Discovering What is Popular Culture Through Contemporary Art
It is a string of symbols, specific narratives, discourses, artifacts and objects that is never to be untangled. Popular culture is a situation of constantly fluctuating interaction between various narratives, actors and practices. It is something that exists in the shared discourse of contemporary globalized culture, seemingly lingering outside of the reach of minds that are constantly chasing its meaning, yet almost primordially already deeply influenced by it.
Trying to understand what is popular culture seems to be an endeavor that can never reach its purpose. There are only so many aspects one can grasp at a time, unsure if all characteristics are dwelled upon, yet certain that some will be left out. We will try to look at some of the most significant theoretical frameworks needed to only start to unravel this puzzle, followed by discourses which have emerged as the most significant ones, ever since this enigma of shared reality started encompassing our world.
With this in mind, we will try to juxtapose these approaches and relevant concepts with some of the most iconic examples of contemporary art practice in order to identify examples that might lead to answers. Which are the main elements that will lead us on a path of understanding popular culture? Are these elements present in the practice of the public? What is active interpretation? What is the place of a contemporary artists within the realm of popular culture? What is the significance of pop culture symbols and which forms do they take? What are the most important discourses that emerged in the last five decades, which determined the significance of popular culture? How does popular culture affect our existence?
Starting to Understand Popular Culture
What is popular culture? A popular culture definition can be a subject of a never-ending public and academic discourse. Regarded as the accumulation of different cultural products that are consumed by the majority of a society’s population, popular culture is characterized by the mass accessibility and appeal. Coined in the 19th century, the term was traditionally associated with the taste of lower and uneducated classes as opposed to the official culture of the upper class. At the beginning and all through the first half of the 20th century, mass culture was perceived in two different, but equally demeaning ways. Leftwing theoreticians saw it as something produced from the above, an attempt to passivize subordinate classes. On the other hand, conservative school of thought saw the mass culture as a vehicle of aesthetic, stylistic and even ethic degradation of (their) elite culture. Perhaps the critics didn’t understand that popular culture consumed by the masses was the inseparable companion of the emerging industrial world and that soon both approaches would be proven wrong. As it became clear that the masses were not passive recipients of the products and practices from the mass culture, but quite engaged consumers and creators that shaped their own cultural world, the field of popular culture became an arena for rebellion against the interests of dominant groups and against their practices of cultural patronizing. Thus, the attempt to define popular culture necessarily included the understandings of oscillations between the dichotomy control-resistance. In that moment, popular culture became intrinsically political as much as aesthetical, a property that would define it until the present day.
After the World War II, different innovations in mass media led to significant cultural and social changes and popular culture began to take new forms and a much wider reach. In a hardly separable flux of influences and inspiration, popular culture shaped and was shaped by everything that was brought by new technologies, new media and the emerging consumer society. The meaning of popular culture began to merge with the practices of the everyday and by rejecting the cultural oppression coming from the official narratives, the realm of popular began including creators and consumers regardless of their class, gender or race. The firm division between art, lower and higher culture had blurred, and all these notions became merged into one comprehensive term “culture”, covering fields of society, politics, economy and art that have been previously regarded as separate.
The Importance of Audience and Active Interpretation
Popular culture reflects both everyday life with all its pleasures and limitations and constitutes the public primarily as a creative audience. During the 1980s and 1990s, the new wave of audience research was employed within communications and cultural studies to explore the way meaning was negotiated and constructed. It was based on the reception theory that suggested that a literal text is not passively accepted, but that the reader can construct their own meaning based on their cultural background. Apart from the written language, cultural studies use the concept of text to also designate television programs, films, photographs, and anything else that communicates ideas, values and interests. In this way, texts of culture studies are comprised of all the meaningful artifacts of culture. The audience analysis emphasized the diversity of responses to a given popular culture artifact through exploration of active choices, uses, and interpretations made of popular cultural texts. As a qualitative and ethnographic method, this analysis tries to isolate variables like region, race, ethnicity, age, gender and income and observe the ways in which different social groups construct different meanings for the same text. The audience can be active, constantly filtering or resisting content, or passive, complying and vulnerable. The audience analysis can be traced back to the work done by the British sociologist Stuart Hall and his new proposed model of mass communication. Emphasizing the importance of active interpretation within relevant codes, his model suggested that the same event can be encoded in more than one way, that the message contains more than one possible reading and that the understanding the message can be a problematic process. The work of Stuart Hall and the ethnographic turn have significantly contributed to our understanding of the processes of interpretation and important relationships between media texts and the production of identity.
