American exports: Pop art and democracy? - Sample Essay


Walter Benjamin alludes on this respect and blames popular art for destroying the important uniqueness of art in every sense. The critical view of Walter Benjamin on the modern developments are expressed in his book “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” where he defines the unique existence of a work of art — its originality and authenticity — as aura. (Belton, R. : http://www. jahsonic. com). He criticizes the swindling away of this aura of things, the loss of the latter in an age of mass production and mass consumption.

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Art, as one example, becomes just like any other commodity an easily reproducable and standardized element of life (Lee,M. J. , 2000, p. 15). However, the intellectual criticism about Pop Art and popular culture in general omitted important features of culture throughout history. Philosophers demarcating popular culture from high culture seemed to ignore that culture was not only reserved for the elite but was an issue for everyone: During the Shakespearean period, “plays were performed and adapted versions to fit particular occasions, people drew on them for commercial messages…

And for parties. ” (Kroes,p. 46) In that epoch, “Shakespeare belonged to everyone, .. (whereas) the public was critic and director at the same time”(Kroes, p. 46). During the course of time this spirit was forgotten as was its importance for the public. Shakespeare mutated to a sacred icon that excluded the influence of the common folk (p. 46). Furthermore it is important to keep in mind that there have always been periods of time where certain national cultures dominated the whole of Europe.

Eighteenth century France can serve as an example of such cultural domination. French court culture and language spread all over the continent, but in contrast to American influence today, this was not seen as a threat but was highly welcomed. (p. 163) Therefore, the post modernist Andrew Ross qualifies the severe dangers of mass consumption expressed by Adorno and Benjamin. According to him, foreign cultural influences do not inevitably lead to homogenisation, but may result in cultural plurality as well.

Hence, he wants the intellectuals to play the role of cultural missionaries and to do the political leadership but nevertheless, he wants the public to have the chance to take part in cultural life. Ross is of the opinion that kitsch that is elements of low culture, are part of every human being and can therefore not be eliminated … (p. 44). Eventually he blames the intellectuals of being the shift of society that is not contributing to any social or cultural progress accusing them of clinging to their “ancestral patrimony” (p.62).

It might make sense to reach a compromise taking the different voices about popular culture and its influence on Europe into account. To soften both opinions about Americanisation and the impact of mass culture, one must not forget Kroes’ argument about the way cultures influence others, which he defines as “creolization” (p. 163). This term is used by the author in his book “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the mall” and suggests a soothing compromise between a curse and bless of American influence on Europe.

Thus, he claims that American culture will never fully wipe out original cultures that have been enshrined in those countries for a long time. The only effect it will have is rather a further mediative mixture of elements of both. Cultures that are subject to foreign influence may integrate certain elements of this foreign culture without fully adopting them. This, so Kroes, should not be seen as a threat but rather be understood as a chance to enrich national culture. Besides, it should be realized as a further individualization of the people and therefore a reinforcement of democratisation (p. 177/178).

After having compared these different attitudes towards Americanisation, one might now wonder if the fears of European intellectuals of being overrun by American popular culture are justified. To people who share a rather modernist attitude like Adorno or Benjamin, claiming the superiority of historically rich European culture, such concerns surely seem plausible. To others, like Ross and Kroes, however, it is especially this euro-centric view that displays conformity because ‘anti-Americanisationists’ like Adorno and Benjamin fail to conceive of culture as something dynamic, regarding it instead as something static defined by the past.

According to their point of view, influences of American popular culture, including Pop art, do not constitute a real threat to domestic cultures, as these would react to such influences in a dynamic fashion, namely by integrating these influences and thereby enriching their own culture. Yet, at this point, one cannot deny that certain characteristics of the traditional form of culture may be alienated or even get lost, as some European intellectuals have complained about.

But, in turn, one may also claim that this is indeed even an advantage, as certain traditional aspects and values no longer seem compatible with today’s internal and external dynamics: it becomes evident that in an era of democracy and equality, the feeling of cultural superiority and hierarchy seems contradictory. Thus, also Europe has to question its perception of culture, one could argue, instead of assigning this task to Americans only. In this context, it seems also necessary to mention, that Americanisation, whose existence depends on personal interpretation, is definitely not a one sided phenomenon.

In order to make Americanisation a real threat, Europeans are required to accept and adopt it. In short: such a process always takes two. And if European culture adopts the American one so easily that it becomes a threat, then Europeans might analyse what their own culture is lacking that it needs to import from abroad. Maybe it is a little portion of American openness towards ‘cultural innovations’. A further concluding thought might be added in order to come finalize the discussion of the relationship between democracy and Pop Art. Popular culture, and therefore also Pop Art, “allow” a society the unlimited acceptance of thoughts and ideas.

