Pop Art or Pop Colony?

Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons and the Culture of Hyperbole

A “Culture of Hyperbole,” indeed!


Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988), porcelain; 42 x 70 1⁄2 x 32 1⁄2 in, private collection (© Jeff Koons, image courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art)

It is called, “Pop Art,” but few dare ask, “whose Pop culture does it represent?” Not all popular culture is inherently banal so why does so much of alleged Pop Art seem so intent on reification of banality? Could it be that the elite aesthetic arbiters actually perceive the proletariat as banal and that this alleged celebration of the banal is in fact simply an elitist condescension? They certainly seem oblivious to the evident racist and classist subtext inherent in their aesthetic premise.

To selectively borrow from popular culture in such a way as to rob that culture of the sincerity of its sentiments, the nobility of its virtues or the heroism of its aspirations does not constitute a bonafide celebration or even an elevation at all. Rather, Pop Art as typically presented by the high art establishment, amounts to little more than a colonialization of a culture of which one is not an initiate in an effort to highlight what is perceived as its most “primitive, alien and infantilized” aspects so that its alleged vices rather than its inherent virtues occupy center stage.

We have been down this road before and we known exactly whose interests are served by such context. This same class of cultural arbiters initially excluded the aesthetic production of non-Western societies from consideration in the fine art canon. Such art was relegated to anthropology museums whose raison d’être was to justify the underlying racist and ethnocentric presumptions inherent in these colonialist societies. When the non-Western art was finally allowed admittance to the sanctuaries of the fine art museums, it was only so that its imagery, but not its substance, could be appropriated as a rationalization for the colonialists’ own decadence. Removed from its original authentic cultural context, appropriated to serve a purpose for which it was never intended by its creators, then allegedly reified by its ultimate “inclusion” in the sanctuary, non-Western art was finally allowed to be celebrated because of its new found affiliation with the White power structure of the colonialists. For this self serving agenda, the same colonialists then assumed the mantel of cosmopolitanism and sought prophylaxis from charges of racism because they finally conceded to appropriating another culture’s artworks to serve their own agendas to establish and maintain their own socioeconomic and political power.

For the 1%’ers, the proletariat are the primitives, to be dominated, colonized and ruled. Popular culture is to be mined for its most undesirable characteristics so that it might be mocked and appropriated simultaneously. As was the case with colonialist appropriation a century ago, this is done to rationalize the decadence and banality of the contemporary high art of the establishment by granting it the license to be as banal and infantile as it erroneously perceives the Other to be.

But unlike the case of non-Western art, the unmediated artworks of authentic popular culture have yet to be accessioned by most elite fine art museums. Evidently, unless popular imagery is filtered through the meditation of the establishment elite’s anointed “fine” artists, then it is deemed unworthy of serious consideration.

Where are the exhibitions of the original Elzie Crisler Segar comic strip artwork or the animation cells created by Max and Dave Fleischer‘s Fleischer Studios who produced the original Popeye animated cartoons which were allegedly Jeff Koons’ muse? Where are the original war comics featuring artwork by Jerry Grandenetti which Lichtenstein stole for his own purposes? Where are the originals of the ubiquitous CocaCola and Campbell’s soup advertisements that have become associated with Warhol as much as their original brands? You won’t find them on exhibit at MoMA or the Met. Instead, these authentically populist artworks will, for the foreseeable future, undoubtedly be relegated to more heretical sanctuaries like the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. George Lucas has been marginalized by the establishment for his role as an unapologetic populist and his proposed new museum will undoubtedly be met with predictable derision and scorn from this same elitist aesthetic establishment that is so eager to reify the banality of artworks so long as that banality is mediated through a member of its sanctified priesthood, like Jeff Koons.

Alas, it is not necessarily popular culture that is so inherently banal. Rather, it is the cynical affectation of infantilism by the clergy of the high art establishment that has devolved past being genuinely offensive to being merely boringly banal and hence utterly irrelevant as an authentic expression of culture, either high or low.

2 thoughts on “Pop Art or Pop Colony?