The Textual Analysis
The method of textual analysis has been widely applied in humanities and social sciences generally, and it has played an important role in cultural studies. Unlike the audience analysis, the textual analysis uses the perspective of the author of the „text“. Interpretative and content analysis are two main forms of the textual analysis of popular culture artifacts. Encompassing semiotics, rhetorical analysis, ideological analysis, and psychoanalytical approaches, among many others, interpretative textual analyses aims to go beyond the surface meanings and explore more implicit societal meaning. In this way, culture is perceived as a narrative or storytelling process where particular „texts“ or „cultural artifacts“ link themselves to larger stories within a society, participating in the construction of identities of those who use them. On the other hand, content analysis is a more quantitative approach where qualitative data from the text evaluation can be converted into quantitative data that reflects the salient concerns of that particular discourse. It can be very valuable when linked to qualitative kinds of analysis which are usually somewhat subjective observations. Professor Jeff Lewis argued that textual study is the most complex and difficult heuristic method that requires both powerful interceptive skills and a subtle conception of politics and context. Later on, textual analysis within the cultural studies framework evolved towards an emphasis on reception studies increasingly.
The Discourse Analysis
Broadly, the discourse analysis could be defined as the study of the socially determined utilization of language in any medium and its effects on the way it shapes and instructs the world around us. It is a complex process that analyzes the language beyond the sentence, taking into account all levels of the text and context, as well as the wider cultural background. The critical discourse analysis is able to provide the understanding, skills, and tools by which we can demonstrate the place of language in the construction, constitution, and regulation of the societal world. The critical discourse analysis has been examining formal media such as newspapers and oral, written and visual political discourse, but is also applied to the analysis of popular culture texts. The core case of cultural studies is that language does not mirror an independent object world but constructs and constitutes it. It is said that culture works as a language and identities, as a central category of cultural studies of the 1990s, are held to be discursive constructions. Our thinking and our telling of experiences are structured by text-mediated discourses. Many discussions of popular culture have been structured by considerations of power, class, and gender. The assumptions underlying discourses on popular culture, such as assumptions concerning class and culture, the role of women, or authenticity and cultural doctrine, raise issues which should be examined critically in current discussions of popular culture.
Gender, Sexuality and Feminism
Gender has always been one of the strongest aspects of the human notion of identity. From the old pre-Judeo-Christian ideas of binary gender, of two genders determined by sex which, for one reason or another, are in constant opposition and conflict, to the more contemporary definitions that break the concept into an entire spectrum of identities – it has always been something people strongly felt about. As such, it has also been an ideal vehicle for a multitude of artists to engage in discussions with the audience via their works. More often than not, how culture is perceived, and how it is created, is based on gender, on the way the artist sees him or herself and feels the world around them and on the way the audience reacts to what they’re presented with – each through the lense of their own set of expectations.
Having, in a way, been treated as second-rate citizens in many societies, women have only fairly recently (about a century or so ago) won their rightful place in the art world and given a voice. Coinciding with, and mostly being a product of the rise of feminism, this has given the movement a powerful outlet for action as well as creativity. Thus, the art world has given us plenty of empowered, determined, and immensely creative women who are considered cultural as well as feminist icons of today. A biographical film on Frida Kahlo has made her fascinating body of work known to the masses, while Marina Abramovic became a household name even outside of the art circles after a performance piece inspired by her work appeared on the globally popular TV show Sex and the City. Such cross-pollination of “high” and popular culture created a full circle, encompassing entertainment, philosophy, the arts, social activism, politics and beyond.
Sexuality as an Inseparable Component of Popular Culture
Sexuality has always been no less of a hot topic than gender. Depending on the cultural, religious, and moral climate, it was more or less an an allegory in art. For centuries thinly veiled in mythological and allegorical subjects, the depiction of sexual themes became more and more bold, until Toulouse-Lautrec and later Egon Schiele started really taking down the barriers with un-idealized depictions of real-life situations of the more intimate kind. Further down the line, the roaring 1920’s and the hippie movement of the 1960’s brought with them two waves of liberation, the latter of which is often touted “the sexual revolution”. Fashion, with its idea of the modern, free-thinking flapper, and later science, with the invention of the birth-control pill, both contributed to sex and sexuality being viewed as something to be celebrated, rather than to be ashamed of. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, in the entertainment world, stars such as Madonna did their share of the work in deconstructing old, patriarchal notions of modesty. The arts may have been leading the way but it was popular (or rather mass culture) that really tore down most of the barriers. And while today some more radical creative minds still explore sexuality in a very raw manner, the theme seems to have lost some of its appeal due to its omnipresence in the media.
