Post Pop Art

book review published in Agenda No.6, Melbourne, 1990

Depending on your point of view, a book on Pop Art could be either the last thing you'd bother with (especially considering the late Warhol publishing industry) or something to be welcomed at what could be an opportune time (considering the replay of late 60s critical cliches which embalmed both the Pop Art 1955 - 70 world tour and the media coverage of Warhol's final death).

I welcome such a book. It's title : Post-Pop Art; edited by ex-patriate curator/irritator Paul Taylor (whose wish-you-were-here articles are printed regularly in TENSION to get up the noses of those who insist on getting upset over Taylor's flaunted `tall-poppy' career). But I welcome this book with reservations.

As editor, Taylor has taken a fairly low-key role in compiling a number of articles for this anthology put out under the banner of Flash Art Books (published through the MIT Press) - many of which those interested in the Pop explosion and its continuing reverberations would mostlikely have already encountered. "Pop : An Art Of Consumption" by Jean Baudrillard (written originally in 1970) appeared in TENSION a few years back; "In Poor Taste" by Dick Hebdidge comes from a 1983 BLOCK article and is reprinted in his own anthology Hiding In The Light published last year; Andreas Huyssen's "The Cultural Politics Of Pop" comes from a 1975 issue of NEW GERMAN CRITIQUE; and Dan Graham's "Punk : Political Pop" from a 1979 issue of L.A.I.C.A.'s JOURNAL.

These four articles are clutched in the centre of the book, and bracketed by "Detournement As Negation And Prelude" by Guy Debord (originally written in 1959 for INTERNATIONAL SITUATIONNISTE magazine) and Roland Barthes' "That Old Thing ... Art" (a catalogue essay for a 1980 show of Pop Art in Venice) at the beginning of the book, and at the end by three previously unpublished articles, all of which had been written after Warhol's death : "The Handmade Readymade" by David Deitcher; "Capital Pictures" by Mary Anne Staniszewski; and "Beyond The Vanishing Point Of Art" by Jean Baudrillard.

Assessing all of the above together is a daunting task - a futile one, even, considering how generally most of them talk of Pop Art. The French battallion of Debord, Barthes and Baudrillard are the most guilty here, as Pop is often evoked as a virtual phenomenon - that is, a vague presence felt around the ragged edges of modernism's materiality, not requiring critical recourse to actual artworks.

Debord is posited as a socio-psychic projectionist of Pop's celebration of the everyday via the devaluation of discourses and systems which exclude the everyday from evaluation. This - as are most Situationist documents brought forward in the case for establishing an intellectual legacy for the contemporary permutations of the `art-and-life' collapse - is so broadly applicable as to be irrelevant. I'll put it bluntly : fart around with that `everyday life' schtick and you join a long line of people with hang-ups about being intellectual. The Situationists are then far from visionary - no matter how many anniversary exhibitions are mounted in their honour.

As has often been mentioned, if Debord and company left a legacy, Baudrillard has surely noted it. In his article, Baudrillard applies his persuasive logic of the circulation of signification in the everyday to Pop Art - the so-called celebration of the everyday. But while some interesting points are made about image production under this logic, many of his critical points rest on comments the Pop artists have made about their modus operandi and cultural strategems - a frail critical framework at the best of times, considering how wrong most artists are when discussing their own work. In fact we can only excuse Baudrillard's contemporaneous article (written in 1970) for not having the power of hindsight to discern Pop's supreme implosive irony : that it ended up being historically evaluated from the most anti-cultural of perspectives (the museographic text) while surviving as perhaps this century's most hyper-formal period of artmaking.

However, Baudrillard remains unspecific and even more grandiose in his 1987 article "Beyond The Vanishing Point Of Art". Threading Baudelaire's retort to the new gauntlet thrown down by the emerging spectacle of late 19th century `merchandising' (to fight the commercialization of aesthetics head-on) through Benjamin's treastise on diminishing auras and Warhol's treatment of disinterested art, Baudrillard plots a very Baudrillardian trajectory of the disappearance of art - of how modern art as both an iconic and iconoclastic force is propelled by such burn-out. Fair enough, but the self-destructive urge in the creative act is clearly visible (to those interested in reading it this way) as a self-encoding practice in all 20th century art. The practial problematic left facing us sitting out the century is how do all the strands of modernism - let alone their postmodernist knots - interpet this practice. Baudrillard once again bypasses this hot zone which in the end typifies him as an academic : one who could continue talking without seeing or hearing.

