Best known for Andy Warhol’s bright images of soup cans and celebrities, pop art got its name from its “popular” subject matter and slick graphic look, which mimicked advertising of the time. It emerged out of experiments in the mid-1950s, when artists began to incorporate elements of everyday life into fine art. Jasper Johns combined sophisticated painting techniques with literal depictions of flags and targets, and Robert Rauschenberg attached found objects—an old quilt, used tires, and even a stuffed goat—to his painted canvases. By the 1960s, pop art could be found across the US, demonstrating widespread artistic response to a changing cultural landscape.
This landscape included the mass production of more and more consumer goods as well as efficient nationwide distribution of those goods, bolstered by advances in manufacturing and the development of an interstate highway system. After the Great Depression and shortages during the war, the ample availability of food, soda pop, cars, and other luxury items seemed evidence of an “American dream,” attainable by all. Egged on by economic prosperity and the growing mass media and entertainment industry, Americans began to see personal success and social status reflected in the things that they owned or could buy.
For many in the art world, an art that embraced these cultural changes seemed to mock established expectations that art should communicate profound truths, rooted in the artist’s creativity and individual expression. Writing in 1962, New York critic Max Kozloff complained that “art galleries are being invaded by the pin-headed and contemptible style of gum chewers, bobby soxers, and worse, delinquents.” For critics like Kozloff, pop represented a decline from the European intellectualism of modern art towards a lowbrow set of new American values, rooted in the expansion of consumerism, popular culture, and mass media.
Questions remain about whether pop art merely glorified the ordinary things in life or offered ironic commentary about cultural changes in the post-war years. Given the continued rise of consumerism and greater recognition of its negative effects, it is also worth considering what pop art may mean today.