Pop Art: Then and Now
If Andy Warhol were alive today, what kind of art would he produce? And how would he produce it?
Pop Art has been a prevalent theme in museum shows around the world recently. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Tate Modern in London opened Pop exhibitions last year; both focused on Pop Art as a global movement, not just an American one. Instead of only reflecting on the past, however, it is refreshing to see how contemporary artists are reengaging with Pop Art today. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) does just that.
The MCA features two Pop Art exhibitions: one highlights the museum’s Pop Art collection; the other is about Pop Art design. Adding to the conversation is “Kathryn Andrews: Run for President,” a show featuring the work of contemporary artist Kathryn Andrews. Exhibiting Andrews’s work at the same time as two Pop Art shows was intentional, says Michael Darling, Chief Curator at the MCA, to create “a cross-generational dialogue.”
To Darling’s credit, such a dialogue is achieved. Like her Pop Art predecessors, Andrews’s exhibition is filled with large-scale works, bold colors and political and consumer subjects. Remarkably, though, Andrews’s show suggests that not much has changed; it brings little surprise or expansion to the Pop Art category in the 21st century.
But several decades have passed since Pop Art’s beginnings in the 1950s — indeed, a lot has changed. I was hoping that Andrews’s show would have considered Pop Art in contemporary terms: reflecting on today’s economy, and incorporating what and how society today consumes. That is what Andy Warhol did in the mid-20th century.
Taking this “cross-generational dialogue” one step further, I started thinking about the “King of Pop” himself, Andy Warhol, as I was walked past a large-scale, black and white image of Bozo the Clown and a sculpture of Captain Crook, a McDonald’s character in Andrews’s exhibition. I asked myself: “what kind of art would Warhol produce if he were alive today?”
Warhol’s eye on the economy
Warhol would follow a similar construct as he did in post-war America: making art that parallels the economy. The American economy experienced extraordinary growth following World War II; mass production replaced handmade objects, and America’s consumer culture exploded. Warhol’s art career transitioned, too, from a commercial illustrator making shoe designs, for example, towards appropriating Campbell soup cans, Brillo boxes and other items from consumer culture. In other words, he chose subjects that related to the masses.
Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, among many others, also made art based on everyday life and popular culture. What set Warhol apart? Arguably, it was not only the subjects Warhol chose for his art, but also how he made them. Art historian Helen Molesworth explains in her essay, “Work Ethic,” that “in the period following World War II, artists came to see themselves not as artists producing (in) a dreamworld but as workers in capitalist America.” Warhol exemplifies her claim.
Tellingly, Warhol opened a studio in 1962 called the Factory: he was “motivated by a need for increased production as well as an aesthetic desire for ‘more of an assembly-line effect,’ ” art historian Caroline Jones acknowledges in the book, “Machine in the Studio.” Conceiving his studio as a “kinetic business,” Warhol embodied a managerial role, which coincides with the transitioning economy at the time: “the rise of the managerial class,” as Molesworth puts it. Illustrating this point, Jones points out that “Warhol claimed to delegate work on what he termed ‘my objects’.” The implication is that Warhol took credit as the producer of artwork, even if he was not the producer.
A techno-savvy Warhol
The echoes between America’s post-war economy and Warhol’s art and production are striking; so it can be assumed that a 21st-century Warhol would follow a similar pursuit. For one thing, Warhol would undoubtedly embrace technology today, since it influences most aspects of life. Think of the pervasiveness of smartphones and social media. Surely Warhol would have social media accounts with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to grow his brand and disseminate his work and thoughts to people around the world, as artists like Ai Weiwei have successfully done today.
Technology would also help Warhol in his attempt to democratize art, as he appeared to do during the mid-20th century. His choice in subject matter related to the masses. “A Coke is a Coke . . . all the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good,” Warhol famously wrote in his book “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again.” He goes on to write, “Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” More still, Warhol’s turn to silk-screening also suggests a desire to disseminate his art: delegating this work to assistants as he claimed to do.
The rudimentary ways Warhol democratized art in mid-century America are more refined today. Social media is one way to democratize art; virtual reality is another. Google Cardboard, a virtual reality (VR) viewer, seems to share this democratizing mentality. It runs a reasonable price of about $20 — compared to the $599 price tag of the Oculus Rift, a VR headset, plus the cost of a compatible PC — and functions with the aid of a smartphone, which is ubiquitous today. Indeed, Google Cardboard is making it easy and cheap for everyone to experience VR.
Regardless of the headset used, the broader point is what VR can do. Of its many offerings, VR can take you to far off places in the comfort of your own home. That said, Warhol could reach an even larger audience with VR today: by donning a headset, wearers could virtually step into a Warhol exhibition from anywhere around the world.
Given Warhol’s deadpan personality and machine-like mentality, he would also likely gravitate towards robots to help create artworks today. Robots could replace the human assistants that Warhol claimed to use in his Factory. To this point Warhol once said regarding the silk-screen technique: “I find it easier to use a screen. This way, I don’t have to work on my objects at all. One of my assistants or anyone else, for that matter, can reproduce the design as well as I could.”
Consumers of experiences
Above all, Warhol would likely perceive how consumptive behaviors have changed in today’s society: from a consumer of things to experiences. According to The Economist, “Once, the well-heeled bought fancy stuff. Nowadays they spend more on things to do and see.” That is to say, a luxurious trip may be preferred to a handbag. In a 21st century version of himself, Warhol would probably pick up on this trend.
Given this shift, perhaps in addition to making art, he would create a way to experience it — much like ArtMgt, a company that enables customers to buy, rent or commission contemporary artwork. Hypothetically, a client could have the experience of being an art patron by leasing a work, instead of coming up with the money right away to buy it. Likewise, Warhol could follow a model like Sedition’s, a company that champions “art for screens.” The idea is to buy limited edition artworks — some are priced as low as $8 — that are accessed digitally on screens. The low prices suggests that more people can experience buying art; the digital emphasis implies how it is easily shared with others.
Of course the type of art Andy Warhol would produce in the 21st century is entirely speculative. Although consumer and celebrity culture is still popular today, what we consume — more knowledge and experiences, in addition to things — and how we consume it — increasingly through digital media — have changed. These are worthy considerations for all artists to not only resonate with 21st century audiences, but also to progress art forward.