It seems as though American art in the 20th century was evolving to reflect an approach that would become, at least for a time, uniquely American: commentary. This is meant in a way far more expansive than direct social or political statement; what occurred was a process of questioning or investigation prompted only by the exposure of the subject. Traditionally, originality was considered the mark of the artist, and in any medium (online lectures). The new movements were unconcerned with originating expression, however; rather, they sought to challenge whatever ideas were associated with any number of images.
Pop Art, for example, was the logical extension of this investigative process. More exactly, as America increasingly established a consumer culture, artists were enabled to focus on specific iconography then firmly embedded within the American ideology and culture. This inevitably created a field of jarring commentary, as so much of American culture was based on a consumerist, and typically dogmatic, point of view. It is important, in fact, that “Pop Art” was born as a term referring to British artists seizing upon American consumerism as their “inspiration” (Pohl 499). The culture had grown to an identity so established, other cultures could employ it as an artistic source. More significantly, Pop Art embodied the role art was taking within American culture, and this goes to how the art was impacting on government support. In simple terms, art in the 20th century was marked by a symbiosis: as the art explored new approaches to cultural perceptions, those elements of the culture were emphasized, which in turn commanded interest from those forces responding to popular feeling. Tracing the influence of American artists on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is thus inherently complex, if only because any manifestation of a society – such as government support for the arts – is inextricably linked to the ongoing shifts within that society. At the same time, patterns of influence may be identified. It is interesting, for example, that the first endowment went to the American Ballet Theatre (nea.gov); bluntly, it is difficult to conceive of a “safer” object for artistic funding, as the Ballet essentially was an American extension of a vast Western tradition.
This relationship between funding and object would radically shift, simply because the objects were less accommodating, or traditional. As Pop Art emerged, it seems that the nation was shocked into myriad forms of self-examination, and it is likely that the genre thrived because it was, if challenging, non-confrontational. Roy Lichtenstein’s parody-art, for example, boldly
Drowning Girl, 1963, Oil
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
amplified imagery well-known to Americans, which demanded reflection on those cultural values so suddenly magnified. His pixilated enlargements of comic book panels are the essence of pulp illustration; nothing is real, and each line is an exaggeration of the real. Color is unnatural, as it is extraordinary that the hair of his drowning girl remains in place. The art is then simultaneously an affectionate mockery and a challenge as to what precisely is accepted within it as desirable, or even “real.” Lichenstein drew criticism for the humor of his approach: “With the Vietnam War moving into high gear, and resistance at home on the boil, the perceived ideological defects of his art seemed particularly glaring” (Cotter). Nonetheless, he achieved impact. In fueling reflection about gender roles through borrowed hyperbole, the art then prompted introspection within the society, earning it a place as an art form worthy of subsidy. Again, art as an instrument of symbiosis on a national level is occurring here.
Vietnam II, 1973, Acrylic
Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, Il
Far more direct, and certainly less “gentle,” is the work of Leon Golub. This may, in fact, be termed as art as journalistic or editorial response. His Vietnam II, moreover, employs both modern and classic techniques. The placements of the aggressive soldiers besieging the Vietnamese is utterly symmetrical, and reflect conflict represented in art at its most primal. The anguish and shock on the face of the boy in the foreground is also a classical device, drawing the viewer personally into the experience. At the same time, Golub dismisses any natural background; his scene may be in another dimension of space, as the earthy and limited color palette “drains” life from the image. This is direct statement, and the political aspect is indisputable, as Golub completed the work following Nixon’s victory in the 1972 presidential race (tate.org). That some influence on the NEA occurred through such art is certain, if only in that this art powerfully expressed rising national outrage. The subject itself is, ironically, of less importance than the process. As with Lichtenstein, what was occurring was an exponential action and reaction dynamic. Art was reflecting – and shifting – public feeling, public feeling is invariably of great concern to a government, and the NEA was, new movement by new movement, compelled to extend traditional concepts regarding the nature of art itself.
Cotter, H. “Cool. Commercial. Unmistakeable.” The New York Times. 2012. Web.
National Endowment for the Arts. (nea.gov). Exemplary Projects Funded Since 1965. 2013. Web. <http://www.nea.gov/about/40th/archive.html>
Online Lecture. 2013. Web.
Pohl, F. K. Framing America: A Social History of American Art, 2nd Ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2007. Print.
Tate. (tate.org). Leon Golub, Vietnam II, 1973. 2013. Web. <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/golub-vietnam-ii-l02511?