Consumer goods, mass media, and popular culture
In the years following World War II, America enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic and political growth. Many middle class Americans moved to the suburbs, spurred by the availability of inexpensive, mass-produced homes. A new kind of music, rock and roll, burst into popular culture and became the soundtrack of teenage rebellion. Marilyn Monroe was a reigning film star, and television replaced radio as the dominant media outlet.
But by the late 1950s and early 1960s, a cultural revolution was underway, led by activists, thinkers, and artists who sought to change, and even overturn, what was, in their eyes, a stifling social order ruled by conformity. The Vietnam War incited mass protests, the Civil Rights Movement sought equality for African Americans, and the women’s liberation movement gained momentum.
Pop Art: Inspired by the Everyday
It was in this climate of turbulence, experimentation, and increased consumerism that a new generation of artists emerged in Britain and America in the mid- to late-1950s. These artists began to look for inspiration and materials in their immediate environment. They made art that mirrored, critiqued, and, at times, incorporated everyday items, consumer goods, and mass media messaging and imagery. In reference to its intended popular appeal and its engagement with popular culture, it was called Pop art.
Pop artists strove for straightforwardness in their work, using bold swaths of primary colors, often straight from the can or tube of paint. They adopted commercial advertising methods like silkscreening, or produced multiples, downplaying the artist’s hand and subverting the idea of originality and preciousness—in marked contrast to the highly expressive, large-scale abstract paintings of the Abstract Expressionists, whose work had dominated postwar American art. Pop artists favored realism, everyday (even mundane) imagery, and heavy doses of irony and wit.
But many Pop artists, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, were very aware of the past. They sought to connect the traditions of fine art with the mass culture of television, advertising, film, and cartoons. At the same time, they challenged traditional boundaries between mediums and techniques, merging painting with photography and printmaking, combining handmade and readymade or mass-produced elements, and bringing together objects, images, and sometimes text to make new meaning.
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