Transcript: How does pop culture influence art?

Ferren Gipson

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Hi, I'm Karen Gibson, I'm an art historian and author and this is my Garden talk. So I'd really love it If to start out, all of us could take ourselves mentally through our day and imagine the things that we do, making our breakfast, getting dressed, traveling into work, listening to music. Do you find those things to be creatively inspiring? Do they make you feel artistic or as you're going about your day? Do you think that you notice all of the art that is happening around you? One of the things I love the most about art is that there really is a deep level connection with all of the things that are happening throughout our lives each day.

And if you start to think about pop culture and the relationship it has with art, you can find that they really inform one another and you can start finding some really interesting connections and and ways of seeing deeply more deeply into things. I think that sometimes when people look at older artworks, they maybe feel disconnected from it. You know, it's a couple 100 years old and I don't know what any of the symbolism means and things like that. But in a way you can think that that at the time that those things were made, many people would have understood those symbols and they maybe would have come second nature to them.

They would have seen a saint carrying a certain thing and said, oh that saint so and so and recognized that straight away today because we're out of practice with that we have to think a little bit harder for those connections. But I always say that it's a little bit like the way we understand memes today, we don't have to study memes. We don't have to, well sometimes we have to do a little googling, but for the most part, once you learn what it means, you receive it and then when you see it applied elsewhere, you understand that visual language, Right? So that's kind of a form of symbolism and understanding how to read images and how deeper layers of meaning can be injected within an image.

And it's not so different to looking at symbolism and interpreting artworks. So I think today it will be fun to see how we can think about the way we can see people's tastes in music and tastes and fashion and interest and just generally how popular culture is reflected in art, but then a little bit also how art sometimes can be the influential factor I suppose on the other side and can steer the way that pop culture goes. So one example that we can look at just early on is Van Gogh Right, A lot of people recognize his work Starry starry night, that sort of thing.

Well, in the 19th century There was a world fair in Paris, it was in 1867 and this was the first time that Japan showed at the World Fair and people were absolutely fascinated. It was held in paris I believe and everyone was just had never seen things like this before. And this was a really pivotal moment in the development of modern art artists who saw these works thought oh my gosh look at the way these these images are graphic in their design and the colors are flat so maybe not so much light and shadow, just solid color fields and there's kind of you know kind of lashes of rain that our lines, it's not necessarily, you know, photo realistic, it's totally different.

And these artists became really interested in this. You know, Matisse became interested in this, the impressionists van Gogh and it inspired the way that they approached their own artworks and really helped shape the direction of modern art along with some other things like african art and other things at this time. And Van Gogh is um he he wasn't outside of this influence right? He was, he also was really inspired by UKiyo e prints and things that he saw and he would sometimes make copies of Prince Japanese prints that he saw in his own Van Gogh style but still copies of these works.

Or he would incorporate elements of the works in his own works. For example, I mentioned the lashes lashes of rain. So he would do these lines across some of his works and he also has examples of works where there are japanese prints in the background and what I think that's interesting about examples like that is that in looking at a lot of paintings, not just Van Gogh, but other paintings from this time you can see japanese furniture or women wearing kimonos or these prints or other japanese items in the background and you get a sense that, wow, this was a bit of a craze, like people were really interested in japanese objects and art and fashion and things at this time.

And so it gives you a sense of something that was effectively trendy in the culture. And this is a really interesting way that we can think about art as a direct connection to everyday life, not just something that sits in a gallery or something that is, you know, it's, it's in a church or a museum, it's something that we can really connect to real people's lives and how they lived. So we're gonna look a few at a few examples of that today. And then hopefully it'll stir up some more questions for you as we carry on.

So I think for a lot of people, the first example that probably comes to mind when it comes to pop art, to pop culture and art is pop art, right? And and that we're thinking about artists probably like Andy Warhol, we're thinking of Roy Lichtenstein and then creating these images that are very bold and colorful and that draw on very familiar icons and images, it's advertising, it's brands, it's even celebrities that they are incorporating within these images and pop artists were thinking about these things at this time.

Because after the Second World War, abstract expressionism came to be the kind of style dessert, you know that that was the kind of dominant style around that time. And some people found that very heady. They thought, I don't know what I'm looking at. I don't know how these artists are doing this. Is this even art, Yes, it's art. But these were the kinds of questions that people were saying about abstract expressionism and the pop artists said, you know, I just want something that connects to my everyday life.

