960s, and time of individualism and non-conformity, which he had played a large role in igniting, Elvis spent his time making formulaic movies and recording accompanying weak soundtracks. However, although this all may be true, this was an Elvis, who at just twenty-eight, had his Heartbreak Hotel become the biggest-selling record of 1956, had recorded seventeen number one singles and seven number one albums; starred in eleven films, made countless national TV appearances, tours and live performances; earned millions of dollars; and was instantly recognized across the globe (Sotheby’s Catalogue 2012: 2). It was this Elvis that Andy Warhol (1928-1987), certainly taking inspiration from Johnson’s moticos (the two moved in the same circles also), focused on when he created his Elvis portraits in the early 60s. There is none of the intimacy, however, of Johnson’s Elvis; this is Elvis, the icon, the Silverscreen god!
In Double Elvis (1963) (figure 2) Warhol appropriates the image of Elvis, the gunslinger from the movie Flaming Star (1960); the source image is a publicity still for the movie. Warhol recognizes “not only the product itself, but also the means of consumption – in this case society’s abandoned deification of Elvis” (Sotheby’s Catalogue 2012: 4). Warhol dilutes this totem by replication and multiplication as well as questioning the icon’s authenticity. This duality is further underlined by his use of a silver medium, Warhol says, “silver was the future, it was spacy – the astronauts wore silver suits…and silver was also the past – the Silver Screen…and maybe more than anything, silver was narcissism – mirrors were backed with silver” (Warhol 1980: 85). Thus the glamour and artificiality of the cinema is presented to us and mirrors our sense of what is real and fantasy back to us as the viewer. In addition Warhol also creates in the viewers’ minds the image of that of film on the reel, jumping or sticking in a projector, a strong sense of movement (Sotheby’s Catalogue 2012: 5).
Why does Warhol specifically select this image to deify? The image carries with it a wide array of thematic concerns: there is Elvis, the man and legend. There is our sense of our mortality as we face Elvis’s guns heightened by the premise of the cowboy confronting the wild frontier fraught with life-threatening danger. “With Double Elvis we are confronted by a figure so familiar to us, yet playing a role relating to violence and death that is entirely at odds with the associations entrenched with the singer’s renowned love songs” (Sotheby’s Catalogue 2012: 4). As in Johnson’s Elvis, there is also a code that would not be accessible to general or normal heterosexual society, that of gay society: the macho cowboy in gay erotica as an object of desire and the doubling of the image to signify two men coupled (Collins 2001: 54).
Blake’s (1932-) Self-portrait with Badges, 1961 (Figure 3) is in stark contrast to the previous two works discussed, not only because of the nationality of the artist (British), but because it is, as the title denotes, a self-portrait. Instead of Johnson’s intimate, personal take on Elvis or Warhol’s deification of the King, Peter Blake presents himself as the fan in the tradition of homely British portraiture. Blake places himself in front of a dilapidated garden fence with indistinct trees, while he stands upon dingy, almost-barren ground. His figure is disproportionate and provincial, and reminds one of the awkward snapshots taken by family members of family members. It has also been said that it references both Jean-Antoine Watteau’s (1684-1721) Gilles (c 1718-19) and Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727-1778) Blue Boy (1770); a wan, weak and vulnerable personality in costume seeking external approval (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2002/feb/02/art).
Blake’s attire is distinctively American while his badges further underline his cultural allegiance to the United States in the portrait: the two that stand out compared to the others because of their comparative size, are the stars and stripes badge and the Elvis badge. In his right hand Blake holds an Elvis fan magazine which is positioned just below the stars and stripes badge. Blake is in effect commenting on the fact that the two are interchangeable; Elvis and the American flag, both icons and representative of a nation. He is also, I feel making a comment on the fact that although British pop came first it is American Pop which is in the ascendency. In fact Pop, even British Pop is focused on American culture. He is quite literally drapped in “the red, white and blue”. In the work, Elvis is even more so, presented as a product or commodity, he is a badge, a banner, a magazine cover. There is a distance between viewer and the icon that the other two works do not allow, Pop observing Pop, consumer for an instant detached from product and cast as observer.
In conclusion it is important to remember that celebrities are quite possibly the most powerful social icons of all, Pop artists recognised this fact and utilised it with great effect in their works. “There is a reason why US Weekly, People and other celebrity-centric magazines devote whole sections to what celebrities are wearing, and where to buy it.” Celebrities are often cultural “gatekeepers,” and create “a direct line between creative producers, gatekeepers, and consumers” (Currid 2007, 141-143). The promise of a perfect, affluent future and its easily available consumer products was in fact ambivalent; both dream and nightmare. The resultant waste problem of this newly created disposable society was accompanied by demands for great social change within it as well as fears of its failure and destruction. This duality, as Pop artists were acutely aware of, was infinitely multiplied and highlighted in icons such as Elvis, and thus furthered their role as cultural gatekeepers as well as the bearers of messages and lessons to their worshipping public.
Figure 1: Ray Johnson, Oedipus (Elvis #1), 1956-57 (available at http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2006/08/11/arts/11vass_ready.html)
Figure 2: Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Double Elvis, 1963, Silkscreen ink on aluminium paint on primed canvas, 83 x 81 1/2 in, Private Collection (available at http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2012/contemporary-art-evening-n08853/overview.html)
Figure 3: Figure 3: Peter Blake (1932-), Self-portrait with badges, 1961, oil on wood, 174.3 x 121.9 cm. Tate Gallery, London. (Available at www.turnercontemporary.org)
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