Using visual culture to put a contemporary “fizz” on the study of pop art

Taylor, Pamela G

Intriguing too, is the controversial nature of Pop Art. Pop artists used imagery and techniques of consumerism and popular culture. In the process, they eliminated distinctions between “good” and “bad” taste and between fine art and commercial art techniques. Unlike the avant-garde, who “used art to dig the trench between art and life, pop did things the other way around …it made a fetish of the new and ushered in a fascination with consumer goods as art and the gleeful appropriation of any image” (Jencks 1987 in Reiss & Feineman 2000, pp. 10-11). Artist Richard Hamilton’s famous work, Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Home so Different, so Appealing? is considered by many to be the first Pop piece. Among a number of popular culture references, Hamilton’s collage features images of a body builder, Tootsie Roll Pop, movie poster, and console television-all cutting edge images of 1950s society. Hamilton’s piece, as well as the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Oldenburg, was meant as a commentary and critique on the consumeristic society of the post World War II era. Pop artists were, in essence, using images from visual culture to critique the values and beliefs of their viewers.

The study of contemporary visual culture takes this critique to an even more meaningful level by drawing attention to diversity, culture, and the effects of global capitalism on ideologies. In this article, we will discuss the ways that the inclusion of contemporary visual culture can put a contemporary “fizz” on the study of Pop Art in art education classrooms thereby making it more relevant and more exciting for our students of the 21st century.

Culture: Popular, Visual, Art, and Human

The term and idea of culture is often misunderstood and thought of as a static and esoteric entity that is outside of one’s lived experience (Ballengee-Morris & Stuhr, 2001). On the contrary, culture is the heritage of the future that provides a dynamic blueprint of how we live our lives. It contains multiple aspects that define us. We have multiple cultures as individuals that include the personal(1) as well as those influenced by U.S. and global identities. U.S. culture is primarily political. It includes the place where cultural beliefs and values are formed, sanctioned, or penalized (Ballengee-Morris & Stuhr, 2001). Pop artists explored U.S. culture’s effect on both personal and societal levels. Their art gave people opportunities to continue that exploration within larger settings as they explored consumerism and its effect on society, known today as global culture. Pop Art’s history, social, and political contexts are embedded within this visual cultural ideology-everyday objects and images.

Visual culture deals with images from mass media such as television, movies, music videos, computer technology, advertisements, magazines, and newspapers. These images create meaning and a vision of life for today’s students and for all of us. “Much of visual culture is the visual arts-all the visual arts” (Freedman & Stuhr, 2000). Visual culture education promotes cultural studies and critical theory (Barrett, 2000; Duncum, 2000; Freedman & Wood, 1999; Neperud, 1995; Trend, 1992). Visual culture is inclusive and challenges the ideology of hierarchal labels such as high and low art. Historically, the Pop Art style and artists intended to make statements about the artworld and the stratification between high and low. In the past, high art referred to primarily Western forms and images, while low art referred to forms and images of folk. Like the Pop artists of the 1960s, contemporary feminist and critical theorists, educators, and multiculturalists are on the forefront of challenging this master narrative.

In the 1960s, visual culture transformed into high art-challenging the viewer and artworld to explore what that means. What is high art transformed into visual culture? One illustration may include the ways that directors and producers of the movie Devil’s Advocate appropriated the monumental Creation works (at the main entrance to Washington National Cathedral) of sculptor Frederick Hart. As the story was told by Leon Apodaca from the CFM Gallery in New York, “the producer and director knew they would not receive permission to use the piece, so small alterations were made. Anticipating a lawsuit, settlement money was placed in the budget and in the bank and the piece was used” (Personal interview, August 22, 2002). Apodaca stated that it was also the best free advertisement Frederick Hart(2) received. The movie introduced Hart to a new generation and audience of consumers. The movie itself was about people who wanted all that the world could give them at all costs-representing the ultimate consumer. Appropriating an image/icon and placing it in another setting continues the Pop Art social and political explorations, but the images and forms are no longer limited to certain genres such as advertising.

