International Pop not only presented Walker visitors with a pop art experience that went far beyond what typically constitutes pop art for a Western audience, it proved that pop art was a global phenomenon and a platform for the critique of contemporary culture throughout the world. In light of the show’s recent closing, WACTAC alum Justin Andrews presents some opinions, reflections, and analysis on works and themes in the show.
“Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes.”
–Leon Trotsky (1879-1940)
Pop culture and artistic culture exist in a contradictory, dialectical relationship. On the one hand, we have pop culture. Pop culture is the embodiment of what the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci called “cultural hegemony”: the idea that the values of the ruling class become the dominant values of a society as they are propagated through its media. This can be clearly seen in pop culture, celebrity culture in particular: wealth, materialism, and selfish individualism are all celebrated, along with the occasional jingoism. Any “rebellion” that is permitted is rebellion in the sense of getting a new hairstyle or a leather jacket, and charity is posited as the radical hope for the least of these.
Artistic culture, however, emerges as the radical opposition to these bourgeois values. It seeks to uproot and overturn them in various manners. Here, it opposes them by counterposing the existential truths that pop culture seeks to forgo: sadness, death, and the meaninglessness of unlimited wealth. There, it opposes them by exposing the barbarities that pop culture help to obscure: wage slavery, imperialism, racism, heterosexism. Art is a real, dangerous rebellion; perhaps that is why the powers that be fear artists.
In any case, the development of both has worked in a dialectical manner: pop culture here, art there, a mixture of both in a new form of pop culture, and then a new critique from art. The development of jazz, from being the protest music of African-Americans to the hip tunes of the whites in the 20s, is a good example of this. International Pop speaks to this dialectical relationship by the very theme at the heart of the exhibit: the pieces are by and large inspired by aspects of pop culture, but are used by the artists to turn them on their heads and provide a radical critique of the status quo.
La Civilizacion Occidental y Cristian, 1965, León Ferrari, Argentinian:
Photo from Bank of the Republic, Colombia
Walking through the exhibit, I find myself drawn over and over to this piece. The imagery is striking: A United States Air Force plane going down adorned with a crucifix. As I look upon it, I cannot help but think that this piece is perhaps the ultimate symbol of Western Imperialism: violence and brutality masked as peace and generosity.
It seems quite appropriate that it is an American aircraft that is raining down. For the last half-century at least, America has proven itself to be the world’s dominant imperial power. It has supported coups against the democratically elected governments of Guatemala, Iran, Chile, and many other countries. It has supported and turned a blind eye to vicious military dictatorships in Argentina, Indonesia, and other nations who were willing to support American economic interests. And if the wars in the Middle East and continued interference in Latin American affairs, particularly Venezuelan, reveal anything, America still seeks to expand and consolidate its influence today.
The image of Christ harkens back to several periods in the history of imperialism. It brings one back to the Scramble for Africa, when the European imperial powers would justify their conquests by claiming to be on “humanitarian missions” to “save and civilize” the indigenous populations. It brings one to the Cold War, when the struggle between the US and the USSR was portrayed by the Western powers as a struggle between the “free world” against the “godless communists.” And it brings one to the modern day, when Bush justifies the Iraq War that killed possibly up to one million Iraqi civilians in the name of God.
What is truly cynical about this piece is that Christ himself was a victim of Empire. The Roman Imperial Authorities saw the preaching of Jesus, with his message of love for the poor and widowed, and woe to the hypocrites and powers that be, as a threat to their rule over Judea, and, consequently, had him crucified. Several centuries later, the same Roman Empire that executed him would appropriate his image to provide a spiritual justification and support for their conquests, a practice that has been continued by Western powers to this day. That the figure of Christ is smaller than the bomber seems to me no coincidence: the imperial powers seek to obscure the destructive power of their violence by dressing it up as something wholesome and good, be it “the work of God”, “humanitarianism” or whatever else.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1962-63, Sergio Lombardo, Italian:
Photo from Star Tribune/Walker Art Center
I look up and down the portrait of Kennedy. He is face forward, and his finger is pointed towards the audience. His face, his hand, and most of his suit is jet black. I feel two strange, contradictory feelings as I look upon him. On the one hand, I feel inspired, I feel pumped, I feel energized by this figure before me. Perhaps I will see, after all, what I can do for my country. On the other hand, I feel nervous, I feel a little dread, an ominous feeling comes over me. Something does not seem right about this figure of Kennedy, something seems a little dark and sinister.
But should that be surprising? Is it unwarranted that I feel distrustful of this image of Kennedy? Politicians are more often than not Machiavellian personages supporting the powers that be while maintaining an image of purity and goodness. Woodrow Wilson announced with his Fourteen Points a new era of peace and civility among nations while at the same time sending American troops into Russia. FDR proclaimed a “New Deal” for America while simultaneously excluding black workers, rounding up Japanese-Americans and preserving the capitalist system. Kennedy was no exception to this rule. He delayed action on Black civil rights until it was politically unviable for him not to do so. He criticized East Germany for setting up the Berlin Wall while imposing an embargo on Cuba. And he helped escalate the War in Vietnam, all the while keeping a very nice, smooth, “liberal” image.
