While the search for new artistic inspiration persisted throughout the post-war period, artists in these two movements sometimes chose divergent methods of representing their artistic passion. Motivation for the change from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art (from late 1940s to 1960s) was essentially a product of the political, cultural and artistic environment in that period. The artistic and cultural shift after World War Two forced artists to relocate their means of artistic expression.
To examine the transitional phase bridging these two movements, we must first define what cultural and artistic shifts are. According to T.S Eliot, culture “includes all the characteristic activities of a people: Derby Day…the pin table…nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar…what is part of our culture is also a part of our lived religion.” 1 Therefore, a shift in culture would denote a change in the qualities of a person or society arising from a concern for what is reckoned as excellent in arts, manners and scholarly pursuits.2 On the other hand, ‘art’ defined on its own represents the satisfaction of aesthetic standards and sensibilities through an appreciation of beauty or good taste; at the same time, it is the demonstration of the ability to create with excellence. 3 Thence, an artistic shift would mean a transition in both aesthetic values and styles, as well as creative techniques.
Let us consider the causes of these changes. Art is most often affected by the culture of the society that creates it. It is intertwined with politics, and sometimes functions as a political commentary or critique. Art aims to be an expression of political discourse as the ultimate means of emancipation-absolute freedom from commodification, if such is still possible. Art is a critical necessity as long as it fights being a part of the spectacle, as it aims to turn the spectacle upside down, in order to expose the ‘culture industry’. Politics, in many ways, acts as a catalyst to cultural and artistic developments.
A cultural shift is often induced by a change in sociopolitical atmosphere. This was evident in the cultural shift between the period of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. During the period immediately after World War Two, disgust at war, and the emerging Cold War prompted society to turn to an anti-materialistic, apolitical lifestyle. They became more concerned with what lays within, exploring the idea of purity, hence their interest for the so-called ‘High Art’ represented by Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Hans Hofmann. The regard for purity in the soul was expressed by non-figurative, expressive action paintings often associated and concerned with colours, lines and shapes.
Unlike Abstract Expressionism, when the heyday of Pop Art arrived, spearheaded by such champions as Warhol, (with America enjoying great success in its post-war boom and Cold War strategies against USSR), the whole of the United States was engrossed in its flourishing economy and mass culture. It was a time during which popular prints were instrumental in helping to shape the perceptions of the vast majority.4
Ever since the end of World War Two, periodic political and economical upheavals have marked the emergence of the American art. The previously dominant European art world began to evolve around American art since the late 1940s, creating a brand new artistic and cultural atmosphere for the American artists. Though American artists shared a similar global reality with the Europeans, their socio-political circumstances differed.5 Unlike the European states, the United States of America had sustained minimal moral and physical damage during the war. This however, nurtured a culture of apolitical apathy among the ordinary Americans who became much concerned with the search for self-enrichment.
Having understood the pre Cold War atmosphere in America, it may be seen that the artist’s profession was, in itself, a magnet for suspicion. If you were a modernist, then according to Michigan Congressman George E. Dondero, you were an ‘international art thug’ working in un-American ‘Communistic’ styles.6 Therefore, any suggestion of being associated with liberal causes could result in accusations of disloyalty to the American way. Thus it was prudent to avoid political controversy in one’s art. The resultant artistic focus on purely personal truths was expressed in the essence of the later Abstract Expressionist works.
Contrast this with Pop Art, which celebrated post-war consumerism, as the post-war economic boom resulted in an era of glitz and consumerism. It created a generation in which anything and everything was available on the open market. In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War politics, many were concerned with popular culture’s political as opposed to aesthetic impact.7 The age of Pop Art on the other hand, turned this idea around. As Sontag’s stated in the essay ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’8, the ‘dizzying rate’ of cultural and technological change had produced a ‘new (potentially unitary) sensibility,’ one that emerged from the breakdown of old cultural boundaries-between science and art, high culture and low.
“There are…new standards of beauty and style and taste…From the vantage point of this new sensibility, the beauty of a machine or of the solution to a mathematical problem, of a painting by Jasper Johns, of a file by Jean-Luc Godard, and of the personalities and music of the Beatles is equally accessible”.Thus far, we have discussed the nature of the cultural shift between the two movements. We must now turn our study to the artistic shift, the product of the intangible change in social culture through the decades.