The Meaning and Purpose of Pop Art In Light of the Works of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein
“[...] the layman and even the well-informed collector have often failed to comprehend the meaning and purpose of [Pop Art]. Indeed there have been cynical suggestions that its purpose is wholly opportunistic”
(Edward T. Kelly, 1964)
The classic period of Pop art can be set from 1956 to 1968, although it was never an organized movement or a single group of artists. Pop art drew on imagery from popular culture, for example advertising or comics and emerged in the urban landscape of London and New York City. It never existed without harsh criticism; in fact it was always despised by the critics, but loved by the popular masses.
This essay is going to examine the meaning and purpose of Pop art in light of the critical quotation presented above. The observations made will be clarified on the basis of the works of Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), two of the main representatives of American Pop art.
In the twentieth century a new art market emerged that involved more and more collectors or private persons, who had the money to buy artworks for their homes. The prices increased noticeably, the demands and challenges to art changed. The interest of the masses for art increased, what inevitably made art being part of a new arts and entertainment industry and therefore questioned the traditional art term. Art – in general – had to react. And artists reacted in different ways: some refused to accept the changes; others – especially the Pop artists - decided to make use of those tendencies. This is where the accusation of opportunism declaimed by Edward T. Kelly has its origin. The term “opportunistic” is overly negative connoted. An opportunist is a “tag-along” who makes use of every favourable and advantageous opportunity without considering the consequences – especially for economical reasons. Pop art infiltrated “the publicity machine and the marketplace as deliberate strategy.” Through addressing not only the elitist art audience, but the whole society, it opened up new possibilities to gain visibility and customize art to a larger target group.
Although society had always been a subject to art, before Pop, it had mostly adopted the position of a commentator, silently trying to call attention to (social) wrongs. Abstract Expressionism, then however, isolated itself and ignored the viewer. A new solidarity between the artists emerged that said: “We know what we’re doing, the rest of the world never will. We’ll continue to paint for each other.” In a third phase, Pop art freed art from the neutrality imposed by Abstract Expressionism. The new place to be was not the decontextualising and distanced exhibition space of the White Cube, but the billboards and glossy magazines of a vibrant city. Nevertheless, it is comprehensible that the art critics - used to the auratic works of Rothko - were confused by the ‘Blam!’ and ‘Pow!’ of comic heroes who now conquered the gallery walls.
Pop artists did not anymore believe in art that could exist in such neutral spaces. According to them, all art, as well as the artists themselves, collectors, viewers, magazines and galleries, were part of the communication system of mass culture and, accordingly, everything being part of this system could be art as well. Lichtenstein and his ‘colleagues’ proclaimed a new art for and of the masses.
Pop art has its origin in Great Britain where a group called Independent Group (I.G.) formed in the early 1950s. To the British people the emerging American consumerism appeared seductive and exotic; artists like Richard Hamilton observed and commented on this development. The American Pop artists started about ten years later and were already used to and less passionate about the new world of shiny goods and glossies. Why should they fight against it? Moreover, this generation of artists was under the pressure of the former generation of artists like Pollock or Rothko, who for the first time made art in America as successful as in Europe. Whilst some tried to imitate those “old masters”, others did what they had excluded.
From this background originated two of the main characters of Pop art, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who used the emerging art market and the publicity machine as their mediums.
Both, Warhol and Lichtenstein, had experiences with being commercial artists, before they turned to Pop art. Warhol was already quite successful and made good money with his commissional works, what relieves him from the reproach of sheer greed for money. Moreover, he was a passionate collector of not only artworks, but also so-called ephemerals, paper- or disposable products that were only meant for singular use or glance, like advertising or flyers– the opposite of something meant for retaining or preserving.
The personality of Andy Warhol cannot be ignored when one wants to understand him and his art. Andy personalized the new commercialization. In his workshop called “The Factory” he produced art like at the assembly line. In his late-phase, he himself became more and more a product of self-promotion, a “social sculpture”, although most of his admirers had given up on him after he did not seem to produce anything new after the attempted assassination on him in 1968. “Business art”, he said, “is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist.” He was obsessed with celebrity and craved for being an art star not only for his works, but for his personality. He expanded his pop stardom from the art market to fashion, advertising, filmmaking, music and journalism. Communication with the audience and his self-presentation were main parts of his work and this underscores the endeavour of Pop art to “step outside the frame and into the social flow that surrounds the artwork.”
 cf. bankowsky, Jack, gingeras, Alison M., wood, Catherine (eds.), Pop life: art in a material world (London: Tate Publishing, 2009, p.20).
 Jack Bankowsky, et al., 2009, p.9.
 francis, Mark, foster, Hal, Pop (London: Phaidon, 2005, p.222).
 cf. Mark Francis et al., 2005, p.18.
 cf. madoff, Steven Henry (ed.), Pop art: a critical history (Berkeley: University of California Press, c1997).
 cf. Doss, Erika Lee, Twentieth-century American art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 155).
 cf. Mark Francis et al., 2005, p. 18.
 Jack Bankowsky, et al., 2009, p. 27.
 cf. Jack Bankowsky, et al., 2009, p. 14.
 ibid., p. 34.
 cf. ibid., p. 26.
 cf. ibid., p. 28.