I want something that really relates is relatable and speaks to real people's lives. And so they started exploring some of these topics, some of the artists through their work. Um some of it is a little bit of a social commentary about the things that people are caring about. For example, consumerism. Um but some of it is just wanting to connect to the art as they saw it, that was all around us all of the time. So partially they're interested in yes. Campbell soup cans and Marilyn Monroe and showing those things.

Sure. But also they're interested in processes. Andy Warhol especially was interested in mass production processes. And this is why his studio, which he called the factory was a place where sometimes different people were working on his artworks. He might set up a bit of an assembly line where someone was screen printing another kind of commercial process, right? Screen printing something, someone else would do another layer, Someone else might hand paint something on. And he was creating this kind of Um commercial process around producing his work and he's famously coined the phrase, you know, in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, right? That's where that comes from.

And it's because he really wanted to democratize art and he really wanted to disrupt the way we think about art in terms of what high art or low art and what we value and why. And Roy Lichtenstein is similar. He also was interested in these processes and we, one of his most recognizable styles is of course the comic book designs that he does. Um but when we think about that visually for a second, you know, he has the bold colors a lot of times. He's working with the primary colors red, yellow, and blue, and he's got those dots, those distinct dots that are across his comic like um and newspaper like paintings and those come from um they're called benday dots and they come from the printing process that he was emulating.

Now he's painting his and in fact they're not screen prints. Um not that he never did them, but he's painting these works, but he's going in effectively unnecessarily and adding these thoughts because he's he's wanting to highlight that he's putting that on a pedestal and celebrating those styles and those processes. And one of my favorite stories, it's kind of like bit of an art legend, like it's said to be true, but how true is it? But I think it's true is that the way religion got started working in the style is that his son came to him with a comic book drawing and goes, I bet you can't do anything as good as this.

And so he he took the challenge and he gets a little golden book, which they still make those, I have some for my son and it's a story of like mickey and Donald duck fishing or something like that, he takes an image from that and he decides to paint that image and he's using the, this is him already using the yellow and the red and the blue colors to paint this image. And he puts a little thought bubble above Donald Duck, who has accidentally hooked himself with his own fishing line. And this is really the start of the signature style that we recognized so well from Roy Lichtenstein.

And and it's just interesting to show how he's drawing on on a commercial thing that someone, you know, a book that they would give to a child. But then at the same time tapping into something that his own son is seeing as as quite a high art form. So moving on a little forward from pop art. Um we can talk about an example of another artist who is drawing on brands and pop culture references and how that can add deeper layers of meaning, and that's in Faith Ringgold work, um who's afraid of Aunt Jemima, and this is one of her earlier story quilts.

She's known for her quilts and she paints over the top of them and she tells these incredible stories, often highlighting the lives or stories of black women and who's afraid of Aunt Jemima focuses on the story of the Aunt Jemima character who is a a brand personality, cartoon mascot type thing that was for a pancake cereal, a pancake brand and a pancake syrup brand, and it's a black woman and she's based on the mammy stereotype. And if you're not familiar with the mammy stereotype, you would. The most famous example is probably from Gone With the Wind, The black domestic um character who is in that film, she's a slave in that film, and um it's a negative stereotype about black women um who are domestic, putting them in the position of domestic workers, who are only caretakers and maybe don't have much else going on in their lives outside of being servants.

So, as with most stereotypes, it's not nuanced and as with many stereotypes, it's harmful because it's not a it's not intended to be a kind portrayal of black women. So Faith Ringgold takes this image of Aunt jemima, which is on a pancake on a pancake brand and she decides to give her a more fully fleshed out story, she turns Aunt Jemima into this character who is a businesswoman, she has dreams, she has a life, she has ambitions and she tells this across this giant quilt to challenge this idea and it gives you an example of how like I was talking about earlier with memes, people who recognize the image or who recognize Aunt jemima and the negative connotations of a character like that instantly can understand the impact of what it does to flesh that character out.

