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The Politics of Pop Art

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Do you agree that Pop art is a critique of the values of post-War urban culture in the United States or is there some validity in the arguments that suggest that Pop art is another representation of profit-based propaganda? Select works from two or three artists to examine this question.

Pop art was born out of the needs of Post-war America and its capitalist driven economy, where consumption was key and everything was a commodity that had to be readily available. The diversity within the movement arose from how the Pop artists approached this culture of post-war America, whether it was through parody, fetishization, or just pure replication; as well as what aspects of the culture they chose to reflect on. The sheer diversity of themes and styles covered by the various pop artists means that one cannot be too reductive when analysing this art movement. It is therefore with this in mind that this essay will examine just two Pop artists, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, to examine both artists’ use of commercial methods teamed with images borrowed from popular culture and how they established their own unique technique and style to reflect on the capitalist culture rising in America.

Post-war America was a time of great growth and development, as America moved into a position of political and economic leadership, newfound pride in the American way of life and American culture flourished. The economic boom meant newfound freedom for Americans, as having money and freely spending it became a primary aspect of the American identity. However, with this prosperity came great pressure by the government on the people of America to continue their high consumption patterns to maintain the economic growth in the country. Thus it was to be that consumerism, commercialism and the celebrity were to define the general post-war climate within America, and it was these values that Pop artists chose to reflect on in their works.

Pop Art came about to create a ‘communion’ between the worlds of high art and the mass media. As explained by art critic Hilton Kramer, “Pop art is natural in a prosperous society, people want all the prerogatives of education without going to the trouble of being educated”. As Kramer suggests, Pop art took away the exclusivity of the art world, enabling it to be accessible by anyone and everyone. America was introduced to an art form that was not only completely accessible and easy to digest, but was absolutely American through its borrowing of commercial content, and thus relevant to their everyday lives.

There are certain points of comparison that can be made between Pop art and advertising; not only though their shared style of ‘fetishizing’ the everyday commodity, but also through their shared assumption that the viewer will take what they are seeing at face value. It is of the belief of some critics that Pop artists used publicity as their ‘method of methods’ to turn ordinary items into ‘magnificent images’ worthy of worship. And just like advertising, pop art worked through this method to project a certain image onto their viewer that would motivate actions of spending and consumption within them. Therein lies the support for the argument that Pop art, may indeed be read as a form of propaganda. The fact that Pop art largely dealt with images taken directly from popular culture affirmed their easy adaption into commonplace culture as the work was easy to view and highly accessible; as argued by Kusput, “Pop Art assures itself of a hold on the American public, for its audience is potentially anyone who wittingly or unwittingly attends to advertising and publicity.” The sheer availability and accessibility of Pop art meant that Pop artists were able to use their works to get their message across quickly and seamlessly, to highlight to the world the seemingly booming and highly successful culture in America at the time as well as motivate its viewers to maintain their high-spending lifestyle to sustain their successful economy.

The whole argument for the propagandistic purposes of Pop art lies heavily in the viewer and their reaction to the piece of work. As Kusput explains, ‘both advertising and Pop art prey on the individual weakness for easy solutions carried by their vulnerability’, but the power and even the notion of the art work lies in the mind of the viewer and how they decide to view the work. If the viewer, like Kusput suggests, takes Pop art at face value, and no more, then the piece has served its propagandistic purposes. But once the viewer realises, by personal recognition – by dialogue with its images- the banality of what the images represent, much like advertising, this power is surely lost.

In both Tom Wesselmann and Andy Warhol’s works one can sense a definite attempt to deter any dialogue between their art works and their viewers. Both artists relied heavily on borrowing images from popular culture and transforming them with as little change as possible; Wesselmann through his collage process and Warhol his silk-screening. The emphasis on hiding any evidence of the artist’s handwork or own subjective thoughts is a common element in Pop art, and it is through this lack of transformation that the dialogue between the viewer and artwork is ceased. It is thus so, that the lack of transformation of pop culture images, which leads to minimal commentary by the artist lends to the idea that these artists were in fact creating works of propaganda rather than lending to the viewer any important comment or critique.

