This critical paper will initiate with a concise introduction of the historical atmosphere of the 1950s, in relation to the birth of the Pop art movement, with a particular interest in North America and a brief reference to the European conditions. Huyssen’s quotation will be the starting point for my examination, as it will lead my writing to illustrate how mass culture and consumerism contributed to the inscribing of a gender dichotomy. In order to demonstrate my statements I will analyse the works of three Pop artists, such as Tom Wesselmann, Martha Rosler and Sigmar Polke. The response will be mainly based on the consideration of the artworks Wesselmann, T., Still Life#30, 1963; Polke, S., Liebespaar II [Lovers II], 1965 and Rosler, M., Vacuuming Pop Art (Woman With Vacuum), 1966-72. Political, cultural and intellectual circumstances from the 1950s onwards will be presented, together with their influence and effects on the Pop art movement and vice versa. The examination of the above-mentioned artworks will help my paper to illustrate the representation of masculinity and femininity within the phenomenon of Pop. The reflection on the debate concerning the line between consumer culture and high art will be then argued. A discourse on the ideologies of household and on the mass domestic iconography will be accompanying my writing as particularly relevant to be argued in relation to Pop art and mass culture. The identified result will be developed from the reading of mainly the volumes Whiting, C., A Taste for Pop: Pop Art, Gender, and Consumer Culture, 1997; Huyssen, A., After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, 1986.
During the 1950s, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain and secondly North America experienced the emerging of Pop art. Despite this movement identified itself with mainly the Western society, since the beginning of the 1960s it started expanding worldwide. Nurtured by a rebellious spirt, Pop was determined to challenge the precursory selective ideologies of Modernism. In fact, where Modernists validated a body of work in respect of its formal qualities, Pop personalities engaged with the representation of ideas rather than curating the technical process.
Pop aimed at the democratisation of art. The credit for succeeding in such operation stands in the hands of its artists, who repeatedly portrayed a graphic of objects borrowed from mass media sources. This evoked familiar images to the public, and addressed to art a massive attention. While female celebrities were dominating the screens, the postwar optimistic conditions guided to the glorification of life through colourful representations. By the reason of its overwhelming spirit, the fresh imagery of Pop was impossible to be avoided and involved indeed a global audience.
Andrea Huyssen, the Villard Professor at Columbia University, stated in his volume After The Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism, 1986, that ‘‘Political, psychological, and aesthetic discourse around the turn of the century consistently and obsessively genders mass culture and the masses as feminine, while high culture, whether traditional or modern, clearly remains in the privileged realm of male activities.’’ (1986, p47). His words ‘around the turn of the century’, refer to the revolutionary change which took place in the twentieth century. This period in fact, witnessed both the growth of the industry and the development of mass media. Such circumstances resulted in the birth of the modern society and in the establishment of mass culture.
Then the professor suggests that ‘political, psychological, and aesthetic discourse’ have been ‘consistently and obsessively’, ergo in an equal way for a long time and frequently to an illogical extent, leading to a figurative engraving of genders. This process of gendering, namely that of attributing maleness or femaleness to an aspect, generates a gendered aspect. Huyssen entails the dichotomy of this process, through which two specific and excluding categories find their classifications under the names of femininity and masculinity. Proceeding with ‘genders mass culture and the masses as feminine’, the quotation firstly mentions the social component of the public’s multiplicity, viz., mass culture and the masses. At this stage, the author points out their association with femininity.
Huyssen’s consideration requires an examination of the origins of mass culture. His book After The Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism, 1986, illustrates through which ways the runners of industries had instilled discriminative dogmas around ‘the turn of the century’. By acknowledging the period of the Industrial Revolution and the Cultural Modernisation, it occurs to keep in mind that such circumstances followed the birth of mass culture. Pop art showed the imagery of the postwar industrial mass production, that concurrently with the impact of advertising, promoted the consumer goods’ commerce. Consequently to this, like deeper discussed in After The Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism, popular credence wasn’t embedded within the movement, instead earlier in time with Industrialisation. Pop art’s crime was that of reinforcing specifying principles. This follows that the distinctions of femininity and masculinity as well, weren’t firstly inscribed in the late 1950s, but rather earlier in time.
In order to illustrate the ways through which mass culture was coupled with femininity, the influence of the Pop art movement is necessary to be considered. In regards with the gendering of mass culture, Pop operated generally by exploiting a domestic iconography. This begun with the tactics of re-appropriation and recontextualisation of Pop artists. In other words, the act of borrowing contents from an imagery of consumer goods, and their integration in the art works, resulted in the creation of a mass iconography. Since the recurring depictions were mostly recalling the household, inevitable was to identify them with domesticity. In this context, advertisements intervened. The Pop strategies of reproduction often pushed to promote the advertising of products. Aiming at persuading targeted consumers, the images of marketing helped to reinforce the stereotyped figures of the successful husband and the devoted housewife.