The Focus on the LGBT Community
LGBT topics, still a somewhat controversial topic across the globe, are possibly among the most discussed issues of our generation. Both popular culture as well as the more avant-garde sections of the arts mimic this in sync. Of course, homoerotic themes have been around for centuries, albeit under a deep cover of prejudice. Even though some pieces from the late Victorian era would nowadays be considered gay-themed (the canvases of Henry Scott Tuke immediately spring to mind), it was only in the late 60s and early 70s, hand in hand with the abovementioned sexual revolution, that the grip began to loosen and themes dealing with different kinds of love and sexuality could be treated publically. Lesbian art and its subject-matter began to appear in works of artists with a feminist stance and unabashed gay erotica (and sometimes pornography) was the core of the underground work of Tom of Finland. Some of the biggest names of 20th century art were, in fact, gay icons – Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, performance artist and Lucian Freud‘s muse Leigh Bowery, legendary portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz etc. Music icons such as David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, Annie Lennox and many more explored androgyny and ambiguous sexuality both in their public personas and their performance. More recently, in the 21st century, themes dealing with the new ways of looking at and expressing gender (along with the increased visibility of transgender individuals) are as present in galleries as they are in the tabloid press.
The HIV Pandemic and Beyond
On a more grim note, the HIV pandemic has been an ill-looking shadow to the otherwise positive and progressive aspects of the sexual revolution. It created a mass hysteria in the media and spread fear among the general population. Along with thousands of other lives, the disease took such avant-garde performers as Klaus Nomi and Leigh Bowery, as well as one of the biggest rock stars in the world, Freddie Mercury. It is no wonder then that the outbreak of HIV and its consequences made a shockwave through the art world, inspiring many artists to create new, moving, insightful, often warning images. Nicholas Nixon‘s portrait photographs of AIDS victims in the 1980’s captured with extreme realism the physical deterioration of the human body, making them a particularly poignant form of decay art. All this has, in a way, given sexual freedom a somewhat tarnished look, yet, as science continues to develop, we can only hope that HIV, along with many other diseases, will become a thing of the past. Whatever we were taught to believe, we now can see that our reality as a whole is a developing one, in a constant state of flux, and that some issues need to be readdressed over and over again – in politics, in the media, and the arts – before they are truly dealt with. The renewed need to stand up to racial prejudice and explore the causes of it is an obvious example of such unfinished business.
Race Vs Culture
Race, ethnicity and culture are some of the most crucial concepts not only in the field of sociology, but also in contemporary society. In its primary meaning, race is a classification of people according to their physical traits and geographic ancestry. If we think about it carefully, the notion of race plays an important role in everyday human contacts and outcomes of such seemingly routinized interactions. Similarly to race, the term ethnic group is another societal category which cannot be separated from the concept of culture. People who share the same ethnicity share common culture, including language, religion, customs, and history. It is important to underline that both ethnicity and race became socially constructed categories – they aren’t based simply on biological traits anymore. To put it clearly, it is not so much the biological differences that define racial groups, but rather how these groups have been treated throughout the history. In other words, how racial groups are defined is an ongoing and ever-changing social process.
There have been numberless disputes, conflicts and wars fought in the name of race and culture, usually fueled by discrimination between the two different parties. In it perhaps ingrained in the human nature to criticize and attack those who are different from us and label them with derogatory, unpleasant words. This is exactly how racism was born and still exists despite the fact that we’re part of the so-called highly civilized modern society. On the other hand, there are such luminous examples of the 20th century as The Black Arts Movement. When it comes to culture, cultural wars are the result of conflicting ideas on the moral code, beliefs and values, which makes them one of the omnipresent human issues. In a nutshell, the notion of race was originally based on physical traits while culture on various beliefs and values, but due to globalization, the processes of cultural and racial mixing have achieved complex outcomes. People of the same race adopted different cultures, while people with the same culture may belong to different races. This phenomenon of blurred lines between race and culture is prominent especially in the United States, the very epicenter of globalization and immigration.
