I chose to write about the Pop Art movement for several reasons, not the least of which is the wonderful exhibit that is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this spring, which I visited during my time off from school. Of course, Pop Art has a lot to offer our discussion of poetry in its own right; it speaks to much of the work we’ve been reading in our Poetry and Social Justice course, particularly that poetry which dwells on the body as a contested political ground, and the dissolution of distinctions between high and low art (that is, poetry about gender and sexuality, and hip hop poetics, which I will come back to shortly.) I want to consider Pop Art in conversation with political poetry, and the ways that both figure the body as a physical and social object, and the ways that this mode of figuration is often furnished by pop-culture.
First, though, I’ll give you a little more context. Pop Art was an international movement that emerged on the visual arts scene in the mid 1950s and lasted well into the 1970s. Pop Art is meant to respond to a rapidly changing, globalizing world, often through bright colors and unconventional materials, with a particular interest in examining consumerism and mass media. It is a space that is as much for recreation as it is for criticism; almost by nature, Pop Art is playful and witty even as it is acerbic. Often, as it creates, it mocks its own materials: a glass case of green platform shoes asks us to consider the replacement of art with mass production; a sculpture of a female nude, complete with mirror pasted between the legs, forces us to consider art’s tendency to objectify women even as we long to figure ourselves through them and upon them.
This brightness and (dare I say) fun feels reminiscent of the work of several poets on our class syllabus: Lucille Clifton (“wishes for sons”); Tony Medina (“Everything you wanted to know about hip hop but were afraid to be hipped for fear of being hopped”); Christopher Soto (aka Loma) (“Transactional Sex with Satan”); and more. These artists are critical, yes, and biting, but their expression is also entertaining, funny, neon. This way of creating joy out of what is problematic is a tool I see as particularly useful for the artist activist; it not only vests the artist with a level of control (they are the ones making the joke, even as they are, as marginalized people, used to being the butt of jokes), it also allows for the possibility of sustained interaction with problematic institutions. That is, laughter is a form of self-care, a way of inoculating the self against anguish while maintaining a critical gaze. It also creates something of an access point for an untried viewer; we can all laugh at "hip hop halitosis", even if we don't yet feel able to understand the significance of "hip hop auction block."
Often, Pop Art pieces make use of commercialized products, as in Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup cans or Jean Tinguely’s “Frigo Duchamp (Duchamp Refrigerator)”, a household refrigerator refigured as mystery machine, the door cracked open to reveal to the viewer an inscrutable red tangle of wires.
The move towards repurposing commercial objects is a symbolically weighted one: the artist, in using these familiar household items, speaks to the viewer through the scenery of their daily lives. The common tools of life are refigured into something strange and other, something that can be called Art and shown in a gallery. The viewer must wonder, then: are the sponges in my sink art? Is the soda I drink art? This has several effects: if one wants to be optimistic, one can consider that our lives become important as they are transcribed or transmuted by the artistic process, and, therefore, we are ourselves meaningful beings, even as we wash dishes or eat lunch. If one wants to be skeptical, one can consider the use of the mass-produced object in art as a signal of the death of art at the hands of capitalism, and a signal of the stupidity of the consumer. Of course there is, too, a middle ground, one that does not sanctify the mass-produced object but also does not give up art (and one that I find the most convincing): by reshaping the factory made material into a piece of art, the artist reclaims the commercialized terrain of media, and pushes back against the homogenizing forces of the market and advertising.
The above concerns about the use of the quotidian (or the “low”) in art (the “high”), it seems to me, can also be applied to hip hop poetics and the poetics of the body. When poetry includes elements of rap and hip hop on a sonic level, it appeals to a generation that was raised on hip hop music; it reminds readers that we have lived next to poetry all our lives, without recognizing it, and permits black voices to claim and push back against the homogenous space of the university and academic poetry. It also provides an opportunity to reclaim hip hop as a space for anyone who can (as Kevin Coval says) “get down”, rather than the misogynistic, homophobic boy’s club that has been aggressively marketed as contemporary rap and hip hop. “Low” content, too, becomes powerful as it moves into the sanctified space of the poem: the discussion of menstruation, of ejaculation, of hair and the “second mouth” grants the body, in all its real, unpleasant physicality, a sort of beauty.
I am also intrigued by the use of the pop-culture icon in both Pop and poetic arts; it seems to me that both mediums subscribe not only to William Carlos William’s claim that there is “no truth but in things”, but also to a claim that there is no truth but in people. Pop Art frequently figures cultural and political icons like Mickey Mouse, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, etc.; hip hop and body poetry, too, make use of musicians (Safia Elhillo’s “suite for ol’ dirty”), politicians (Tony Medina’s “Obama’s letter to Santa"), and popular characters (Greta Garbo in Randal Mann’s “Queen Christina”) to populate its work. The use of real people in art suggests that one cannot be separated from the other; that is, life, and particularly in the poetry of the BreakBeats and others, the lives of marginalized peoples, cannot be separated from art. The voice of the artist matters, especially as it is figured through flesh and blood people rather than abstractions (such as metaphorical language, or the use of brush stroke in work like Willem de Kooning’s.) The body is the work as much as the canvas or the page is the work.
The inclusion of the famous figure also raises questions of fame, beauty, power; who are those people we recognize on sight? Why are these the people we think our audiences will know, that they will have associations with? Why is it more acceptable, in art, to talk about someone like Marilyn Monroe, rather than someone like Rory, for example, a (non-famous) person who appears in many of Loma’s poems?
To write more, briefly, on the body, before I wrap up: Pop Art is concerned, as the Philadelphia Museum of Art website writes, with “figuration”; that is, with representing the body and the space that the body inhabits. In the PMA exhibit, this manifests itself in a great deal of sculptural or mixed media work, work that projects itself off of the canvas and into the space of the gallery, that invites the viewers to touch it (literally, in some cases), to recognize their own physicality as bodies in a room. This is one effect that I think is unique to visual arts; viewers can interact with them in a real physical space. Even poetry about the body cannot be touched by a reader as a sculpture can be. I wonder, then, how poetry can make that leap, how it can be as much matter as a sculpture or painting? I wonder, too, if this is an arbitrary distinction: after all, most museums forbid viewers to touch the art. Does it matter that sculpture can inhabit a room if it is to be kept from the audience anyway? Does the object-ness of art allow it to work on viewers more actively, to more easily convey messages of social justice?
I hope that this brief gaze into Pop Art has shed some light on what I see political poetry doing in the contemporary arts scene; I hope, too, that it encourages a conversation about how the arts affect our ability to criticize and recreate the worlds we live in, and how different mediums interact with one another. Art and activism have always been closely connected—even in Pop Art, a space that is perhaps considered more fun than politically provocative—and I hope that in looking at art created in the mid to late 20th century and comparing it to the poetry of the 21st century, I have imparted some sense that they continue to be connected, and that the artist and poet are in a rich dialogue with international communities of people ready to question, create, and refigure.