  1. excellent points… the works of actual comic book artists are vastly superior to those of Lichtenstein, et al, and the explanations as to why Pop Art is supposedly superior to the real thing are utterly contrived and unconvincing. And come to think of it, I have a superior aesthetic experience in a supermarket aisle than I do in a lot of museum rooms. I see a lot of artists justifying the current priesthood with the assumption that since the Medici liked good art, therefore today’s 1% should also be deferred to . No. These are different patrons and artists, and this is a different world.

  2. I tend to think the idea of Pop Art as a form of class colonization is not commonly understood. Pop artists like Koons are not simply con men selling schlock. Their underlying premises in selectively appropriating authentic popular culture are far more menacing in their implications than is generally realized.

    If Koons executed a sculpture depicting Obama with a bone through his nose, everyone would be justifiably appalled. But they don’t react with the same disgust when he does the equivalent injustice to the working class by depicting non elite imagery as ridiculous and banal, devoid of virtue or meaning.

    Popeye was a character created to depict the little guy’s fight for justice against overwhelming power. It was inherently political in nature. In the hands of Koons’ workshop, this concern for the nobility of the persistent struggle for justice is stripped from the identity of the character leaving only the superficiality of the design, devoid of its essential virtue.

    The Incredible Hulk was originally conceived as a critique of the absence of ethics in science and as an examination of how unchecked power can turn even an honest and compassionate man into a savage beast. In a Koonsian interpretation, the Hulk is feminized and robbed of his destructive potential. In Koons’ imagination, the Hulk is neither “incredible” nor tragic, he is simply arbitrarily appropriated for comic relief.

    It is no benign coincidence that the economic and political elite are so keen to promote the castration of these working class heroes and scrub the imagery of authentic popular culture of its underlying messages of political and class resistance to the dominant contemporary power structures. When popular culture can be sanitized of its inherently subversive political content, when it can be depicted as banal, infantile or simply reduced to kitsch design, then one might reasonably question whose interests such destructive exploitation serves?

    Yes, the elite are glib and shallow, like Koons’ art, but there is a reason his work appeals to them on a psychological level. It allows them to celebrate the infantile without the concomitant cognitive dissonance that occurs when considering characters like Popeye and the Incredible Hulk in their original political and cultural context.

    Imagine the reaction if Koons appropriated images of Labor such as those depicted by the Social Realists like Thomas Hart Benton or Ben Shahn. Then imagine Koons depicting those noble laborers without the nobility and dignity, robbing the original imagery of its inherent political content by depicting labor as effete or childlike. Imagine Koons creating sculptures whose content was simply, “ain’t Labor quaint?” Imagine Koons appropriating the style and imagery of a Diego Rivera mural but scrubbing away any uncomfortable content dealing with the role of capital as decadent exploiters. Would this be perceived as simply benign kitsch? I seriously doubt it. So called Leftists, would be screaming “Bloody Murder!”

    But the champagne liberals of the art world are in fact elitist hypocrites. So long as the Leftist message is delivered by a member of the economic and political elite’s anointed “fine” art clergy for consumption by the upper class, then the message is sacred. But should the same message be delivered by the working class for the consumption of that same class, then evidently it is perfectly acceptable to appropriate its imagery and castrate it of its virility for the simple amusement of the elite. Then they have the unmitigated temerity to call this process “Pop Art” and trade artworks amongst each other for preposterous sums of money when it is anything but authentically populist.

    Contrary to prevailing wisdom, Koons’ art is the most pernicious type of political propaganda. Rather than transparently advocating for a fascist authoritarian message, it subtly undermines genuine populist political art by appropriating its imagery while stripping it of its inherent political content. Koons’ artworks are worse than merely banal, they are an insidious form of political iconoclasm, a type of revisionist history intended to distract and amuse. Koons art is the Baby Boom generation’s version of the Roman imperial bread and circuses, only in typical “Me Generation” fashion, Koons is making off with all the bread and we are left with a circus whose consequences are ultimately as destructive and cruel as anything that transpired in a Roman arena.

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