Being Different in America
Racial and ethnic discrimination have been common in the United States ever since the colonial era and the slave era. White Americans were given exclusive privileges when it comes to education, voting rights and citizenships, while Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic and Latino-Americans suffered exclusion and various forms of racial and ethnical discrimination. Such conditions formally lasted from the 17th century until the 1960s and they are well-documented in various propaganda posters and documentary photographs. Racism reappears even in today’s popular culture, usually in the form of hate speech or discriminating visual materials.
As a natural response to various forms of social inequalities, anti-racism was born in the United States to promote the idea of an egalitarian society. By its very nature, anti-racism tends to promote the idea that racism is dangerous, socially pervasive and that it has to be completely eliminated for the sake of global welfare. Just like there have been numberless examples of racism in contemporary culture and arts, the same goes for anti-racism and famous people who have been promoting it. These supporters of egalitarian society come from the most versatile backgrounds, often related to popular culture, politics and sports and their work along with their personality and appearance got immortalized in the form of photographs, posters and memorable quotes. Let us have a look at some of the most iconic ones…
Muhammad Ali Portrayed by Neil Leifer
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” These are the famous words of Muhammad Ali, who refused to go to Vietnam War. As much as Muhammad Ali was known for his actions inside the ring, the same goes for his words and attitude. Ali was often photographed by Neil Leifer, famous American photographer and filmmaker known mainly for his work in the Time Inc. magazines.
Hasta la victoria siempre!
Che Guevara was an iconic Marxist revolutionary and alongside Fidel Castro the key figure of Cuban Revolution, the fight against American oppression. Because of this, it’s interesting how the history changed and the famous photograph by Alberto Korda, Guerrillero Heroico, became more famous than the person in it. Today, t-shirts with Che Guevara’s face based on the Korda’s photograph are still being sold worldwide, years after the Cuban hero stopped fighting the mass-consumerism.
Bruce Lee and his Famous Yellow Jumpsuit
Even more than three decades after his death, Bruce Lee is still one of the most influential popular culture icons in America but also worldwide. In 1999, Lee was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the century. Because of this, the Asian actor made a long-lasting impact on American popular culture and contributed to the growing movement of Chinese-American self-awareness. His influence is visible even in popular movies such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill, where Uma Thurman wore the replica of Bruce’s famous yellow jumpsuit from his Game of Death.
The Most Iconic African-American Figure aka Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson is such an iconic figure that even long after his death he’s still making more than $1 billion in postmortem earnings. Because of his ultimate-star status and his philanthropic legacy which is almost as large as his cultural one, it’s not surprising that so many contemporary art pieces focus on his work and appearance. One of the most famous artworks inspired by Jackson is a precious porcelain sculpture entitled Michael Jackson and Bubbles, made by Jeff Koons. This sculpture was made in 1988 and it belongs to Koons’ Banality series. Jeff Koons has stated long ago that his goal is to reach the widest possible audience, which he surely did by choosing Michael Jackson as a source of inspiration for his art.
Pop Culture Icons
If we accept the definition of popular culture as a vast range of technologically advanced cultural products consumed and used for a variety of purposes by a broad range of audiences, we can argue that the realm of everyday consciousness becomes one whose significations are indistinguishable from these images, spectacles and messages that circulate through mass media and popular culture. In different ways, this cultural capital becomes a central part of the materiality of our world. Whether being celebrities, fictional characters, or objects, pop culture icons have played a great part in constituting the world around us as cultural signifiers. As defining characteristics of a given society or era, pop icons turn out to be intricate, flexible, polysemous and multireferential entities. Part of their mythical quality lies in the fact that they are extensively used in a variety of contexts without ending up as worn out and depleted cultural artifacts.
The Celebrity Culture
Ever since the early radio personalities gained a widespread fame, a celebrity culture has been crystallizing and spreading broadly, becoming socially all-embracing. As a perceptive observer of pop culture trends, Andy Warhol noted that anyone can have their “fifteen minutes of fame”. He was the first artist to realize the intrinsic connection between the celebrity culture and pop culture. According to Warhol categories, a celebrity is a person, fictional character, or commercial product that garners a high degree of public and media attention while being on the media stage. Only those celebrities who become extremely popular and symbolic of something become known as pop icons. The term “icon” represents something easily recognizable, but it also has a religious sense. As these pop icons are often perceived as larger than life, this celebrity-making effect of pop culture is actually mythologizing. These mythic personages are created by a media stage simply by being suspended in a mythic reality of their own.