And in fact in 2020 they, the remember brand changed their name to Pearl milling Company away and no longer use that mascot. This was after the George Floyd events and I think there are other brands that have done this as well. I think Uncle Ben may have also stopped using their character as well. The thing that's interesting to me about pop art is that it kind of reminds me a little bit about genre paintings. Um well it's they're not very similar in a way, but they remind me of each other and genre paintings are from the 16th century um when they start to become a bit more popular and they carry on forward for hundreds of years and they're basically just paintings of everyday life and that's kind of how I think of pop art, although it's a bit more abstracted in that it might just be a painting of a brillo box.

It's not really of everyday life, but it's relating to everyday life. But I think that if we think about genre paintings in this context, it can be really interesting because they show us what were people doing everyday, What kinds of games did they play with each other? What did they do for fun? Where what were they drinking when they went to the pub or how do they behave in their homes? It's really interesting to get an insight through these paintings of how people live their everyday lives. And um I think there's an example from Pieter bruegel the elder of Netherlandish proverbs.

That's a really fun example because it's a really hectic scene of this village and we see all kinds of things going on. There's people everywhere spilling from one place to the other. And the closer you look, the more there is to discover and what I love about this image is that it's based on expressions that even we know today, even though this was done, you know, hundreds of years ago and also from someone who's in a different speaks a different language, right? We speak english, but there are some recognizable expressions being represented in this painting, such as banging your head against the wall, right? To do something frustrating with no, with no good result.

And I think there's around 100 of these things to kind of unpick throughout the image, which is fun. It's a bit like a riddle, but it gives you insight into one what people lived like. I mean I don't think they were doing things quite as hectic as this scene, but it's a little bit of insight to what village life was sort of like, but also into the expressions that they used and how they talked and the frustrations that they had or it's just a fun connection to the way people spoke and lived their lives and then fast forwarding again back into the 20th century.

We can think of norman Rockwell as an example of sort of a genre painter who was showing insight into everyday mid century american life and he's showing examples of kids playing games, families fixing dinner. You know, a lot of his images were on the cover of the saturday Evening Post or were used for advertising and some of them are quite, quite twee. It's true, but they do represent american ideals and values at this time and also challenges at this time. You know, he painted one image of a little black girl who was attending.

Um she was the first student to desegregate her school and the challenges of that and the police who had to escort her in and throat the fact that people were throwing things at her and it's a very powerful image that reflects what was happening in America at that time. And that painting was later installed in the Obama White House for a short period of time. So it's a really powerful image in a way of connecting with life and showing what's going on in the world. So I think we're starting to see from this how in thinking about art and really critically looking at what's going on and what it can tell us about life.

We almost start to become a bit of a detective in the way that we're dissecting images. And I think fashion is a fun way to do that. So let's pivot a bit and talk now about some examples of fashion and trends that we can uncover through art. So, going way back now to the elizabethan period Elizabeth one, we can think about her as a powerful queen and the most powerful person in the country and but slightly at risk too as a woman right, they kept constantly wanting her to get married and people wanted her position.

And so she really needed to establish herself as a formidable figure. And one of the ways that she did that was through her dress, she wore these incredible clothes. She wore these huge uh um, oh gosh, what's the word frills around her neck? Why is the word escaping me, collars around her neck. Um, and these elaborate prints, patterns and also these huge wigs and she wore this makeup on her skin to keep her skin very like porcelain and white and that was very influential to how the other women in her court dressed.

And we see that in the paintings of Elizabeth and in other women in her court. And one of the things that's interesting to me about this is that I've I've looked at these images and thought why are all of their foreheads so high? Are they bald? Was everyone bald? Then what's going on? And what you realize is that basically Elizabeth was balding at points and wore wigs. And I guess they started to sit further and further back on her head as she was losing her hair. And so the women in her court imitated her.

They plucked their hair to have higher foreheads. It was then seemed to be more attractive and we can see that represented in paintings. And it's really interesting to see, you know, the fair skin that the women wore the lengths that they went to um wearing lead makeup, which was poisoning them to to have this look. And we we have that insight because we can see that in paintings. Now, one of the things that you have to be cautious of when it comes to looking at paintings as a way of understanding what fashions were at the time is that for a long time, many hundreds of years, several 100 years paintings were commissioned by people who could afford them.

