This page paper discusses art and pop art, and distinguishes between the two by noting the characteristics of each form. As examples of each, two works of Andy Warhol are compared and contrasted to Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and Rembrandt’s “Syndic of the Clothmaker’s Guild.

Pop art is a form of modern painting in which commonplace objects such as soup cans, hamburgers, and road signs are used as subject matter and are in some cases even physically incorporated into the actual work itself. Pop art is perhaps best defined by the notable works of pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman, and James Rosenquist of the United States, and by Peter Blake and David Hockney of Great Britain. (Honnef 81)

The paintings of these pop artists were distinguished by their portrayal of familiar aspects of popular culture taken from comic books, television, movie magazines, and common forms of advertising. The artists presented their subjects boldly and objectively, without emotional overtones, but with a powerful sense of immediacy, in a manner strikingly similar to the commercial techniques used by the media from which the iconography itself was borrowed.

Pop art became culturally popular in Great Britain and the United States primarily because of its close relationship with common social situations most of the general public could identify with, and because its easily comprehensible images were quickly exploited by the mass media. Although unimpressed critics of pop art dismissed it with contempt as vulgar, sensational, and lacking in aesthetic qualities, its many admirers considered it a form of art that was truly democratic and nondiscriminatory, and which presented an honest artistic product that traditional art connoisseurs and the untrained public could both appreciate. ( Hanson 287)

Some of the more striking forms of pop art were Andy Warhol’s meticulously literal paintings and silk-screen prints of commonly known soup-can labels, laundry soap cartons, and rows of soft-drink bottles. Most pop artists aspired to an impersonal, urbane, and culturally sophisticated style in their works, but some examples of pop art were subtly expressive vehicles of social criticism.

For example, Andy Warhol’s monotonous repetitions of the same banal image have an undeniably disturbing emotional effect on the viewer, which apparently was the intent of the artist. Other forms of pop art, in contrast, are overtly expressionistic in nature.

American pop art tended to be emblematic, rather anonymous, and aggressive, and generally dealt with modern technology and popular culture as common themes. Some American pop artists, Andy Warhol most notably, actually seemed to live these ideas. Warhol declared, for example, that he thought everybody should be a machine, and attempted in his distinctive style of pop art to produce works that a machine would have made.

Another observation of his, that everyone would win their own fifteen minutes of fame, seems to me an accurate commentary upon the short lifespan of pop art. It lasted longer than fifteen minutes, but not by much.

In contrast to pop art and its typical manifestations, art is primarily defined and identified by its timelessness and aesthetic appeal. For example, great art can be understood and held in high esteem by people from many generations and across various boundaries of culture and ethnicity because of its broad human appeal, while pop art is by its very nature far more reliant upon a prospective audience’s familiarity with the particular cultural aspects of the work.

For example, Warhol’s painting of a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can may inspire nostalgic memories or other typical emotional reactions in the soul of many an American of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, but it would probably be stared at in mute bewilderment by someone from three centuries in the future. A visitor to an art gallery in Paris in 2356 would not share a post World War Two American’s familiarity with the object in question and would very likely be at a loss to understand the point of the painting.

A timeless work of art painted by a master artist such as Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt Van Rijn however, would be easily interpreted by viewers seperated by hundreds of years. The visual content would be universally understood, the emotions evoked would be universally felt, and the aesthetics of the work would be universally appreciated. (Hagen and Hagen 191)

For example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” is among the most famous paintings in the world. The composition of the scene is masterful; the dramatic power of this timeless painting comes from the striking contrast in the attitudes of the twelve disciples as counterposed to Christ. It is significant that Da Vinci portrayed the moment of highest emotional tension when all of the Apostles except Judas Iscariot are agitated, while Christ, conscious of his divine mission, sits in lonely, transfigured serenity. (Wasserman 201)

That Paris art gallery visitor of 2356 would understand at once the timeless theme of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” He or she would also note with appreciation the emotional and visual content of the painting, and would likely consider the work aesthetically pleasing. He or she would be able to relate completely to the human drama of Da Vinci’s scene and appreciate the relationships displayed and the emotions involved by simply looking upon the vivid expressions on the faces of the subjects being portrayed.

In contrast, another pop art work of Andy Warhol’s, “100 Cans”, is simply a painting of one-hundred Campbell’s soup cans, stacked atop one another to make a square ten soup cans wide and ten soup cans tall. Apparently born of the shaky philosophy that if one Campbell’s soup can painting can be a commercial pop art success, a painting of one-hundred Campbell’s soup cans would have to be considered a masterpiece and attain immortal fame, this pop art painting is perhaps one of the best examples of the nature of pop art.

In stark contrast to Warhol’s soup can motif, Rembrandt’s “Syndics of the Clothmaker’s Guild” is another example of the expressive power, aesthetic quality, and timeless nature of great art. One of the great Dutch portrait painters, Rembrandt portrayed his four subjects during a quality or classification meeting. He depicts them as steeled professionals in the process of contemplating a question for which samples have been provided. The dramatic nature of this meeting is evident, since the subjects were well aware that any decision rendered by them at such a gathering would affect the textile trade worldwide, since at this point in history, Dutch commercial connections had no peer. (Bonafoux 55)

As in Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, Rembrandt’s “Syndics of the Clothmaker’s Guild” is an expression of great art at its height of power and accomplishment. The subjects are rendered in exquisite detail, an emotional statement is made, and the human element provides a powerful focus.

I chose this famous Rembrandt work for discussion primarily because of its high artistic quality and timeless nature, but also because it shares a somewhat detached but ironic relationship with the commercially focused 1960’s pop art of Andy Warhol. The scene originally portrayed by Rembrandt in Seventeenth Century Holland was made famous in a commercial sense all across mid-Twentieth Century America by its reproduction on the cover of the old “Dutch Masters” cigar box.

In conclusion, art and pop art differ from one another in two very distinctive ways. True great art has an inherently timeless appeal and is aesthetically pleasing to a vast audience, while pop art is quite limited in appeal and is reliant on a specific audience and a particular context in time and location. Great art can be understood and held in high esteem by people from many generations and across various boundaries of culture and ethnicity because of its broad human appeal, while pop art by its very nature depends upon a prospective audience’s familiarity with the particular cultural aspects of the work.

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  • Bonafoux, Pascal. Rembrandt: Master of the Portrait. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.
  • Hagen, Rose-Marie, and Hagen Rainer. What Great Paintings Say: Old Masters in Detail. New York: Taschen America, 2000.
  • Hanson, H. W. History of Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
  • Honnef, Klaus. Andy Warhol 1928-1987: Commerce into Art. New York: Taschen America, 2000.
  • Warhol, Andy. Popism: The Warhol ‘60’s. New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1990.
  • Wasserman, Jack. Leonardo Da Vinci. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984.    

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