Becoming a Pop Icon
As Byzantine and other Eastern Churches’ craftsmen knew, the material from which an icon is made requires certain specific qualities. Pop icons are usually associated with elements such as longevity, ubiquity and distinction. As some celebrities have left a lasting and indelible mark in their fields and managed to maintain their popularity through generations, they attain a lasting place of recognition in a society at large – becoming pop icons. Another common element of pop icon status is the ubiquity of imagery and allusions to the iconic figure. These figures are often recognized and celebrated in areas outside their original source of celebrity status. For example, Che Guevara went from being a communist revolutionary to a pop icon whose image has been capitalised, commercialised and exploited in a variety of ways in the consumer market. Yet, the most powerful force in the preservation and continuity of pop culture and its icons through the ages is definitely nostalgia. It is woven in the fabric of contemporary pop culture…
The Impact of a Pop Icon
An icon is not a passive symbol, but one which in itself is deemed to be a touchstone of transformative power. From their clothing styles to speech mannerisms or beliefs, pop icons and celebrities influence society broadly, as well as our views. They have a certain mixture of sign systems which we can participate in as fans. For many people, talking about pop icons of today can often serve as a way to discuss issues such as gender, race, and class in terms that they understand. Even though pop icons are artifacts recognized as ones representing some aspects of cultural identity, the values, norms and ideals they represent and symbolize can vary greatly among people who subscribe to it. Offered meanings of cultural sign systems are not passively digested, but the consumption of popular culture mythology fluctuates in different realities and contexts.
8 Pop Culture Icons and Examples
How does one make a selection when faced with a disarray of choices? When it comes to pop culture icons, there are several instances that are decisive. Primarily, it is the impact that a character, persona or an object (symbol) achieves. This impact is fueled by meaning incorporated in the power of an icon-in-the-making. Many a times, this meaning is not clear to us. An icon can exist in the symbolic realm of media and public life long before we can decipher what had made it extraordinary. Secondly, a pop culture icon is “tested” by time or its longevity. In the 21st century, this can be measured differently as temporality has become a relative factor under the influence of such traits as shares, likes, impressions, views, discussions and so on. Thirdly, a pop culture icon continues to exist due to its “familiarity” – a trait related to the meaning behind it and its longevity. Today, this can most notably be seen in symbology related to nostalgia. Pop culture has become an empire of reboots, rehashes, appropriations and copies, but more on this later on. Finally, it seems that there is another “level of existence” of a pop culture icon. It is the one that comes to being when the symbolic meaning of the icon becomes part of a contemporary artist’s practice. It could be argued that this instance renders the pop culture icon a novum. The icon enters the arena of contemporary art and exits with a new layer of meaning bestowed upon it by the analyst of zeitgeist that is a contemporary artist. Thus, we look at some notable examples spanning across various pop culture industries, including artists that have decided to mold the material already made of stars… You are left to dwell upon what are the new layers of meaning (and, maybe more importantly, purposes) ascribed to them.
Lady Gaga practicing the Abramovic Method
Renowned Serbian artist Marina Abramovic is known for her ground-breaking performances as well as many collaborations with both fellow visual artists and those coming from different realms of the art world, such as the pop musician Lady Gaga. In 2013, the performance artist instructed Lady Gaga in the Abramovic Method, which is a series of physical and mental exercises designed to heighten participant’s awareness. In return, Lady Gaga financially supported the Marina Abramovic Institute, which is dedicated to the presentation and preservation of performance art, dance, music, and other forms of art that may develop in the future.
David Bowie’s Without You by Keith Haring
In 1983, David Bowie and Keith Haring, legendary American artist and activist collaborated on the artwork for the single entitled Without You. This simple yet powerful piece of art appeared on Bowie’s album Let’s Dance, which was released as a single by EMI America in the Netherlands, the US, Japan and Spain in the fall of 1983. David Bowie was a great fan of the New York City-based artist and he already had many of Haring’s pieces in his private collection. Bowie’s Let’s Dance album had another artwork on the backside, a photograph taken by his long-term collaborator Denis O’Regan.
A True Comic Book Gem – Roy Lichtenstein’s Superman
The hugely successful US artist Roy Lichtenstein is best known for his series of War and Romance paintings, derived from various popular comics. Even though he abandoned the comic book art subject later in his career, he continued to employ the same drawing style he developed over the years, such as the limited palette and black outlines. His depiction of Superman, one of the most famous fictional superheroes appearing in American Detective Comics, also relies on this trademark comic-book style. When it comes to Superman, the character was originally created in the early 30s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, high school students from Cleveland, Ohio.
