Pop Art is defined in the Random House Dictionary as follows: 'Fine Arts. a style esp. of figurative painting, developed in the US and current in the early 1960s, characterized chiefly by magnified forms and images derived from such commercial art genres as comic strips and advertising posters.' In the ten years or so of its use the term has had more meanings than this and its shifts reveal the pressure of opposed ideas of culture. For this reason, its history is, perhaps, worth recording.
The term, originated in England by me, was meant as a description of mass communications, especially, but not exclusively, visual ones. By the winter of 1957-58 the term was in use, either as Pop Culture or Pop Art. 1. Its users were art-oriented, if not themselves artists, and interested both in extending esthetic attention to the mass media and in absorbing mass-media material within the context of fine art. It was an expansionist esthetics, aimed at relating art to the man-made environment of the 50's. Advertising, color photography and color reproduction, (big screen) films, (early English) TV, automobile styling were regarded on equal terms with the fine arts; not the same, but equally interesting.
The group was criticized in the mid-50s, as being pro- American, because a majority of the admired films, ads, science fiction, and commercial photography was American, inasmuch as the United States was, and is, the most fully industrialized country. (Pop art, before it is American art is an art of Industrialism.) Pop Art was pro- urban and accepted the media's roots in mass production, at a time when traditional esthetics in England was mostly pastoral or universalizing. Pop Art, in its original form, was a polemic against elite views of art in which uniqueness is a metaphor of the aristocratic and contemplation the only proper response to art.
Pop Art/Phase 1 involved an open attitude in which art was scattered among all of man's artifacts, and could be situated anywhere. Hence the idea of a Fine Art/Pop Art continuum was necessary. In place of an hierarchic esthetics keyed to define greatness and universality and to separate High from Low art, a continuum was assumed which could accommodate all forms of art, permanent and expendable, personal and collective, autographic and anonymous. On the other hand, art was not regarded, owing to its environmental functions, as a social service. Rather it was put in a situation of complexity which demanded all kinds of attention and not assigned a set level in a pyramid of taste. At the time it was recognized that Pop Art/1 had an affinity to the definitions of culture by anthropologists, as all of a society, and not, as art writers and specialists prefer, as a treasury of privileged items.
From 1961 to 1964 Pop Art came to mean art that included a reference to mass-media sources (the meaning quoted from the Dictionary). This was the period of its maximum influence as an art movement : the compression of the term facilitated its rapid diffusion. By restricting its terms of reference to works of art with certain kinds of imagery, Pop Art/2 arrests the expansionist element in Pop Art/1. During this time Pop Art consolidated its formal properties: the explosive definition of culture as everything shrank to an iconography of signs and objects known from outside the field of art. This appeared to be such a drastic operation mainly because the articulate art world of that moment was habituated to the formalities of Abstract art. The productions of Pop Art/2 are dualistic, with unexpected structure conferred on existing subject matter or with structure following the display of unexpected subjects. The ambiguities of reference and speculation on the status of the work of art itself, basic in this period, are well within the iconographical limits of art from Futurism to Dada to Purism.
Pop artists of the second phase, by maximizing the presence of objects (Campbell's soup can or comic-strip image), while declaring their indifference to these subjects, propose, obviously, a third term between Abstract art and realism. Pop Art/2 could be called the iconographical period of Pop Art. Most of the artists began with some declaration of interest in their subject matter and, later, stressed the formal construction of their art as being the nitty-gritty. In fact, the double presence, the co-existence, the collision, of a reference and the artist's indifference to the reference, involves us, surely, in a complex iconographical art. Art of Pop Art/1 (early Rauschenberg, environmental displays, and the expressionistic-figurative work of the Reuben Gallery artists, 1959-61) is quite different from the art of Pop Art/2, with the dominance of easel painting and traditional sculptural forms.
During 1965-66 the meaning of Pop Art was again modified. In the preceding four years the term had been applied to such a variety of objects and events that its limited use was corroded and dissolved. It had become more like slang than the name of an art movement. (Artists who had tolerated the term before, incidentally, cut down on its use now as it seeped everywhere.) The term was applied to fashion, films, interior decoration, toys, parties, and town planning. A typical use of it by an architect is Robert Venturi's 'Pop Art has demonstrated that these commonplace elements are often the main source of the occasional variety and vitality of our cities'. Here Pop Art is being used to defend the kind of lively man-made environment which had orginally contributed to the formation of the term in the first place. Pop Art/3 is the sloganized form of the original anthropological definition of urban culture, but now with nearly ten years of usage behind it. Some of the cross-overs between different arts, the connectivity between art and other experiences, have been precipitated by the term itself now.
Let us take one example of the many overlaps and connections between different points on the continuum: Batman provides a handy case. It was originally a comic strip, and nothing else. In the early 60s, Mel Ramos painted Batman subjects, in oils on canvas, which were shown in galleries and in 1963 at the Los Angeles County Museum. Bob Kane, creator of the strip, announced in 1966 that he had done a series of Batman paintings in oils, but seems not to have known about Ramos. (Kane's paintings have still not been shown, I think.) Then Batman hit TV and Bob Kane described the style of the series to me as 'Very Pop Art.' The comic continues, of course, and at present the readership is divided into a naturalistic group which prefers Batman as 'creature of the night, avenger of crime' and another group pledged to Batman's teen scene with Robin's campy expressions. The point is that experiences of art and entertainment are not necessarily antagonistic and unrelated, but can be linked into a ring of different tastes and purposes. And, to quote from a recent comic book: 'At the Gotham City Museum, Bruce Wayne, Millionaire Sportsman and Playboy [and Batman], and his young ward Dick Grayson [Robin], attend a sensational "Pop" Art Show....'
This sketch of the term Pop Art's mobility reveals resistance, within the art world, to using a non-hierarchic definition of art. The first phase was a descriptive account of the whole field of communications, in which we live and of which art is a part. The third phase is an enactment of the idea of a continuous and non-exclusive culture. Pop Art/2, on the other hand, is an interruption of the anthropological view of art; though the mass media is iconographically present, the art is a consolidation of formal procedures that are largely traditional.
Future usage is hard to predict, but probably the references of the second phase will continue in use as the least demanding, but if so we will need a word for the wider field of general culture. I propose Pop Culture as the least troublesome supplement to Pop Art, if this term is linked to a narrow definition. The anthropological definition of culture is likely to appear, under other titles. By it I mean to refer to the impulse towards open-ended as opposed to formal descriptions of events and to a speculative rather than to a contemplative esthetics, the main enemy of which at present in the United States is academic formal art criticism.