Making connections of how past ideologies and styles influence present visual culture is important. Understanding the political, cultural, or social constructs and histories provides necessary background to critically examine and understand forms, images, and messages. The following are artists and forms that we see as catalysts to this process.

Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Eminem

Rap artist Eminem’s popular song and music video “Without Me” created a great deal of controversy in the news media primarily due to the scenes of Eminem dressed as Osama Bin Laden. Using a Lichtenstein comic book style, Eminem parodies religious leaders, other rappers, and even Elvis as he takes on a (Batman) Robin-like persona and battles to save a young boy from listening to his CD because it is stamped with a parental warning. This primary story (image)-line is muddied or secondary to the political and popular culture satirical references that Eminem is famous for employing. For example, like Warhol, Eminem increasingly makes the subject of his music videos (his art) his own image. He uses and therefore comments upon consumeristic, celebrity-crazed, sensation-seeking society. Warhol used crowded stock-piles of Campbell’s soup, the electric chair, and Marilyn Monroe. Eminem employs images of the Pope, parodies popular TV talk shows such as Jerry Springer, and features an Elvis impersonator in a bathroom with popular TV personalities from the television series “Survivor.” Warhol selected the most powerful visual images the media had to offer, from the most familiar to the most terrifying and removed them from familiar contexts and turned them into mysterious, sometimes frightening symbols of our times. Lichtenstein grotesquely magnified comic-strip heroes and villains, while Eminem brazenly takes on the persona of the man who has been accused of perpetrating the most heinous acts of the century-Osama Bin Laden (Eminem, 2002).

Hamilton, “The Cosby Show,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond”

British artist Richard Hamilton’s famous collage, Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Home so Different, so Appealing?3 features images of what appeared to be true and ideal in 1950 and 1960s society. Like Warhol, Hamilton studied and commented upon the architecture of idealism and fame. Men were inspired to look like such body builders as Jack Lalanne. Women were challenged by sensuous move posters of Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot. A television in the home was a status symbol. Space voyage (indicated by the moon image on the ceiling) would soon be a possibility. Canned ham and Tootsie Roll Pops were cutting-edge food faire.

Similarly, popular television situation comedies such as “The Cosby Show” of the 1980s and currently “Everybody Loves Raymond” are proposed to represent and satirically comment upon what is true and ideal in contemporary society. Like Hamilton, these situation comedies parody such values as pizza delivery as a mainstay of family cuisine by including continued dialogue about cholesterol levels. Body shapes and sizes vary greatly for men, while women (with a few exceptions) are thin and fit. Diet and exercise are constant topics in kitchens that are well stocked with everything from cookies to lobster. Every living room has a comfortable overstaffed sofa and television that are often the center as well as the subject of conversation. Echoing Hamilton’s belief that a product must aim to project an image of desirability (Tannebaum, 2002), product placement(4) is popular in many situation comedies’ set designs.

Further research of Hamilton reveals that some critics felt that Pop Art reflected the socialist Constructive and Bauhaus intention to revolutionize everyday existence (surroundings) by integrating art and design (Kino, 1998). “The Cosby Show,” in particular, provides a view of African-American professionals and their family living in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood (Viacom International, 2001). Besides “The Jeffersons,” which portrayed such living as an exception rather than the norm, this was the first time successful African-American professionals were featured and modeled on television.

In contrast, like many situation comedies that have come before, “Everybody Loves Raymond” features a fairly successful white man and his family living in a middle class neighborhood. The sets, fashion, and language used are more contemporary than, for example, “All in the Family” (1971), but such story lines as meddling in-laws, children with problems at school, money, groceries, housecleaning, and tastes in food are typical faire for the television sitcom. A closer view of Hamilton’s Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Home so Different, so Appealing? reveals innuendo to many unspoken issues in the 1950s and 1960s. Contemporary viewers, on the other hand, are often more tolerant and open to controversial or formerly private issues such as breast implants, childhood traumas, sexual dysfunction, divorce, and homosexuality.