With the purpose of demonstrating the gender distinctions strengthened by Pop art, I’ve chosen the work of Tom Wesselmann, American Pop artist. His paintings are pertinent visual examples for the realisation of my objectives. The first aspect to be analysed is the artist’s depiction of typical interior environment, that was, in those years associated with the bourgeois taste in design. The paintings appear to show kitchen appliances, bathroom fixtures and household furnitures, subjects that recall the suburban housewife’s fondness. The aesthetic arrangements of these art works, for their identity with the female’s preferences, presume a woman spectator. Wesselmann’s ordinary objects were brutally perceived by the 1960s society as women’s sphere. Given that, the intrinsic integrity of a woman was reduced to hers in relation to her idealised figure.
Among Wesselmann’s works including crowded up goods in tiny spaces, Still Life#30, 1963, is a clear instance. This decision implies plentifulness and symbolises the American mass production. In the evidence of this, the artist’s Still Life works project the everyday routine of the Western society. Such culture commonly assumed that consumers were females, as believed to be easily persuaded by the stratagems of merchandising. Following that women were targeted for consumerism. Most of
the artworks from the 1950s ahead, were juxtaposing art with a mass-mediated culture which was embodying femininity. Consequently to this, the beneficial bargain between pop art and consumer culture was continuously encouraged. Nonetheless art demanded autonomy from vernacular culture, it continued to represent the reality of the ordinary, and sustained for that its blooming. All these situations aggravated the gender specificities reinforced by Pop art.
Huyssen’s statement thus continues ‘while high culture, whether traditional or modern, clearly remains in the privileged realm of male activities’. Here the professor cites high culture, an exclusive circle of individuals gifted with high intelligentsia. Unlike mass culture, this entourage was constituted by the public’s minority. The Villard Professor, by arguing ’whether traditional or modern’ designates high culture as ageless. According to that, this elite, being conventional or rather modern, is either way stable with the passing of time. Additionally, Huyssen uses the adverb ‘clearly’, indicating that undoubtedly, cultural refinement continues to exist where it has been existed ‘remains in the priviliged realms of male activities’, in the males’ advantaged areas of interest. Huyssen includes an adjective of severe significancy: ‘privileged’. The elite in fact, enjoys, par excellence, an advantage in comparison to the masses. The quotation concludes by addressing high culture to the category of masculinity, signifying that only men could access and constitute such upper-status.
Prior to demonstrate how Pop associated high culture with masculinity, the historical, economical and political conditions deserve to be laid out. The scenario succeeding the Second World War directed to the expanding of the middle-class. There, the fear of bourgeois, led to an investigation of its nature. ‘The realism of Pop, its closeness to objects, images and reproductions of everyday life, stimulated a new debate about the relationship between art and life, image and reality, a debate that killed the culture pages of the national newspapers and weeklies.’ (Huyssen, 1986, p143). This bourgeois mass produced reality projected by body of works, bothered art critics and pushed them to reaffirm the Modernist criterions of selection. The need to determine high art was aroused, and art critics thus developed, from the 1950s onwards, an ideological man’s figure. New version of the Modernist male, intellectual, capable of doing a formal analysis and of individuating the boundaries between art and commodity. Besides, of enviable sophistication and faraway from the gullibility of the woman consumer.
In the context of Pop, many personalities debated about political, aesthetic and social system’s distinctions. Among them, German artist Sigmar Polke. Accounting that the artist was living in an European context, his art was quite different than the American’s in the 1960s. He focused on exploring techniques of manipulation and ironising Capitalistic conventions. Founder of the Capitalist Realism, Polke denounced the commodifying of art by commenting its banality. In the evidence of this, the painter was questioning ideas of authorship in a mainstream utopia.
Succeeding an analysis of Polke’s works, I’ve selected his painting Liebespaar II [Lovers II], 1965, as in my perspective, it questions the maximisation of gender roles. The style adopted in the frame unites the use of abstract art and the typical subjects of Pop art, idealised figures of the consumer culture. The painter chose the abstract shapes of dots, borrowed from the outstanding American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, to criticize in an humorous way, the American consumerism. Liebespaar II [Lovers II] for instance, depicts the figure of the Modernist male’s successor. On the right area of the body of work, the dominant presence of a man is disclosed. The male’s face is sculpted by jawlines and he is dressed in a black shiny suit, garment that he probably wears to work in the city. These elements of representation seem to imply the character’s success in the everyday life, and equate him with the conceptions of masculine supremacy.