Alongside the growing consumerist society that was developing in America, the buying and selling of contemporary art, and especially of American art, was for the first time becoming big business in New York. “Instead of being a source of disgrace,” said critic Hilton Kramer, “to be commercial these days is to be fashionable”. Andy Warhol was well aware of the rising trend in commodification of art that was occurring in America, and he embraced the commercial ethic of the new age. Warhol took images with wide circulation – whether it was images of politicians, mass produced products, celebrities or even money – images that were so familiar that they seemed commonplace, and it was through the ‘fetishization’ of these everyday images by placing them in an art context that enabled Pop artist such as Warhol, to create works that were guaranteed to be popular and to sell.

Plate 3. Andy Warhol, Soup Cans, 1962
Plate 3. Andy Warhol, Soup Cans, 1962
Plate 2. Andy Warhol, 192 One-Dollar Bills, 1962
Plate 2. Andy Warhol, 192 One-Dollar Bills, 1962
It is Warhol’s use of rich irony in his dollar bill paintings that raises attention to the status of art itself as a mere commodity. In 192 One-Dollar Bills, (Plate 2) Warhol used the photo-mechanical process of silk screen printing to represent rows of dollar bills, blandly, but shockingly making light of the monetary values of art that other artists of the time felt just as passionately about but preferred not to admit publicly. A similar work by Warhol that also used his silk-screening method is Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans, (See Plate 3). Made in the same year as 192 One-Dollar Bills, Soup Cans is a work that plays off similar ideas of blandness through repetition. Warhol chose Campbell’s soup cans as an icon as it was a perfect representation of the mass-produced consumerist society of America of the time; His Soup Cans was an icon that was recognised by all of America and amplified the power of a strong fixed package design and brand name image.

Through his use of the silk-screen process, Warhol was able to provide a bald and immediate method for appropriating an image, which enabled the artist to remove any traces of personality in the artwork. This in effect works to create a sense of jarring within the dialogue with the viewer, as the lack of transformation by the artist leaves very little room for comment or critique by the artist.

As explained by Kusput, “Pop art loosens the reflexes of the spectator so that he will take to the picture without resistance before his critical awareness begins to function (…) That is, the attempt to sell the product before its character can be carefully questioned”. The apparent easiness of these images do seem to work to take the viewer off-guard leaving very little to be thought or questioned. The repetition of the items has an effect similar to that of advertising, leaving the image of the dollar bill, or the Campbell soup can embedded in the viewer’s mind, so that later on this image will be recalled and will motivate the action predisposed by the artist. It is thus in this sense there does seem to be some validity that this art work may be a representation of profit-based propaganda, infuses the concept of materialism and consumerism into the viewer without them being fully aware of the process.

Tom Wesselmann fetichized the European artistic tradition of the sill life and reclining nude through his works, seeking to “update and localise it” to invoke the cultural environment of post-war America. Wesselmann presented the viewer with an idyllic representation of the American lifestyle be it through his Great American Nude series of various still life works, he represented Post-war America as he wanted it to be seen by the world – bountiful, prosperous and with everything you could ever need being ever-available. It was through the process of glamourizing his subjects that Wesselmann was able to make his still life and nude works both readily available and highly appealing to his viewers, mirroring the characteristics of advertisements.

Regardless of whether you decide to read his works as a celebration or a critique of the culture of the time, the sheer exaggeration depicted within Wesselmann’s works lends to this sense of propaganda as his works embellish the lifestyle of America to reflect to the world the economic success and prosperity of America at the time.

Plate 4. Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #24, 1962
Plate 4. Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #24, 1962
Even as Americans moved up the economic ladder, they still retained the habits of conformist buying and the consumer preferences of the mass middle, and this trend is reflected in Wesselmann’s Still Life series. Whilst Wesselmann’s Still Life series has clear connections to the European still life tradition, the artist has ‘Americanised’ this art form for his own purposes through the choice of goods as well as the colour palette (See plate 4). The doctrine of capitalism, which instilled the “buy buy buy” mentality within Americans to keep their economy booming, is reflected simply but clearly through Wesselmann’s still life series.