Practical Applications

With the addition or inclusion of visual culture in our education curricula come issues of practicality as well as advocacy. Using videos of music or television in the art classroom can be problematic due to copyright issues as well as inappropriate language and content (Aufdenspring “n.d.”).5 Parental and administrative response can also be an issue. With these obstacles comes the knowledge that students consume popular culture in its many forms for more hours than they are in the classroom. The music video as well as the television situation comedy are dominant art forms in youth culture. The personae of the rock star icon and the television star are powerful influences upon young people. It is important that students develop critical viewing practices of such popular and visual culture as television and learn how to deconstruct cultural identity representations in the mass media if they are to become informed citizens of this democracy (MacDonald & Taylor, 1996). Equally as important is the issue of ownership. By “ownership,” we mean that much of popular culture, especially the music video, is seen by students as separate somehow from the notion of schooling. Giroux and Simon (1989) view popular culture as a site of resistance for students. It belongs to them. It is part of their culture and their world, separate and apart from the authoritative schooling site. Indeed, many popular culture forms employ the use of subtle and youth-particular innuendo. Therefore, if teachers take a more student-initiated approach to incorporating popular forms of visual culture into the curriculum, they may both encourage student ownership of their education experiences as well as avoid the appearance of misguided interpretations.

One way of doing this is to ask students to bring in videos of music videos for their teacher’s perusal. Teachers can then capture video still images for viewing purposes in the classroom. Music video artists also often feature still images as well as video clips on their WWW sites that are available for download or for viewing in the classroom through the use of a computer connected to a projection device. WWW sites also provide excellent information regarding history and interpretation of television situation comedies. Challenging students to formulate questions as well as find answers encourages ownership of their educational experience as well as more critical and reflective learning and living practices.

Exploration of a video, comedy, advertisements, or other forms of visual culture can be approached through the identification of key concepts or issues, such as the development of icons. Both Eminem and Warhol used icons in their works. Such icons, including the pop star, are foundations for creating and maintaining popular art forms and cultures. Students may choose one pop star (such as EMs when studying Warhol and Eminem). The students then explore the development of the pop star as well as how society affected perhaps their rise and fall in popularity. Students may develop a fictional pop star icon, relate them to current celebrities through research, exploration, identification, and re-creation of the various stages of a pop star icon’s rise to fame. Students may create their own music videos, film documentaries, murals, magazine creations, photography books, or clothing design projects as a result of this study along with process journals and critiques.

Appropriation, such as the use of sculptor Frederick Hart’s work Creation in the movie Devil’s Advocate and the Lichtenstein style in Eminem’s video, is yet another manner in which to include visual culture in the study of Pop Art. Students may research and find examples of the use of art and art forms in television and print advertisements. Research of the original art, artist, and context in which the art was created may then be compared and contrasted with the meaning portrayed through its appropriation. Students may create their own appropriation-inspired works of art in a variety of media. Written critical essays could be included in the activity to explain the ways the students used the appropriated images to change or challenge the original work of art.


Duncum (2002) calls for a new paradigm for the teaching or incorporation of visual culture in art education. New paradigms often suggest that one must throw out old paradigms. On the contrary, a new paradigm of visual culture art education can be incorporated into what good teachers already do. Curricular change is a transformative process, not a static product that can be singularly adopted. The new paradigm is one that continues to change and evolve through comfortable transitional steps that have personal and societal meanings. Just as their cultures are always changing, our students’ needs, understandings, and learning styles also change.

The critical inquiry with which we approached the comparisons between Pop Art and contemporary visual culture came about through research, viewing, talking, and a great deal of thinking-all characteristic of the kinds of activities necessary for learning and knowing. However “knowing about television production and audience reception is different from knowing about Monet” (Duncum 2002, p. 7), or in this case about Pop Art techniques. The incorporation of visual culture based on “visual representations as sites of ideological struggle “(Duncum 2002, p. 7) enhances the study of mainstream art education curricula, connecting what human beings have continuously questioned with current societal concerns. Like Warhol’s approach of viewing popular culture in a fine art format that caused confusion and forced the viewer to look at the image in a different way, the inclusion of visual culture in the study of Pop Art can encourage students to look at the world around them in a different and more artfully meaningful way. In the process, their study of the Pop Art Movement of the 1960s becomes relevant for the 21st century and beyond.

Copyright National Art Education Association Mar 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

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