Lichtenstein converted mass media into art

October 05, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

YEARS AGO, WHEN I was a cub reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, an older colleague gave me a piece of advice: "Work here a coupla years, then get a job on TV," he said.

He was thinking, no doubt, of the fantastic salaries television anchors earned. But as it happened, I never followed his advice, and today I still marvel at the fact that a fellow journalist once tried to persuade me to work in a medium that was so totally unreal.

Yes, I know, we ink-stained wretches are prejudiced against our electronic brethren. But the fact is, TV really is unreal -- despite the fact that it looks so realistic, it has managed to fool almost everyone these past 50 years.

The artist Roy Lichtenstein, who died last week, understood this paradox very well. His whole oeuvre was, in a sense, a protest against the unthinking credulity we accord the mass-produced images of television and advertising. He was one of the first artists to take seriously Marshall McLuhan's revolutionary dictum of the 1960s that "The medium is the message."

McLuhan believed that all media are essentially an extension of our senses and that the mass media of the 20th century had fundamentally changed the culture, art and behavioral norms of society because they had changed the consciousness of the people in it.

By mass media, McLuhan meant the whole complex of industries that produce consumer goods, information and entertainment. The media are the engine of culture. They not only transport messages but also change the way we interpret reality. Yet for the most part, they act invisibly: We are not even aware of how they shape our perceptions.

The movement called pop art was defined by Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, who between them jolted the serious art world out of an era devoted to abstraction, despite their very different artistic and public personalities. They literally brought pictures back into art.

They seized on McLuhan's ideas as the basis for a new art that examined the commercially manufactured version of reality transmitted by the media and its effect on society.

Their idea was to make visible the previously invisible workings of the media on our consciousness by deliberately blurring the distinction between the "fine" art of museums and the "commercial" art of popular culture -- movies, television and advertising.

The artist's purpose

Lichtenstein's delightful send-ups of the ubiquitous comic strip had a profoundly serious moral purpose. He wanted to show how the stylized, cliched, banal version of reality conveyed by comics actually concealed, rather than revealed, the intense drama of human relationships.

In doing so, Lichtenstein suggested the depersonalizing, homogenizing effect of media on our consciousness and how we have been trained to perceive reality through a set of arbitrary, standardized pictorial devices.

Lichtenstein once said that he owed his style to comics, but not his themes. His work addressed the breakdown of barriers between art and life by making the everyday objects of consumer culture appropriate subjects for art. But it also implicitly criticized the naive acceptance of media images and the social arrangements they are designed to reinforce.

In doing so, Lichtenstein helped obliterate the traditional distinction between "high" and "low" art. Pop art was fun, it was accessible, and it satisfied the public's hunger for pictures at a time when highbrow taste had decreed any art not based on abstraction to be vulgar, cheap or hopelessly out of date.

Antidote to pomposity

Pop was a democratic antidote to the preening pomposity and self-importance of the art world and its arbiters. Abstract expressionism had thrived on a cult of angst-ridden genius and individual uniqueness. The pop artist deliberately crafted works to look as impersonal and machine-made as the mass-produced consumer products they portrayed.

Warhol's Brillo boxes and soup cans, like Lichtenstein's comic-strip paintings, were a violent assault on the idea that art had to look any one particular way. After the pop artists, artworks could look any way their creators wanted them to look.

By greatly enlarging the individual comic-book image and isolating it from the sequence that supposedly gives it meaning and context, Lichtenstein made us aware of all that has been left out of his pictures. And the reason we sense that powerful human emotions are at work in his pictures is precisely because the artist has worked so diligently to remove any visual trace of them.

Lichtenstein's legacy is both simple and profound. At a time dominated by the deadly seriousness of abstract expressionism, he gave art permission to laugh at itself. He taught us that life and art can celebrate irony, that it can be entertaining as well as intellectually demanding and that it's all right to be delighted by pictures. In short, his work reminded an art world that took itself far too seriously that art can still be fun.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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