American popular culture has had a strong effect on art practice since the early twentieth century. Both European artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, and American artists, such as Andy Warhol, most famously, have used American popular culture as inspiration.
The late twentieth century, after the advent of Pop art, and beyond has seen a range of approaches to popular culture. With the development of new media and technologies, such as mass reproduction and the widespread use of computers and the Internet, artists have increasingly engaged with the fabric of everyday American life.
European Artists and the New York Art Scene in the Early Twentieth Century
Marcel Duchamp came to New York City in the middle of the 1910s. Duchamp, like his French artist colleagues Francis Picabia and Fernand Léger, was fascinated by what he saw as the youthful and vibrant American popular culture. During World War I and beyond, many European artists saw European culture as too traditional, too hidebound and locked in ancient conflicts. Until this point many artists (American as well as European) saw the United States art scene as provincial and unsophisticated. However, French artists applauded American technologies and engineering, factory-made goods and American popular art forms like jazz and comic strips.
In 1917, Duchamp submitted "Fountain," to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. "Fountain" was a urinal that Duchamp purchased from the J.L. Mott Iron Works, Inc., a urinal that Duchamp turned upside down and signed "R. Mutt 1917."
Though Duchamp was a board member of the Society of Independent Artists, none on the board knew that Duchamp was the actual artist of "Fountain." Though the Society's group exhibition purported to be open to any artist that paid the entrance fee and submitted no more than two works, the Society's board rejected "Fountain," and Duchamp immediately resigned, claiming that the Society was not as progressive and modern as they claimed to be.
"Fountain" is now considered one of the greatest works of the twentieth century, as it radically changed what artists, critics and art historians consider as "art." Duchamp took an object made by a machine, an object that he found, and called it "art." Here, the artwork is in the idea of the artist rather than the craftsmanship of his hand.
"Fountain" and American Pop Culture
Though "Fountain" was in part a radical comment on the definition of art, the urinal was also Duchamp's meditation on the American culture that he found so engaging. A recent immigrant to the United States, Duchamp was fascinated by American plumbing.
In France at the time, men urinated in "pissoirs," long trenches in the ground without privacy screens. For Duchamp, the clean lines of American urinals were extremely modern. Moreover, they exemplified what Duchamp saw as American puritanism--Europeans were freer about urination, sex and genitalia, while Americans saw these as private.
After World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s, Pop art exploded in the United States and England, in the works of Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg.
Hamilton and Warhol used the aesthetics of mass consumerism and youth culture--celebrities, repeating images, magazines and so forth--as a critique of modernist ideals of pure form and materiality. As opposed to their Abstract Expressionist predecessors, Pop artists insisted on an open and non-judgmental approach to cultural phenomena. As Lawrence Alloway wrote:
"We felt none of the dislike of contemporary culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically...We assumed an anthropological definition of culture in which all types of human activity were the subject of aesthetic judgment and attention."
Digital Media and the Internet
Since the mid-1990s, contemporary artists have engaged with the aesthetics and implications of widespread Internet use. For example, a number of artists have started "surf clubs," group artist blogs where artists surf the Internet for images and video, alter the data in some way, and then re-post the material. Here, the art not only takes popular culture and mass media as its source material, but displays that art in a mass media venue.
- "The Great American Thing"; Wanda Corn; 1999
- "Pop Art and Vernacular Culture"; Kobena Mercer, ed.; 2007
- L Magazine: "So You Want to Join a Surf Club"
- Photo Credit Duck in the bath tub image by phillips4 from Fotolia.com
Positive Effects of American Pop Culture
Michael Jackson. "Star Wars." "Dallas." America has given all these to the world, or rather, sold them to an enormous international market...