Right? So we're talking very wealthy people, very powerful people. So for the most part, a lot of portraiture represents a certain class of people, a certain demographic of people in Western art history. So it's important not to forget that, you know, I don't think your average person was walking around with some of these embroidered, gorgeous fabrics that we see and these portraits of you know, Henry the eighth or some of these people from this time. But it does give us a slice of a view into what these people looks like.

And it's an important and useful tool because textiles, rugs, fabrics, dresses, these things don't tend to last over centuries and centuries. So one of the best ways that we have to understand these things is through looking at these paintings. And a really fun example of that is in the Elizabeth movie, there's a scene of her coronation and the dress that she's wearing, the style of her hair, the things that she's holding are all based on the images, the painting or coordination painting. It's very impressive when you look at images of each side by side and you can see how the costume designers really studied um that painting in order to create that that look.

And so costume designers especially probably are very grateful for painters when it comes to creating works creating garments and things for films for period pieces because it's it's like gold dust, it's really insightful um information for them to do that. So now we can maybe transition a bit into talking about film and while it's very useful art to help us think about things like fashions and and film and maybe even scenery and different places. It can also be a little bit um risky as well. And one of the examples is in thinking about ancient Greece.

If I ask all of us to picture our in our mind, transport ourselves to ancient Greece were Athens walking around many people, maybe not you, but many people will imagine beautiful white marble buildings, everyone wearing white togas, white sculptures and all these things. And it was totally not like that. It was so colorful. It was almost garish when you see how these images and looked with bright blues and primary colors, bright yellows and reds and some of these sculptures that we know to be white um and and marble and pure white were actually these incredible colors.

But what's happened is that as they were buried over the years and lost and hidden away the pigment on those materials in these buildings was lost. And um when sometimes when people recovered these items, they would clean them because they saw it as you know, it's only got a little bit of paint on, it will just clean the rest off. And what's happened is that over time we've come to think of these objects and these places as being pure white. And so that's transferred over into many pop culture representations of the classical world of classical Rome and Greece and you know, I think of you know, Disney uh Hercules or something and you everything is all white, but really it really wasn't like that.

So it's an example of where our artistic understanding of something today on a more pop culture level has maybe been mis translated as we look into film. If we talk about something like animation, which is an art form in and of itself, there's fun examples that we can look at with Disney. So when Disney was establishing his studio, he really wanted to differentiate himself and his animators by making sure that they were the best. And one of the ways that he did that is by bringing in art teachers to educate them, Having them draw draw from live models, but also having the artists draw from inspiration from art history.

And so, Sleeping Beauty is one of my favorite examples of where this happens, where he's looking, he has the artists looking at Vanik paintings, they're looking at Brickell Village paintings like we looked at earlier. They're looking at illustrated manuscripts as well. And there's one, excuse my french accent, which is a beautiful Gothic illustrated manuscript that has bold colors, bold blues and greens and these kind of angular lines and this really picturesque kind of medieval feel to it that they translated over into how they drew some of the characters and scenes in Sleeping Beauty.

And even at the start of the film, when they when it begins, it starts with a big heavy book that says Sleeping Beauty on it as if we're about to watch an animated illuminated manuscript. So it's a really influential um artwork that they drew on as they were thinking about how to put this film together. And they've done this several times. There was another artist, Tyrus Wong, he was a chinese born american artist who drew on song dynasty paintings in his work for Bambi. And he used some dynasty techniques to create a kind of misty mid ground to separate the foreground in the background and to create these layers and depths to the scene.

And I believe they revisited some of tires work when they were thinking about how to do Mulan as well. And they've also looked to cubism as they were working on 101 Dalmatians. And so there's many times where they were really trying to push their own animation forward by looking to fine art practices. And one of the biggest examples of that is that dolly and Walt Disney worked together on a film called Destinino. Unfortunately, it was not put out before they died. It was it was only released in 2003.

Um, but they were able to put together thing, the animation from the notes that they had and the storyboard animations, which were absolutely chaotic I'm told, but they pieced it together and were able to put together this film that really when you look at it, it really does look like a dolly where it comes to life. And what's interesting is that apparently Dolly said of Disney that he felt that Disney was the greatest surrealist in the world. So it's really interesting to see that mutual respect that they had there and the influence that they had on each other as they were working on this project.