Herein lies my frustration with Post-Pop Art. In the book, the French battalion mentioned above appear to charter the perimeters of the critical warzone for which Pop, Popism and Post-Pop dug trenches. And like true intellectual generals they don't really set foot on the ravaged terrain, but simply wave their arms toward the battle lines as a gesture toward the social and artistic `waves' which Pop made. This then lends the book to be used - and it will be - to if not perpetrate at least apply the critical myth that Pop can be discussed as a spectacular crossover between art and life, between high and low culture, between the gallery and the club. Like, bummer. But perhaps this is the editorial design of the book : to service such critical distance in the name of contemporizing history (now that Pop post-Warhol is allowed to be made `past' so that it can be remade `present').

But fortunately, the other half of the book collectively views Pop Art as an ethos which was formed under complex yet perceivible cultural conditions that beg yet further inquiry. Of the reprints, the juxtaposition of Hebdige's overview of the three phases of British Pop Art with Andreas Huyssen's overview of the three successive social critiques in Germany of American popular culture and the subsequent manifestation of Pop Art throw one into a maze of differences between what many assume to be clearly split issues in the Pop-versus-Art debate.

Hebdige details with precision the role that British art colleges and institutions played in the formation of the Independent Group (Paolozzi and Hamilton infiltrating the ICA), the Royal College contingent (Blake & Smith), and the formal emergence of the more famous British Pop painters (Jones, Caulfield, Hockney, etc.). He also notes the peculiar British preoccupation with both industrial and graphic design which gives British Pop an unresolved surface from flaunting a slick finish and feigning a painterly `unfinish', which is in stark contrast to the American brigade (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, etc.) sharply rendering their surfaces so as to accent their formal iconicity as a reflection of their own cultural environment. Huyssen meanwhile gives an informative account of the critical perspectives which ultimately framed Pop as a collusive and coercive activity throughout the seventies. Outlining how American Pop Art was critically aligned with the European Student Protest Movement of the late sixties via the culture critiques of Marcuse, Adorno, Benjamin and Brecht, she demonstrates the positive ambiguity Pop brought - whether knowing or unknowing - to modernism's elite declamations and mock-heroic struggles.

Wrapping up, Dan Graham's article is of interest to those who know naught of Punk history (though I still fail to see how a comparison between UK and USA Punk illuminates the possibility of a regeneration of Pop as a politicised force); David Deichter's essay makes some very intersting connections between Pop and Abstract Expressionism (which is something many Pop artists always talked about but usually to deaf ears); and Mary Anne Staniszewski's essay puts forward an engaging view of the formation of MoMA's fostering of the culture industry after WWII and how it played a decisive role in `educating' both the masses and the soon-to-be Pop artists in phenomenal and visual relationships between the everyday and its aesthetic appraisal.

In the end, Post-Pop Art is true to the ambiguity of its title. It partly treats Pop Art as something gone, something overtaken by a `post', without a firm account of what it was and why it went; and it partly treats Pop as an art that has been transformed from a historically frozen `now generation' type of thing into a vivid force that has - suprise, suprise - sneaked up and influenced a wide range of contemporary and postmodernist art strategies. Its prime value and relevance, then, is in showing some of the ways in which Pop was (and it's awful but neccessary to put it this way) legitimately formed - not simply out of a hedonistic era with dandys at the helm, but by a wide range of artistic and critical practitioners in response to the past, present and future of culture as it burnt throughout the sixties.

In much the same way, our current mess of contemporary art has been formed and malformed. Whether it be the thalidomide effect of Pop's molecular infection with low culture, or a glorious critical beacon pointing back to Pop's groundwork, contemporary Pop (Popist, Post-Pop, whatever) is reminding us not to forget Pop's history, for therein lies much of our present.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Maria Kozic.