The blonde woman on the left, poses inanimate, overpowered by a lack of expression. In her passive stance, she looks at the beholder, providing a powerless smile. As far as I’m concerned, Polke’s positioning of dots over her face and neck, attributes to her personality the reduction of the women’s virtue. Liebespaar II [Lovers II] connotes the triumph of the male husband over the helpless housewife. The art piece evokes to me a disturbing atmosphere, therefore I’d presume that the painter’s purpose is not of promoting gender discrimination. Alternatively, I’d be under the impression that the artist’s inciting the viewers’ to ponder on the prejudiced inscribing of gender roles. This brings me to suppose that the painter, as most European Pop art artists, is aiming at criticizing the sexism of Pop by being ironic about it. Despite Polke’s protesting attempt, the idealisation of the subjects in Liebespaar II [Lovers II] mirrors the discriminations represented in Pop artworks. This allows the painting to be mass exposed in a popular culture, whether denouncing ideologies or promoting them.
The continuous affirming of the masculinity supremacy within the movement of Pop contributed to stimulated waves of Feminism. The sexism of the Pop phenomenon directed to the marginalization of women, and conduced them to interrogate their role in society. Owing to this, female artists begun to approach personally the fictional representations of Pop art. My critical thinking, from a female viewpoint, developed in conjunction with an exploration of the work of Martha Rosler. American artist and feminist voice, she felt individually involved with the unfair discriminations of that period, and critically engaged with the movement. Rosler, bothered by the invisibility of women in art and culture, reacted to Pop art’s minimisation of the gentle sex. Her works were subverting Western ideologies and intended to raze the barriers of gender conventions.
Rosler’s photomontage, Vacuuming Pop Art (Woman With Vacuum), 1966-72, extraordinarily debates on the inequality of sexes in The United States by the mid-1960s. The image shows a housewife occupying the narrow corridor of her alleged home, while holding a vacuum cleaner. The woman provides to the observer a bright smile. Her hair is traditionally styled, matching with her orthodox clothing and shoes. Rosler’s uses conventional accessories on the character’s body to denounce the limitations of women in a Pop universe. The artist rhetorically presents the home environment, at that time perceived as women’s designated space, as a place addressed to the housewife’s cleaning. In other words, Pop art pushed women to reflect their temperament in respect to the ideologies which the movement was affirming. Rosler visually illustrates such restrictions by suggesting how, according to the beliefs of the 1960s, women wouldn’t be able to express their transgressions in the household site.
The body of work utilises the captivating bright colours of red, green and yellow. The walls of the household are decorated by frames, among them a painting displays a woman reduced to a certain iconography, blonde hair, red lipstick and retro sunglasses. This stereotyped figure evokes a recognizable imagery. The character of the blonde woman has in fact, been appropriated from the pages of mass magazine, likewise from the prototypical figures of women celebrities. This frame, hanging on the walls of Rosler’s Vacuuming Pop Art (Woman With Vacuum), borrows some components from Wesselmann’s paintings. These elements are those of female sexualized stances and facial expressions. Wesselmann’s paintings of design arrangements, as previously discussed, drew the attention of female spectators. Given that the painter was communicating to women and simultaneously exploiting the nudity of their sex, it can be argued that Wesselmann has became culprit of accentuating the sexism of mass culture. The American feminist, aiming at deconstructing the attribute of sophistication to only a masculine entourage, provokes domestic iconography by representing a mirrored one. Where Wesselmann had spotted the household for the gendering of mass culture at large, Rosler was showing the unfiltered reality of facts. Her caricature emphasises the biases that controlled the perceptions of the masses. In addition to this, the title Vacuuming Pop Art (Woman With Vacuum) contributes to protest against the minimisation of women according to the canons of Pop. Those, limited ladies to their housewives’ tasks while judged their integrity from their cleaning abilities at the same time. Since women were deemed to be of inferior cultural refinement, they wouldn’t have control over a commodified world.
To conclude my investigation, I’d care to express a further thought on the discriminations that the bodies of works belonging to the Pop art phenomenon were reinforcing. Regarding the sexist propaganda of the Pop art, my personal opinion is that since Art has always been going at the same pace with the mentality and attitude of the people, which previously to the time being were particularly characterised by a chauvinist historical and cultural context, it represented a ‘necessary evil’. A necessary evil because it served as a sort of wake up call to women in general, while portraying realistically their repressed reality. What I believe is that Pop art helped criticising a society that stood and relayed to ‘safe’ categories of topics which were comfortable to the main public with provoking humor not understandable to the majority and also helped incite a more provocative feminism movement.