The pop art movement was an attempt to make art that was interesting and unexpected. It has inspired many later artists, but in its early years it wasn’t clear what it was for.
One problem was that, like other art movements that came before, artistically it seemed like a dead end. Pop art features bright colors and simple shapes. But these are not the things most people are interested in. There is little you can do with them that is more interesting than anything else in the art world at the time.
Pop art was a kind of art that used the familiar forms of everyday objects to make new statements. By doing so it challenged accepted ways of seeing and thinking. For example, a three-dimensional representation of a dinner roll might be given a flat left-right composition with a foreground diminuendo to a vanishing point in the distance. This is an example of how pop art can use familiar shapes to make new statements.
In many cases it is more useful to look at unfamiliar things than familiar things.
We all know what most people think about most paintings or sculptures. It’s better to look at something most people don’t think about at all, with the hope that it will say something they haven’t thought about before.
The dictionary defines a Pop as “a balloon inflated by air.” But if you think of a balloon as a flat bag with air in it, you have given it the wrong form, and so have lost whatever surprises pop art might have been going for.
Pop art was a backlash against the way art had been done for centuries. It was a response to the death of Modernism, the eclipse of pure abstraction, and the dominance of Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. Pop artists tended to be anti-intellectual, anti-elitist, and anti-elitist. They often made fun of modernity and money, and they were often anti-establishment.
Pop art is sometimes dismissed as a fad or a joke or a sideshow — a superficial parody of seriousness — but it’s true that many of its best works stand up well today.
The movies have been accused of being “safe” entertainment: endless action scenes with big explosions, heroes who can do anything and everthing else about which people feel insecure or uncertain, violence as entertainment as usual. However much we may criticize those elements as silly, fetishistic spectacles drained of meaning, those criticisms seem irrelevant to those elements themselves.
In the same way, pop art is often criticized as meaningless or trivial or superficial. But if we compare it to what it replaces it with — classic art from centuries past — pop art looks pretty substantive.
Pop art was not, originally, the art of the 1960s. It was a reaction to high modernism. Pop artists deliberately tried to find new uses for old things.
The Beatles were pop artists before pop art was cool. They were using old things in new ways, and the young people who wanted to be like them got it.
The “pop” in “pop art” is short for popular, not for “popular culture.” Pop art is art that makes an immediate impact. It is, in the time-honored phrase, “the image that makes an image.”
The pop art of its time was old-fashioned painting. The shock of its novelty was not in subject matter or style; it was in the fact that it didn’t look like anything else.
At its best (such as when Roy Lichtenstein used comic book images), pop art combines the newness of youth with the wisdom of age.
A well-known problem in art history is that a lot of works by the great masters have been lost from ignorance, not from malice. A lot of what you see in galleries is the result of mistakes, bad luck, and good taste.
Consider a famous canvas by one of the masters: a full-length portrait of a woman standing beside a window. This is usually called The Woman by Leonardo da Vinci; there’s also an Italian word that means “window,” and it’s easy to guess which painting we’re talking about.
This is basically right, but it doesn’t give you much insight into the painting; it makes it sound like it’s just a portrait of some woman with a candlestick.
But why did Leonardo paint such a thing? It was quite usual for Renaissance portraits to be painted with people looking out at us; they didn’t all look like Mona Lisas or even like real people, but they were still portraits. So why did he paint his woman looking at us?