This contrast, between the inspirational images that these politicians aim to project and the harmful policies they pursue, is perfectly captured within this portrait. Of course, one could fairly say that not all politicians are two-faced. But, the ones who truly aren’t are few and far between, for now.
Drink More, 1964, Shinohara Ushio, Japanese:
Photo from Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art
This small piece is reflective of the consumerist culture that is promoted and egged on by capitalism. “More, more, more!” it demands. Drink more and you will be happier! You will be smarter! You will be stronger! Faster! Sexier! This is capital in its encounter with the everyday consumer: have more of this, and you will be more of that. A promise is made, but at the end of the day it is the promise of a con artist: the consumer spends on a product, which is temporarily satisfying and soon needs to be replenished, while the bourgeois profit as the consumer’s dependence grows and grows.
I can’t help but find it significant that the Coca-Cola is an American product, but that it is a Japanese Coke bottle. This seems to be suggestive of a very basic principle of capitalism: the seeking of new markets. Capital always seeks new markets beyond national borders to sell its products and augment itself. That Coke is shown as being sold in Japan is illustrative of this.
Mao, Thomas Bayrle, 1966, German:
Photo from Minnesota Monthly
This piece, perhaps more than any other, signifies how International Pop is a product of its time. For many young Western students, a rejection of Western capitalism did not signal an embrace of Eastern Stalinism. The emerging New Left, while decrying Western capitalism and imperialism, similarly rejected the imperialism of the Soviet bloc, particularly after the crushing of Prague Spring. Instead, they looked elsewhere, for new, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist heroes and inspirations, most notably in the figure of Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong.
When I stumbled across this piece in the exhibit, it seemed to me to perfectly capture the affection that much of the New Left had for Mao in the late 60s. For many, Chairman Mao was the real exponent of Marxism-Leninism, the real leader who was leading a world revolution against Western imperialism. Students all across the West studied the Little Red Book, brought pictures of Mao to protests. The Black Panthers studied his teachings and formed ties with China. To the New Left, Mao seemed to symbolize their aspirations.
The hundreds of little figures in this portrait, the figures that added up come to form the Chairman’s face, seem to symbolize the extreme ideological fealty that much of the Western Left had for Mao. At the same time, such fealty is deeply revealing of the sway that Mao’s cult of personality had even outside of China. The tragic irony of the situation is that the New Left sought an anti-imperialist, non-Soviet hero in Mao, when Mao modeled China on classical Stalinist lines. Maoist China was a bureaucratic dictatorship like the Soviet Union, far removed from the sort of workers’ democracy championed by Marx and Engels.
While their worship of Mao was misplaced, it may be argued that in doing so the New Left made a “right step in the wrong direction.” That is, they had come to reject their own bourgeois imperialist leaders, and were looking to find an alternative to the status quo. Their attachment to Mao was an attempt to find such an alternative. The attempt was worthy even though the result was not; the point is to continue to search for alternatives instead of giving into the status quo. As such, this portrait stands today both as a product of the era it was crafted in, and as a first attempt to find an alternative to the present state of affairs.
Venus, 1967, Jana Zelibska, Slovakian:
Photo from Slovak National Gallery
Coming across this piece, the glass jars and the mirror, strategically placed over the woman’s breasts and vagina, are the first things that catch one’s eye. Looking at it up and down, this piece comes across as a commentary on the sexual objectification of women. We are drawn to the strategically placed objects not simply because they are an interesting choice, but because we have been conditioned to perceive these parts of a woman’s body as being the most important, as those which define her worth.
This appears further pronounced when one considers that no head is shown in the piece, because, after all, it is not by her brain or her talents that a woman is valued in our patriarchal society.
Looking further, one cannot help but notice that this feminine figure is tan. One has to wonder if this is not only a commentary on the sexual objectification of women, but the exoticization of women of color. When women of color are exoticized, specific features or skin tones they have as a result of their ethnic makeup become a source of sexual fetishism. It’s the sort of exoticization that leads white men to, say, hit on women of East Asian descent by telling them that they have “yellow fever” and “love Asian girls.” This combination of sexual objectification and exoticization reduces women of color from thinking, feeling human beings to rare specimens to be toyed around with.
International Pop as a whole is an exhibit that is both historical and contemporary. It is historical because it captures the works and period of a specific moment in history. As an article of history, the exhibit demonstrates how the artists of the 60s reacted against the bourgeois values promoted by pop culture. But, it is contemporary in what it reveals about the relationship between pop culture and artistic culture. In our modern era, artistic culture is a radical rebellion against pop culture, it is a medium that reveals pop culture for what it is: an instrument to promote destructive bourgeois values while providing a hollow mask to cover inequalities and injustices that capital generates.
It may seem that one or the other side has the upper hand, and it’s clear that it is not a balanced set of forces working against each other. While pop culturalists have the mainstream corporate media to distribute the work, artists have had to be more inventive and find alternative avenues to show their work, such as street theater. But this tension between artistic culture and pop culture is one that arose with the dawn of bourgeois society, and as long as the current system persists the struggle between both mediums will continue to exist. The merit of International Pop is that it is not only a great art exhibit, but it provides us a window into understanding this underlying relationship.