And lastly, I think it would be good to have a little bit of look of a look at music and the relationship with music and there's many different directions you can take this. But I thought I would start out with a couple of recent examples which is Beyonce, famously recording music video in the uh In 2018. It was such an epic moment. I think for art nerds like me and people who really want as many people as possible to engage with art and get excited about art. I know it must have been major for the loop, they must have been so inundated with visitors after that time.

And it's a really interesting thing for her to have done because it does, it does several things, it it welcomes people to the loof. It welcomes people to museum spaces saying this is for you. Um maybe you didn't think you would be interested in going to a museum, Maybe you didn't think that was for you for whatever reason, but you're welcome here, this is a space for you, you belong here. But it also asserted the way that she views herself as an artist by placing herself her body, her performance within that space, activating that space in that way.

It was a really assertive and bold move move on her part as as an artist and there's other artists who are doing similar things. Lady gaga um is very artistic in general, but certainly with her artpop album, she was really focusing on the relationship between art and music and her performances and what she was doing, which is evident even in the title of the album, which is a flip of pop art, right? Um but as she was performing, she was dressing as venus um from BOTTICELLI's birth of venus, she would do interviews dressed like this.

She also had her album cover designed by Jeff Koons. So you can see that she was really trying to integrate um these kind of fine art references throughout her work and she's done it before, I believe she's worked with Magdalena Abakanowicz um sorry, not bacanovic, um at this it escapes me, but the performance artist um in her work. And um so she's she's very much wanting to be a part of that space. There are many other examples I mentioned Jeff Koons and Lady gaga for her for that album cover, but there are many other examples of that as well.

Andy Warhol famously worked with Velvet Underground and did an album album cover for them. Damien Hirst recently did an album cover for drake, it was just quite controversial because people thought it was a series of emojis and people thought that's not art. And it's also not a good album cover, right? That's what some people said. But it invited conversation and it's up for debate and I think it's exciting again, gets people interested in talking and charged. What happens in my mind when artists collaborate with musicians or anyone collaborates with an artist in this way is there's there's an exchange of cultural capital there.

They each get to draw a little bit on the other person's or a little bit and to to um benefit from that and heighten each other's work or invite new conversations. There are other more ancient relationships with music and art. And that music was seen as at one time by the Greeks for example, as the highest art form and as because of its connection to mathematics and therefore they thought it was related to the cosmos. And so as renaissance artists began to revisit a lot of classical greek ideas.

They thought about this again and thought how can I make my art, you know, also as as high an art forms music, how can I make it special and and mathematically challenging and perfect in in in the ways that music can be. And so then we start to see artists working with different ratios to create harmonies within their work. So they start to do maybe working golden ratio or we see buildings like the Pantheon which are designed to be spherical and really taking in these mathematical calculations. There are other examples of music.

Um I have a couple other here but we're going low on time. So perhaps if you're interested in knowing more about those, I can certainly talk about a couple more examples of music. But I think what's interesting to think about across all of these examples because honestly there's endless and endless many more examples that we could discuss across pop culture is that it's all artists all around us. And no matter what you're interested in science or medicine or astrology or whatever topic you might be interested in a lot of times there's a pathway into that into art via that topic.

And so I always encourage people to to try to find that pathway in and to explore their interests in that way. And so now I'm looking forward to taking some of your questions and we can talk a bit further. Thank you Sarah, thank you so much. I never knew how bright and colorful the statues and lives of the ancient Greeks and romans were. Now we've had lots of questions coming from our members and I have lots of my own too. So let's take a look. The first question we have today is from Audrey and she has asked what's the longest trend in art.

Oh gosh, that's difficult. Um That's a difficult question to say. I guess maybe the strive the stride towards naturalism in Western art um is one that was around for many hundreds of years and then that's what makes modern art, the changes that happen around modern art so distinct and different where and we're again talking about Western art history here. Um but this is where artists start trying to throw that naturalism out of the window um a bit and and explore different things to the point where eventually they're painting things that don't look like anything at all.

So that that could be one example that comes to mind. Our next question has come from laura who's asked what made you interested in researching Pop culture's connections to art? Yeah. This this came because I think that art is very fun and special and I think that it's something that can be enjoyed by everyone and what I noticed is that a lot of people feel intimidated by art as a subject. They feel like they have to get it or that it's not for them or there's not a yeah, for whatever reason, a way for them to be able to enjoy art.