Madonna’s Elegant True Blue Cover Shot by Herb Ritts
Madonna’s iconic True Blue album cover from 1986, shot by fashion photographer Herb Ritts, became one of her most popular pictures. The main colors used in this elegant image are gray, white and shades of blue, which reinforces the album’s title. Several images from Ritts’ photo shoot with Madonna were considered for the album cover, but the final photo was selected by Madonna herself, Heiden and Jeff Ayeroff, who was the creative director of Warner Bros. Even though the original image was in black and white, just like the rest of Ritts’ work, photo editors experimented with various color tones and agreed upon the blue toned, hand painted version of the photograph.
Hippies and Flowers – Peter Blake’s Portrayal of the Beatles
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the eighth studio album by the Beatles and it was released in 1967, during the vibrant hippie era. Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, humorous, warm and detailed, just like the hippie scene itself, was designed by the iconic pop artist Peter Blake together with Paul McCartney, who did an initial sketch in ink. The colorful collage features the Beatles standing with a group of cardboard cut-outs of famous people, surrounded by flowers. Each of the Beatles wore a heavy moustaches, which again reflected the influence of hippie trend. For his artwork on Sgt. Pepper, Peter Blake won a prestigious prize – the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Album Cover, Graphic Arts.
The Chupa Chups – Salvador Dali’s Logo Design
The Chupa Chups packaging is recognizable from miles away – those curly letters on the yellow daisy background are sure to make everybody smile in anticipation of the sweet and fruity flavor. The designer behind this simple yet sweet and memorable logo is one of the most influential surrealist painters, Salvador Dali. The Chupa Chups was founded in 1958 and in 1969 this number-one lollipop company from Spain decided they needed a logo redesign. Since then, the logo has gone through a couple of minor adjustments, but it is still one of the best known and most loved logos in the candy industry worldwide.
Last True Rock Star – Kurt Cobain Photographed and Illustrated by Mark Seliger and Flameboy
It is often argued that Kurt Cobain was the last true rock star. Millions of fans worship Cobain even today, long after he was found dead at the age of 27, so it’s not surprising that his image inspired many different artworks – from photography and fine art to illustrations. Most of people and not only hard-core fans will easily recognize Cobain’s blank expression, as the reproductions of the photograph can be found on many t-shirt designs. This iconic portrait was taken by Mark Seliger, a photographer famous for his celebrity portraiture. Another Cobain-inspired piece is a graphic novel written by James and Jim McCarthy and illustrated by Flameboy.
Timeless Diva and Andy Warhol’s Beloved Muse – Marilyn Monroe
Besides being one of the first Hollywood divas, Marilyn Monroe was an inspiration for Andy Warhol’s most popular piece, Marilyn Diptych. Warhol made this artwork a couple of weeks after Monroe’s death in August 1962. The photograph which Warhol duplicated 50 times is a publicity photograph from Niagara, the film which was one of the main milestones in Marilyn Monroe’s short but brilliant career. The piece is currently owned by Tate and it is considered the third most influential piece of modern art according to The Guardian, right after Marcel Duchamp’s controversial Fountain and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
A Never Ending Story. Literally.
The nature of interpreting popular culture is a never-ending practice in itself. There is a myriad of processes incorporated in the act of deciphering and understanding numerous instances that constitute popular culture. Ever since the first popular radio show or a piece of popular literature, pop culture texts have started growing into narratives that have gone beyond their initial purpose and meaning. They have become platforms for discussions on not only important topics but even profound ideas and concepts. When we look at textual analysis as a form of trying to discover what lies beyond the symbolic universe of our “cultured” reality, we find ourselves “in possession” of a powerful tool that takes into account the object of our attention, as well as its context, possible purpose, its political and ideological nature, etc. It seems that the present day has made proficient textual analysts out of all of us. Every “text” or “cultural artefact” residing within the realm of popular culture (pieces of art included) cannot be just seen, it is realized in a certain context, “polluted” with additional layers of meaning. But, is that bad?