Pop Art can be seen as a symbol for a tolerant society in which new opinions should be considered: “Everything is beautiful. Pop is everything. ” Endnotes: 1 This is a translation into German. The original statement as taken from Ruhrberg et. al. sounds as follows: “Ein Ki?? nstler ist jemand, der Dinge produziert die kein Mensch braucht, von denen er aber aus irgendwelchen Gri?? nden glaubt, es sei wichtig, sie ihm zu geben. ” (p. 323)

2 One example of an art that required extremely much pre-knowledge was Classicism in the eighteenth century. Although the content, i. e.the topic of the picture is clearly visible, as in contrast to highly abstract art of the twentieth century, it was nevertheless necessary to know a lot about history or Roman and Greek Mythology, from which Classicist painters gained their inspiration. (Kraui?? e, 1995, pp. 51-53) Otherwise it was and is not possible to fully grasp the hidden message that lies beneath the ‘surface’. Thus, art was to a large part a carrier of meaning.

Another example is the work of Paul Gauguin, a late nineteenth century artist who represents the transition to Classical Modernity in painting. His pictures are full of Christian symbolism.

which has been transferred into the world of the Caribbean indigenous peoples. Here, again, one has to know something about Christianity, its symbols and also a bit about the symbolism of indigenous cultures. (Kraui?? e, 1995, p. 81) These are, of course, only two examples out of many more. 3 A technique in printing that was an important ‘tool’ for Pop Artists . A flat strainer is used like a stencil, through which the colour is painted onto the canvas or another medium. A work created n such a manner is consequently reproducable in large numbers. It became especially famous through the works of Andy Warhol. (Kraui?? e, 1995, p. 123)

4 As an example, one could mention twentieth century expressionsim, which was geared towards severe criticism of (bourgeois) society. Aritst associations like “die Bri?? cke” (The Bridge) in Dresden, for example, tried to distance themselves as much as possible from the rest of society. In doing so, they disregarded all traditional conventions about how to create ‘good art’ and openly rejected a bourgeois way of living. Their new way of painting, characterised especially through the use of extreme colour contrasts made it hard for their art to be accepted as society was used to the decent topics and style of Impressionism and other currents.

(Kraui?? e, 1995, pp. 86-87) 5 At this point, however, it seems necessary to point out that art, including Pop Art, and its perception are nevertheless highly subjective. As is pointed out by Kraui?? e (p. 115) and also by Ruhrberg et. al. (p. 305), one may well regard Pop Art as critical, stimulating a distanced reflection, both of the artist during the production process and of the observer during the reception process. As has already been mentioned, Roy Liechtenstein’s comic paintings may provide an example of such criticism.

He takes out only one picture, a fragment of the whole story and monumentalises it, a process through which the piece seems to get importance and a kind of ‘dignity’ via its size. This “monumentalisation” of a trivial piece can, as Ruhrberg et. al. point out, be regarded as a ironic response to the habit of traditional art, separating glorification and size as its embodiment. (p. 321) But also this view is due to personal interpretation, of course and most critics of Pop Art seemed to have a different attitude at that time.

6 Dada was a form of art that emerged during the first World War, as a reaction to a world that had been turned upside down and sunk into chaos. In such a context, art got a new function. It was a means to rebel against conventional forms of art as an expression of a decadent world and bourgeois life style, which had thrown the world into war. Thus, Dada was a means of criticism, a so-called “anti-Kunst” (anit-art) that had followers around the globe, in America as well as in Germany, France and Switzerland. Well known names include George Grosz, Francis Picabia and Hans Arp.

References Adorno, Th. W. (2001). Culture Industry Reconsidered. In: The Culture Industry. Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. By J. M. Bernstein. London: Rutledge. Belton, R. (2004). On Walter Benjamin. Retrieved May 6, 2004 from the world wide web: http://www. jahsonic. com/WalterBenjamin. html Heywood, A. (2002). Politics. New York: Plagrave foundations. Ki?? ln: Benedickt Taschen Verlag. Kraui?? e, A. C. (1995). Geschichte der Malerei. Von der Renaissance bis Heute. Ki?? ln: Ki?? nemann Verlag. Kroes, R. (1996). If You’ve seen one, you’ve seen the mall: Europeans and American Mass Culture.

Urbana and Chicago:University of Illinois Press. Lee, M. J. (2000). The Consumer Society Reader. Massachusetts: Blackwell. Ross, A. (1989). Conzaining Culture in the Cold War. In: A. Ross, No Respect. Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York:Routledge. Ruhrberg; K; Schneckenburger, M. ; Fricke, A. ; Honnef. (2000). Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts. Traditional Fine Art Organisation, Inc. (2004). The Great American Pop Art Store: Multiples of the 1960s. Joslyn Art Museum. Retrieved 6. 5. 2004 from the World Wide Web: (http://www. tfaoi. com/newsm1/n1m651. htm ).



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