Plate 5. Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #30, 1963
Plate 5. Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #30, 1963
Through the collage process, works such as Sill Life #30 (See Plate 5) Wesselmann depicts a typical middle-class American home with the table overflowing with goods giving evidence of agricultural abundance, factory productivity, and a thriving consumer economy. One can gather a sense of parody within Wesselmann’s still life series through the excessive use of clichés, absurd pastiches, and ironic advertising cut-outs, as well as through the sheer excessive overload of products. It can be hard to read the tone of these works, whilst critics such as Sandra Stich believe that an upbeat Americanism prevails, in his still life works, one cannot be too sure if the artist has intended to merely celebrate the lifestyle, or if he never intended to make a comment at all and created the works with the propagandistic purpose of showing the rest of the world America’s economic success.

Plate 5. Tom Wesselmann, Great American Nude #26, 1962
Plate 5. Tom Wesselmann, Great American Nude #26, 1962
In his Great American Nude series, Wesselmann touches on similar themes of consumption, but rather than examining the literal products consumed, Wesselmann was exploring the current liberalisation of America, which had led to the commodification of the female nude. In Great American Nude #26 (Plate 6) the viewer is presented with an anonymous nude, as were all of Wesselmann’s nudes in his series, with a variety of commercial trappings in the surrounding environment. Just like the cake and the Coca-Cola, the female is sweet, easily available, quickly consumed and just as quickly disposed of. In all of his works within the series, Wesselmann made it clear that the female depicted was faceless and thus anonymous, meaning that she could be anyone, and that it really didn't matter who she was.

Plate 6. Tom Wesselmann, Great American Nude #24, 1962
Plate 6. Tom Wesselmann, Great American Nude #24, 1962
Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series makes evident light of the commodity society that American at the time had transformed into, as the capitalist culture was so very disconnected from humanity due to its emphasis on business and consumption, emphasised through the contrast between the body of the nude and its commercial surroundings (Plate 6). Unlike his still life works, which are a lot more neutral and have undergone significantly less transformation from their original source, one can read more of a critique from Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series. The process of de-personalising the nude and placing it in a commercial setting has the dual effect of being both amusing and light but at the same time depressing as it calls to light the European tradition of the objectification of the female nude as an object for men to consume, and makes the viewer realise that this tradition is no different today, and women are still just as objectified.

Wesselmann’s works are interesting due to the difficulty in reading what the artist was truly trying to say through his works, but from the evidence established it appears that whilst both series of works examined the consumptive habits of post-war America, the two approaches were vastly different. Similar to Warhol’s 192 One-Dollar Bills and Soup Cans, Wesselmann’s still life works instil in the viewer a sense of need to consume and obtain this perfect lifestyle, and this could be read as propaganda. On the other hand, the de-humanisation of the female nude in Wesselmann’s great American Nude series carries too many connotations and emotions for there not to be an opening of dialogue between the artist and the viewer, and thus, it could be argued that the artist was trying to form his own critique through these works.

In conclusion, from the evidence presented it is clear that there is support for the argument that Pop art could be read as a representation of propaganda, through its lack of transformation of popular images to instil motivation to consumer and buy within the viewer. On the other hand, the diversity of the movement lends to the point that this argument cannot be translated to all works by all artists from the movement, with the case in point being Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series, where a critique on the values of America of the time is formed by the artist within these works.


Adorno, Theodor W., and E. F. N. Jephcott. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. London: Verso, 2005. Print.

Alloway, Lawrence. "Popular Culture and Pop Art." Studio International (1969): 17-21. Print.

Benchley, Peter. "The Story of Pop! What It Is and How It Came to Be." Newsweek 25 Apr. 1966: n. pag. The Lichtenstein Foundation. Web. 24 May 2013. <>.

Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. New York: Vintage, 1973. Print.

Fairbrother, Trevor J. "An Interview with Tom Wesselmann/Slim Stealingworth." Arts Magazine 56, May 1982: 137. Print.

Halberstam, David. The Powers That Be. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2000. Print.

