In a January 16, 1957 letter, Richard Hamilton, creator of what is universally regarded as the first piece of “pop art” (Just What is It that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?, 1956), concluded with, “I find I am not yet sure about the ‘sincerity’ of Pop Art.” If the father of pop art was having a difficult time buying the genre’s legitimacy, it’s easy to see how others in the art work could and did question it.
Yet, pop art not only survived, it’s become a metaphor for our collective consciousness in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Why? Paraphrasing from H. de la Croix and R Tensey’s book, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Wikipedia states, “The concept of pop art refers not as much to the art itself as to the attitudes that led to it.” The overriding attitudes leading to pop art were the rise of existentialism and relativism–our certainty that there is no longer any certainty, except that we are all kicked off this mortal coil at some point.
Any legitimacy the genre has garnered, therefore, is not from experts, but from a dazed populace whom I believe, took some comfort in a form that at least celebrated the absurdity this clash between our programming (there is an absolutely truth “out there”) and our revelation (all that stuff about there being an absolute truth is bullshit). To this end, I submit that pop art doesn’t challenge the beholder, so much as it validates their response in the face of this schizophrenic clash of ideas.
Consider Hamilton’s Appealing. A young and buff adonis stands almost self-consciously in the middle of his pad, a hodge-podge of all the modern trappings of life…including a stripper in tassels and a lamp shade, waiting to party. The Tootsie Pop he holds becomes a bloated phallus about to explode, and the promise of “Young Romance” on his wall overpowers the shameful glare of the unidentified Victorian man in the painting beside it. The whole is no more than the sum of its parts…it simply says, “Yes…you feel ridiculous in this life, and that’s okay.” What makes homes today so different and so appealing? Now one can laugh at the whole thing–life and convention and decency–right in the face and simply enjoy oneself…because enjoying the ride’s all you got left.