top of page

Uni Archive: Pop Artists and The American Dream

Written circa 2008, first year uni – I spelled the marker’s name wrong on my cover sheet (it didn't go down well) so it’s a miracle it scored as high as it did.. then again in the original version I also misspelled Wesselmann’s name throughout and he never seemed to pick up on that.. apart from that, it's otherwise unedited (warts and all) – typed from a hard copy again so no footnotes, see references – cover image Great American Nude #44, Tom Wesselmann (1963)

The New Frontier: Pop Artists and the American Dream

At the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, John F. Kennedy stated in his acceptance speech that “we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier – the frontier of the 1960s… Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of sports and science, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus… But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier.” According to cultural critic Marshall McLuhan, America was changing “from mechanical to electronic culture.” The context of America and its people was changing, and so were their desires – the nature of the American Dream itself was changing. This essay will discuss the roles that technology, consumerism and identity played in the way that American Pop artists during the 1960s reflected or commented on the social changes and the American Dream in their works.

Ferrer suggests that “the assassination of John F. Kennedy was the first national event in which television played a central role in giving viewers a sense of immediate, personal participation.” Andy Warhol, among other artists, produced prints about Kennedy’s assassination, but rather than focusing entirely on the actual event, Ferrer suggests that he “cast a sceptical eye on the underlying themes of voyeurism and manipulation” raised by the role that television played in the spectacle of Kennedy’s death. Since the assassination “we have seen how a gripping narrative played out in real time has resulted in the conflation of direct experience with the televised image of an event, whose outcome the viewer is incapable of influencing or resolving. For the spectator this creates a curious kind of experiential limbo characterised by an obsessive repetition of images which often becomes iconic in the popular imagination but diminish in meaning.” The television was creating a new popular imagery, “it was in this era that television’s live quality, its insistent repetition of images, and its daily transmission of events…mobilised a generation of youth into social action.” Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Bruce Conner, Walace Berman, Tom Wesselmann and Nam June Paik referred to television in their artworks, mostly in collage, such as Berman’s Papa’s got a brand new bag, 1964, and Wesselmann’s Great Americal Nude #27 (1962). The inclusion of popular, mass-broadcasted images taken directly from TV screens seems to be a direct reference to the media and its effect on society at the time, its inclusion in paintings and collages emphasising the flatness of the broadcasted image itself. However, a still image directly contradicts the nature of television as a media, a problem that Wesselmann solved by pioneering his own unique way to represent television as it really was. Still Life #28, 1963, is a 122 x 152cm acrylic and collage on board – with a working television inset. Wesselmann makes direct references to American nationalism (the growing influence of which also helped shape the American Dream), with a colour scheme dominated by red, white and blue, stars and stripes, as well as a presidential portrait hanging on the wall. On the table sits the television, along with two bottles of Ballantine Ale (a reference to Johns’ Painted Bronze of 1960). Next to the Ale is a fruit still life, another reference to high art – in this case to Cézanne. Perhaps the placement of the TV among the high art pieces is a suggestion that television is in itself a form of art, or perhaps it suggests that art has been tainted or lowered by the constant barrage of popular images beamed into the home. American artists themselves were divided over the television and the social effects of this new technology. “Some Neo-Dada artists, such as Nam Jun Paik and Wolf Vostell, sought through their work to make viewers conscious of what they regarded as the oppressive model of viewing embodied by the passive practice of watching television…” In contrast to this, the work of some artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol attempted to “reconnect art and life by engaging with the mass media”, and their ideas were not politically motivated at all. “If the concept of a utopia catalyzed by technology was still sustainable in the post-World War II era, it was the utopia formulated not by Marxist philosophy, but by figures such as McLuhan, who anticipated the emergence of a “global village” linked together in harmony through electronic mediums of communication such as television.” Pop Art was in many respects Media Art, with many artists exploring the media and the social conditions of the period, presenting the viewer with an “artificial, souped-up image of life fabricated by the media.”