Johnson, Ellen H. American Artists on Art: From 1940-1980. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1982. Print.

Kusput, D. B., 1976, ‘Pop Art: A Reactionary Realism’, Art Journal, vol. 36, pp. 31-38.

Leslie, Richard. Pop Art: A New Generation of Style. New York, NY: Todtri, 1997. Print.

Lippard, Lucy R., Lawrence Alloway, Nancy Marmer, and Nicolas Calas. Pop Art. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1985. Print.

Livingstone, Marco. Pop Art: A Continuing History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000. Print.

McCarthy, David. "Tom Wesselmann and the Americanization of the Nude, 1961-1963."American Art 4.3/4 (1990): 102-27. Print.

Pride, Mike. "Warhol (on Politics)." Concord Monitor [Concord] 25 Sept. 2008: n. pag. Print.

Stich, Sidra. Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s & '60s. Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, 1987. Print.

Weekes, Julia Ann. "Warhol's Pop Politics." Smithsonian Magazine. N.p., 31 Oct. 2008. Web. 27 May 2013.

[ 1 ]. Stich, Sidra. Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s & '60s. (Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley), 1987.
[ 2 ]. During the Eisenhower administration, the government even promoted spending through a mass advertising campaign aimed at staving off a recession, promoting slogans like, “Buy, buy, buy, It’s your patriotic duty”.
[ 3 ]. Stich, Sidra. Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s & '60s. (Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley), 1987.
[ 4 ]. Kusput, D. B., 1976, ‘Pop Art: A Reactionary Realism’, Art Journal, vol. 36.
[ 5 ]. Benchley, Peter. "The Story of Pop! What It Is and How It Came to Be." Newsweek 25 Apr. 1966: n. pag. The Lichtenstein Foundation. Web. 24 May 2013. .
[ 6 ]. Prior to the ascent of Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism was the art movement that was dominating post-war America, however it did not take long for the emotional expression, especially the angst-laden mood that typified Abstract Expressionism to be forsaken in favour of an impersonal mode allied with mass merchandising and mass media
[ 7 ]. Kusput, D. B., 1976, ‘Pop Art: A Reactionary Realism’, Art Journal, vol. 36.
[ 8 ]. Ibid.
[ 9 ]. Ibid., pg. 34.
[ 10 ]. Kusput, D. B., 1976, ‘Pop Art: A Reactionary Realism’, Art Journal, vol. 36.
[ 11 ]. As Jacques Ellul explains, “Propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins”
[ 12 ]. Livingstone, Marco. Pop Art: A Continuing History. (London: Thames & Hudson), 2000, pg 115.
[ 13 ]. Benchley, Peter. "The Story of Pop! What It Is and How It Came to Be." Newsweek 25 Apr. 1966: n. pag. The Lichtenstein Foundation. Web. 24 May 2013. .
[ 14 ]. As Mike Pride explained, part of what made Warhol’s work so successful was the way it reflected American culture back at the people who saw it
[ 15 ]. Stich, Sidra. Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s & '60s. (Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley), 1987, pg. 90.
[ 16 ]. Livingstone, Marco. Pop Art: A Continuing History. (London: Thames & Hudson), 2000, pg 116.
[ 17 ]. Kusput, D. B., 1976, ‘Pop Art: A Reactionary Realism’, Art Journal, vol. 36.
[ 18 ]. McCarthy, David. "Tom Wesselmann and the Americanization of the Nude, 1961-1963."American Art 4.3/4 (1990), pg 103
[ 19 ]. Stich, Sidra. Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s & '60s. (Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley), 1987, pg. 107
[ 20 ]. Stich, Sidra. Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the '50s & '60s. (Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley), 1987, pg. 107
[ 21 ]. Ibid., pg. 107
[ 22 ]. Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series came about at a time where the environment in America was shaped by the liberalizing of obscenity laws, the rise of success of Playboy and other men’s magazines, the legalization of oral contraceptives as well as the use of sex in advertising.
[ 23 ]. McCarthy, David. "Tom Wesselmann and the Americanization of the Nude, 1961-1963."American Art 4.3/4 (1990), pg. 103.

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