For, it is that interaction that the public has with a certain pop culture “object” (be it a celebrity, pop icon, meme, artwork or something else) that has created a different kind of universal context where we exchange ideas, fight for a voice and determine the existence of meaning. This kind of a situation has led theoreticians (and that might be all of us) to the realization that discourse does not only explain that which is perceived, but creates it. In an era when popular culture hadn’t encompassed all of our reality (as the digital space does today), it was a specific “duty” or, better yet, a calling of an artist to create visual and other cultural symbols in order to construct meaning (various discourses) about ideas and issues. Just like surrealist artists, under the burden of having one single reality to dwell upon, turned to the outworldly imagery coming from deepest corners of their minds, or how performance artists challenged the norms of established societal systems, so do the artists of today – they interpret the reality constructing it anew. And this reality establishes itself as popular culture. One major difference to the times one century ago, contemporary artists have all of us, the public, the active public, following each step of the way. Today, artists are political activists, conveyors of ideologies, or, if you will, par excellence discourse mongers. Only if we look at the field of Street Art, we can find examples of the mentioned roles. More than thirty years ago, New York graffiti artists have been creating and spreading an idea of their community’s identities through such an innovative and convincing way. Those stories and narratives now resonate in the realm of popular culture, ready to transmit narratives explaining issues such as race, economic structure of societies and so on. Coming to a more recent example, when we look at the practice of Ai Weiwei, an artist coming from a different cultural context than that he is fighting to interpret, we see an individual, joined with the public, on a quest to interact with a crucial political issue of the Western world, i.e. the migrant crisis. He constructs the narrative with his artistic expression, he addresses it within real-world cultural space, yet his message strongly lives on Instagram, open to interpretation and deliberation.
But, we have long lingered on the processes of our topic, the fluctuations within popular culture. What of the concepts, what of the “texts” or “artifacts” themselves? In the eclectic assemblage of pop culture icon examples, we have tried to point out how an artistic vision of a certain symbolic manifestation becomes something more. It becomes a vessel of sorts, reimagined only to be set free back in its natural habitat, shedding light on such, still very much today, relevant concepts: race, gender, identity, body, integrity, socio-political rights… This is where the importance of the active audience, active interpretation comes into play. A can of Campbell Soup is not just a can of food; Lichtenstein’s interpretation of the most iconic pop culture artifact isn’t just a representation of a superhero; the moment Alberto Cobra captures history isn’t just a face of a man; or even the seemingly kitschy form of Koons’ portrayal of Michael Jackson – all of these artefacts are in constant motion powered by the activity of the public, which in the post-Google era exist fueled with the highest of potential. It’s all there – in the pantheon of the contemporary society we have come to identify as popular culture.
So, why is this important? “Word is God.” The power of a symbol can mystify and de-mystify that which matters: a suffering individual or community, a foreshadowing of a society-challenging event or a globally recognized issue. Or, even if we should talk of “smaller scale” – a coming-of-age or perhaps an important life-altering story can rest within a singular symbol just do to the fact it is layered with meaning. One will see a simple photograph of a young person and another all the meaning behind the images and words such as “Che” or “Kurt Cobain” or “Wonder Woman”. These can be simultaneously understood as symbols of seeming abyss of nothingness and stories of revelation, inspiration and creativity, specific power, and so on… Perhaps, artists represent figures that can tap into the discursive potential exploding from numerous objects residing in the realm of popular culture? Be that as it may, should all of us have this potential, why not use it?
Finally, here has been talk of possibility and not so much on control backed with power. The market, influential subjects and certain groups control and manipulate the symbolical world of popular culture. This is present today, it would seem, more than ever. The shallow exploitation of nostalgic aspects of imagery and language already embedded in our minds has spawn mass production of rehashed, rebooted (re)appropriated, reacted and reproduced symbols in order to invite the public to become active not only as an interpreter, but as a consumer. In this field, the dichotomy control-resistance shines as a beacon of possibility. There will always be forces which will try to manipulate the public opinion and steer their actions. On the other hand, there will always be individuals who can recognize and use the vastness of popular culture in order to discover and discuss that which is important. What is more, art will never escape popular culture and the market and – if I can humbly contribute – nor it should. The active perceiver (the public) is a consumer, but also a critic, a judge and, most importantly, a creator. He or she connects with others through concepts in order to decide what will live on and (perhaps too optimistically) pave the road for a new Haring, Bowie, Lichtenstein, Banksy… Popular culture is, after all, more than a network of meaning, symbols, voices and endless copies; it is the neverending story of our existence; it is our mythos. Or, at least, it should be…
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Featured image: Woodstock, Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.