Warhol described the person who consumed the images broadcast via advertising and television as being “made up from what he’s seen… You don’t have to read anymore. Books will go out, television will stay… and that is why people are really becoming plastic; they are just fed things and formed and the people who can give things back are considered very talented.” Perhaps this is the point Wesselmann’s Still Life #28 tries to convey, that with the advent of new technologies and new methods of mass broadcasting images, the average American becomes a product of the images they consume. Americans were now consumers, and the American Dream was now focused on consumption, materialism and ownership. Still Life #30 (1963) contains a collage of many popular images – not only fine art, in the Picasso framed above the fridge, but in images of consumption, the massive amounts of food on the table, the appliances in the kitchen – all images sold or broadcast through the new technology available to producers of goods. This Americanized consumerism was also explored by Warhol, described by James as “the most profoundly ‘American’ [Pop artist]. Most of the subjects of his paintings from the early 1960s were immediately identifiable as being American: dollar bills, Coca-Cola bottles, Campbell’s soup cans, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy.” Works by Warhol such as Marilyn (1967), Four Coloured Campbell’s Soup Cans (1965) and White Brillo Boxes (1964) have been read differently by different historians: James claims that “although he always denied that he was creating a social commentary in his art, it is safe to assume that the artist was making a conceptual equivalence between a celebrity such as Marilyn Monroe and commercial products such as a can of soup or a bottle of Coca-Cola… disposable commodities intended for mass consumption.” This reading is made despite Warhol himself saying “I feel I represent the U.S. in my art, but I’m not a social critic, I just paint those objects…because those are the objects I know best. I’m not trying to criticise the U.S. in any way…” Sundell reinforces Warhol’s claims, suggesting that his works exploit mimicry rather than originality. She proposes that he does not add “a single trace of the artist’s hand.” Sundell also suggests that it is his mimicry of common commercial objects that renders “suspect that which we think is most familiar, from the brand-name goods we consume daily to our cherished belief in art’s originality.” Warhol himself seemed to be an embodiment of Pop Art: “The archetypical Pop artist appeared to accept the falseness to life of such iconic representations, [i.e. Television/Popular images] thus celebrating, however ironically, their very meretriciousness and vapidity.” Indeed, James suggests that Warhol’s own image, “instantly recongisable to millions of people who never went to art galleries or museums” was itself part of popular culture – Warhol himself claiming that he even shared the flatness and superficiality of consumerism and Pop culture: “If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface. There’s nothing behind it.”

Loss of identity, some argue, was another consequence of the commercialism and technological improvements of the 1960s, and had an influence of its own on the American Dream. Tom Wesselmann’s works, with their “deadpan humour” are also perceived by some historians to be a politicised attack on the growth of consumerism and subsequent loss of identity during this period. It is argued that not only the kitsch furnishings and representation of gross over-consumption of mainly American products are part of this criticism, but also his representations of human figures, particularly females. Bathtub Nude #3 (1963) is another mixed media featuring real curtains, mats, towels, door, switch and basket, but with an exaggeratedly flat and naïve female nude. James claims that representations of average people are rarely found in Pop Art, “and when human figures are present, they tend to be flattened and dehumanised.” “Wesselmann’s women were, in Lawrence Alloway’s words, ‘blank schemata animated only at the erogenous zones of the mouth, nipple and groin.'” While some believe these faceless nudes to be critical of mass consumption, Baigell suggests that lack of identity is merely a description of the “post-modern mentality… In that the self vanishes fully into a stage of relatedness. One ceases to believe ni a self independent of the relations in which he or she is embedded.” Baigell also uses this to clarify Warhol’s self-proclaimed shallowness, by using Resiman’s notion of the other-directed person: “The other-directed person is, in a sense, at home everywhere and nowehere, capable of a rapid if sometimes superficial intimacy with and to everyone.”

Pop Art explored not only the flat, falseness of popular imagery, but of society itself and those individuals within it. Wesselmann represented the American domestic sphere, as well as not only those who occupied that space, but also their material aspirations to emphasise their own flatness and vapidity as well as that of their ‘American Dream’. Warhol’s works, however, appear to be much less policiticsed (although individual readings differ), and seem merely to be affectionate depictions of everyday American life; representations of the products (whether they be celebrities or objects) which were produced for mass consumption. Although his works were considered by some to be a “violation of the elitist precinct of art by the commercial and artificial environment” they were nonetheless relevant and to some extent accurate depictions of the culture he lived in – untainted by artistic originality. Both artists were heavily influenced by the latest technologies available to the average American consumer, with the television playing an important role in works of varying media, as well as the images it broadcast, with “power [coming] to reside more and more insistently in the image of an event rather than the experience.” The artists dealt with the loss of identity caused by this mass production and conformism in different ways, and each can be argued to have been for or against these ideals. Most importantly, these artists depicted the social conditions during the period. According to the images produced by Pop artists, the American Dream (a product of increasing nationalism within the U.S.), had almost become a shopping list, with representations of products designed for mass consumption flooding popular culture, and the art produced by those experiencing it.


Baigell, Matthew, Artist and Identity in the Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001

Farmer, John Alan, The New Frontier: Art and Television, Texas: Austin Museum of Art, 2000

James, Jamie, Pop Art, London: Phaidon Press, 1996

Seitz, William C., Art in the Age of Aquarius 1955-1970, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992

Sundell, Margaret, From Pop to Now: Selections from the Sonnabend Collection, New York: The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, 2002

2 views0 comments


bottom of page