History of Pop Art

The pop art movement was born out of a series of other artistic movements in the 19th and 20th century. The dada movement started in Europe during World War I, as an anti-war, anti-logic movement. The Dadaists celebrated nonsensical themes and were quite nihilistic, despite having definite opinions about political economy. They felt that many of the problems that had led to World War I were due to the logic and rationality of capitalism. They usually identified with the far-left, politically. Some claimed that this was an art movement that was anti-art, because it made no commitment to beauty or aesthetics. A big part of dada was challenging an audience’s preconceptions of what art is. Key figures in the New York dada scene such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia began to challenge the basis for “museum art.” And from these sentiments, we see the seeds of the pop art style. With pop art, there was the rejection of the elitism of traditional high art culture, but not the rejection of capitalist motives, as in Dadaism. However, pop art did seem to maintain the egalitarian sensibility of dada, even though it was supportive of capitalism.

A style subsequent to dada was surrealism, another movement that was influential to pop art. Surrealism depicted bizarre scenes and dream imagery. They lacked the more radical political dimensions of dada, but retained a certain playfulness which would later be seen in pop art. The surrealist movement took inspiration from dreams and from “automatic” drawing, writing, painting, in which one would express directly, without any mediation, allowing chance elements and the subconscious mind to express themselves. The sensibility of pop art is shown when the famous surrealist artist Salvador Dali was featured in commercials for Alka Seltzer and Lanvin’s chocolates (1974). (youtube.com) The commercials depict the artist in a humorous fashion, yet they present the idea of the celebrity artist, the popularization and mass production of art, and the notion that art and capitalism are inevitably intertwined. This commercial post-dates the initial major period of interest in pop-art, but it shows the great influence that pop-art had on both the the art and commercial worlds.

The pop art movement made suggested that art was for everyone and that everyone was a participant in art simply by being in the culture. This was a reconsideration of the idea that popular mediums are necessarily in bad taste, and that avante garde, esoteric works were necessarily good. But the idea of the pop art movement is even more basic than that. The pop art movement was a utopian social movement which sought to maintain the economic structure of capitalism while democratizing the segmented ‘high culture’ of the art world. It achieved this by turning the avant garde, or the elitism of the art world into a vehicle of popular culture, effectively integrating “high” and “low” art. Pop art sought to democratize the sensibility of the avant garde art world, and thus empower people through bringing together high and low culture.


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