And so I started researching pop culture references in art and the relationship as a way of helping other people connect. So I started a podcast series called Art Matters which covers different topics in Pop culture and my hope was that in maybe, you know, maybe you don't like art, but maybe you're really into the olympics and you love sports and so you'll listen to an episode about art and the olympics. Or maybe you're really into astrology or maybe you're into um I don't know fairy tales or whatever it is and then and so maybe I can hook you because of your interest and then you can find that.

Yeah there's a place for you to enjoy and learn about art as well. So that's how that got started. Our next question comes from people who has asked, what are your thoughts on progression of art trading into N. F. T. Is it diluting the value of art? Well that's difficult. People like to ask me about N. F. T. S. And I don't really um it's not my area of expertise but I think that if they are making them as in N. F. T. S. If they're making images as NF tease that to me implies that it fundamentally should be original right? It shouldn't be something that um that's the whole point.

It's a way of protecting an original digital um asset or piece of work. Um It's it's it's interesting, you know as technology changes we have to adjust and it's probably quite useful for someone whose primary medium is digital to be able to protect their works to be able to maintain a sense of protecting the original source images of what they're doing. So I think it's applicable. Um it's a really applicable medium depending on um what the way an artist works and how they like to use their work.

I think we all just have to get used to it and that's probably gonna happen you know? Infinitum forever that we're going to be thinking about adjusting to new technologies and what that means for art. Another question about N. F. T. S. Alex has asked N. F. T. Artworks based on means seem like a modern example of art representing pop culture. But what does their lack of quality slash craft slash originality say about our modern culture art? The value of art is always a challenging question because there's it's not regulated in any way there's no way of um really knowing definitely how much something is worth or why something costs more than something else.

Um It's it's kind of tied to just kind of lose things or so an artist or a or where they've shown before and things like that. I think that people are very interested in N. F. T. S. And really want to know what's happening, what does it mean? And is it going to be worth something? And I think the answer That is that we'll just have to see as it shakes out, you know this reminds me a bit of street art a few years ago, 10 years ago it was very trendy and popular. Everyone was wanting to get street artists into their galleries and they're like well how do I do this? Usually paint on a wall in the street or usually are doing something that can't be brought into a gallery, how do we do this? And so it's just something that we're going to have to see how much the demand is there for these works and then what develops from that from that point.

Our next question is from Sophie who was asked, what was the pop art movement trying to do? Was it focused on entirely social commentary or influencing society? I don't think it was focused on influencing society. I think it was interested in looking closely at society and um it's a cliche to say hold up a mirror but a bit of displaying the things that we're talking about american culture at this with people like Warhol and that. So I'll say that what american odd mass american society, what they were into, what they valued, what did they buy, what did they watch? What do they care about on a mass scale? Obviously doesn't represent, you know, all different kinds of groups necessarily all of the time.

But I think it was really about showing things that people seem to value already within society and then putting it on a pedestal for people to maybe recoil maybe to relate to it, maybe to celebrate it, but to think about those things in a different way in a fine art context. These questions are fantastic, but I'm afraid we only have time for one more and it's from Hourani who has asked advice for creative storytellers seeking platforms and community spaces slash resources to connect with. I think that instagram can be a very useful place um, to, to connect with other people at least two.

Um I've certainly found other textile artists that way. Um and once you find one, you can start kind of combing through their followers to find others that you like and your for you, your, what's it called? Not a for you page, but your discovery page or whatever it is on instagram. Um once you do enough searching through like that, it'll start to suggest to people that you might be interested in. So I I've personally found instagram quite helpful for that. There are sometimes networks of groups for example, um groups of women artists or databases or things like that that you can find.

So you really have to do some Googling, I'm afraid to find um whatever your niche is. Um if you're a ceramicist or if you're a painter in a particular style and maybe just see if there's any kind of groups that have already been established um that work that could support you in the work that you're doing. But I think that instagram is a really good place to find like minded artists. I'm truly sorry Farren the questions have been brilliant today, but that's all we have time for. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you here in The Garden.

Thank you so much for joining us and thank you to all of our members for joining this talk, plenty of take homes there and certainly food for thoughts. We hope to see you at your next Garden gathering, but until then, stay curious.

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