By Cameron Ewing and Oscar Rieveling
Under the theme of “Resistance & Empire”, the annual Graduate Student Symposium brought Thomas E. Crow to deliver the keynote address entitled “From Havana to Paris: Pop style in the Political Counter-Culture”. In this presentation, he explored the influence that the Pop style has had on the creation of politically related imagery in both countries. Whether employed as a means of state propaganda or as a form of public protest, the Pop aesthetic’s legibility and clarity is ideal for effectively synthesizing and conveying a particular message. The mutual and retroactive nature of the relationship between pop art and revolutionary social movements can also be traced throughout history, evidencing the influence of art and politics upon each other. More than fifty years after its initial development, the Pop aesthetic does not seem dated or out of fashion, as contemporary artists continue to incorporate aspects of it within their work. Considering the revolt theme of our upcoming exhibition, this presentation provided HAMS members in attendance with new ideas and directions that we will be able to continue to explore in our own selection of works.
In a general sense, Pop art is a distinct attitude towards art-making that originated in the 1950’s, where artists began to incorporate aspects of popular culture to challenge preconceived notions of what fine art should be. By displacing advertisements, newspaper clippings, or other visual elements into a new context, they were able to produce ironic statements concerning modern day life. These subjects are rendered in such a way that the imagery is reduced to its most basic and essential elements, producing iconic images that can capture the attention of viewers upon a mere glance. When considering one of Pop Art’s most emblematic works, Andy Warhol’s series of Campbell’s soup cans, one is able to observe these stylistic features in effect. Turning away from the non-figurative and painterly technique encouraged by Abstract Expressionism that was popular at the time, Warhol’s piece is provocative in the sense that he introduced an outright commercial subject in his work, during a time where it was believed that art should transcend the mundanity of contemporary life. Making use of a semi-mechanized process to produce the image in which the individual artist’s mark-making or distinctive technique is inconsequential, also allowed the work to inspire a new means of art-making beyond the traditional media used in the past. Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring are other notable artists renowned for their role in popularizing this particular style as well. However, it is important to note that Pop art transcends geographical boundaries, being equally appropriated by people in different countries and cultures.
Indeed, a major transformation in Pop Art’s history took place in Cuba in the late 1960’s, where the graphic aesthetic language and device of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and other American artists was first exploited to politically radical ends. Following the fall of dictator Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro’s government encouraged the development of a fresh national identity through, for example, the development and use of new, innovative art forms. This desire for experimentation, combined with a need for visual language to broadcast new ideas and political propaganda to the Cuban public, led to the appropriation of the schematic, stylized and heraldic imagery of Pop artists, as seen in the work of Andy Warhol in particular. The transformation of Guerrillero Heróico, a photo of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda in 1960, into an instantly and internationally recognizable revolutionary symbol illustrates the power of Pop to broadcast political ideals. Though the photograph itself is iconic, the image’s transformation into arguably the most reproduced image in history should be credited to Jim Fitzpatrick, whose simplified and flattened interpretation of the photo circulated in Cuba and worldwide following the revolutionary’s death. Fitzpatrick’s high-contrast drawing, which, like Warhol’s soup cans, transforms its subject into a series of graphic black lines separating flat expanses of color, distances the image from the ambiguities and subtleties of lived reality and reduces the revolutionary to the level of an idealized abstraction and political symbol. Following its creation, the image of Che Guevara took on a life of its own, starting with its printing on a 5-story high banner to commemorate Che’s death in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana in 1967 and its subsequent replication on everything from New York City subway billboards to magazine covers around the world.
Crow also cites the student-led protests in 1968 France as another example of a socio-political movement that made use of the simplified, linear qualities of Pop art in the production of graphic imagery to incite action and support from the public. Expressing their inconformity with the politics and the structuring of institutions that were ignorant of their needs, French students were responsible for coordinating series of large-scale protests that with the additional support of millions of factory workers, led to the collective halt of the economy in France. The impromptu and de-centralized nature of this type of revolt produced a striking contrast to the bureaucratic operations of the government. As a means of creating a unified platform and identity for the movement as a whole, art students and faculty from the École des Beaux Arts joined to form the Atelier Populaire, creating hundreds of posters that were distributed and displayed throughout France. Salaires Legers, Chars Lourds [Light Wages, Heavy Guns] is a 1968 offset lithograph poster that evidences the stylized silhouettes and solid blocks of color that were characteristic of the posters that they produced. It is also interesting to note the influence that members of this group later had upon a similar appropriation of Pop art in Cuba, where its stylistic conventions were also first being employed to political ends, but at the service of the state and not the general people.
The concern with engaging the public as a whole and not just a select few is a distinct feature of Pop art that made it suitable for addressing political issues, in addition to employing modern printing technologies like silk-screening that facilitated the reproduction of copies to disseminate a targeted message to a broad audience. More importantly however, is the accessibility and democratization of art that the pop aesthetic provides, as it does not require academic training or conformity to a particular set of standards in its making. The artistic movement is also responsible for enacting a radical change in establishing a new definition of art, by challenging the distinction and boundaries between fine art and popular imagery. Through the functionalization of Pop aesthetics to apostolic ends in Havana, Paris, and around the world, the monumentalization of the mundane and accessible was brought full circle, re-entering the egalitarian world of popular culture from which artists such as Warhol initially took their inspiration.