… Pop proposed that subjectivity had surfaced into the world, with the psychological interiorities of bourgeois selfhood now confused with the everyday exteriorities of consumerist life.
… in this shift in role, a new project also emerges: to treat the artistic image as a mimetic probe to explore this given matrix of cultural languages — to take apart the clichés of celebrity and commodity, to see how they work (that is, how they have transformed personhood and objecthood alike), and to put them back together with differences …
This is from The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha by Hal Foster (2012):
… To be sure, Pop puts painting under pressure — mostly in order to register the effects of consumer culture at large (glossy magazines, ads, iconic movie images, blurry television screens, and so on) — but even as it does so, it sometimes looks back to the tradition of the tableau. And in this interplay of low and high, Pop remains in touch with “the painting of modern life,” defined a century before by Charles Baudelaire as an art that strives “to distill the eternal from the transitory.” On the one hand, at the moment of Pop, mass media seemed to trump artistic mediums, and Pop suggests that almost anything can be reformatted as an image and shuttled across various modes of presentation. On the other hand, Pop resists any teleology of media (as promoted by Marshall McLuhan, for whom the fate of a medium like radio was to become the content of a subsequent medium like television) and uses painting to reflect on the transformation wrought on both popular culture and fine art by photography, film, television, and so on. Thus, at a time when painting seemed to be overturned not only in mass culture but also in avant-garde art (already in Happenings, Fluxus, and Nouveau Réalisme, and soon in Minimalism, Conceptual art, and Arte Povera), painting returned in the most impressive examples of Pop, almost as a meta-art, able to assimilate some media effects and to reflect on others precisely because of its relative distance from them.
… As is often said, the portrayed subject in this art tends to be superficial, even flat, psychologically as well as physically. The comic-book figures of Lichtenstein are the chief case in point, but hardly the only one, and this blank pose is often adopted in Pop personae, too: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” the great Pop cipher claimed in a famous remark, “just look at the surfaces of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” This interest in the superficial, the banal, and the neutral, which is also strong in Richter and Ruscha, is not merely an aesthetic reaction to the deep subjectivity still encoded in residual forms of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Like much literature and criticism of the time (the first novels of J.G. Ballard, for example), Pop proposed that subjectivity had surfaced into the world, with the psychological interiorities of bourgeois selfhood now confused with the everyday exteriorities of consumerist life. For all its emphasis on surfaces, however, Pop still registers the subjective (even, I argue, the traumatic), and perhaps nowhere more so than in its manifold moves to suspend the subjective: not only in its persistent use of inexpressive gestures and neutral styles, of banal motifs and stupid photos, but also in its mimetic exacerbation of a mass culture calculated to manipulate the subject, which was once understood to be autonomous. As a result, Pop art often suggests paradoxical structures of feeling, looking, and meaning: an affect that is flat one moment and intense the next, a gaze that is deadpan at times and desirous at others; a significance that seems all but absent at first glance and superabundant a second later, with the viewer positioned as a blank scanner one moment and a frenetic iconographer the next.
Andy Warhol, Double Elvis
… in its reworking of image culture, Pop suggests a shift in the function of the artist: the artist neither as a romantic creator nor as a rationalist engineer (many prewar modernists divided along these lines) but as a trained designer (Hamilton and Lichtenstein once worked as draftsmen, Warhol as an illustrator, and Ruscha as a graphic designer). And in this shift in role, a new project also emerges: to treat the artistic image as a mimetic probe to explore this given matrix of cultural languages — to take apart the clichés of celebrity and commodity, to see how they work (that is, how they have transformed personhood and objecthood alike), and to put them back together with differences that (as Lichtenstein once put it) do not appear “great” but might yet be “crucial.” Implicit here, too, is that this capacity might extend to the viewer — that homo imago is not simply subject to cultural representations, but that, for better and worse, we are all codesigners of our images, each of us (as Hamilton once remarked) “a specialist in the look of things.”
… Pop exposes a general drive not only to pictorialize everything but also to fetishize the images that result, that is, to invest them with a powerful life of their own. Such is the theory of consumer capitalism that Pop implies: its political economy depends on a compounding of sexual, commodity, and semiotic fetishisms, a “super-fetishism” in which the making of products, images, and signs becomes evermore obscure while our investment in these phantoms becomes evermore intense.
Pop, then, points to a modernity raised to a second degree with the capitalist expansion of the postwar period, and this book highlights aspects of this demonstration. If, for Baudelaire and his followers, modernity was a wondrous fiction to celebrate, it was also a terrible myth to interrogate, and often the great painters of modern life — from Manet to my Pop five — are its greatest dialecticians: they are able to celebrate and to interrogate its effects in turn.
… I look back at the first Pop Age in part to highlight certain tendencies in our present condition. [ ... ] … if Banham showed the creators of modern architecture to be too charmed by instrumental reason (“form follows function”), and we see the stars of Pop art as too seduced by media culture (“it’s a global village”), what might our own blind spots be?