April 23, 2004
If you want art that is in your face with its aesthetic qualities and social commentary, then point your nose in the direction of Pop art. Pop art takes the ideas of consumerism and fame and tweaks the wrapping a tad. You get an everyday image that is not necessarily everyday. That is to say, you get your already "distorted" image of reality, but it gets distorted a trifle more, just so much that you can understand the implications. Moreover, these Pop art pieces - particularly Warhol's - can be mass-produced, distributed, and purchased, just like the people and products they are lampooning. Ultimately, this means that you can purchase a poster of Warhol's Campbell's Soup, just about as easily as you can buy a can of Campbell's soup at any friendly neighborhood grocery store.
Furthermore, Pop art's references to ownership and image are remarkable. One can own a product, or an image of a "product" (the product may be a celebrity). Some might prefer one to the other, and this preference might be for personal or popularity reasons. Acquaintances might think you are on the verge of a mental illness if you have empty beer bottles on your coffee table and claim them to be anything but soon-to-be-recycled. However, if you have Warhol's Campbell's Soup in a frame above your Ikea computer desk, you are to be revered and envied because you are artsy and cultured! Either way, image is perpetually malleable and easily rendered by owning a piece of popular culture. Richard Hamilton showed this mightily well in his 1956 collage: Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? This collage not only served as the launching pad for the Pop artists to come, it also effectively portrayed the idea of consumer ownership and therefore the development of image.
Hamilton, who is often referred to as the sire of Pop art, assembled together an interesting array of images in the previously mentioned 1956 collage. Hamilton once described his collage by saying "Adam and Eve struck a pose along with the rest of the gadgetry" (Birnbaum). Considering that this collage could be the genesis for all of Pop art, one could say that quote hits the proverbial nail on the proverbial head. However, there is much more to this collage that needs to be explained. We do not see just gadgets, and it is not just "Adam and Eve."
Upon viewing this collage as a whole, you can see all these common items crammed into a tiny room (it may interest the reader to view Hamilton's collage in a large format located at: http://witcombe.sbc.edu/modernism/images/hamilton-appealing.jpg). Hamilton described this as an attempt "to throw into the cramped space of a living room some representation of the ideas and objects crowding postwar consciousness" (Birnbaum). This consciousness, perpetuated by the desire to purchase name brand products in flourishing economic times, infiltrates the mainstream image of the two individuals in the collage. Their possessions become them; they become the pre-cooked ham, neatly canned up in their little apartment in the city.
The two main people in the collage are in black and white; fortunately, other aspects of their lives are not so dichromatic. No doubt these are relatively older images of "famous" faces, icons taken out of their original context, but placed in an alternate significant setting. The main focal point is the scantily clad Charles Atlas-like bodybuilder, chock-full of actomyosin and clutching his gigantic phallic Tootsie Pop. To his right, we see what could be his trophy wife, trying to be as sexy as possible - but I am not so sure she is succeeding. What we see them doing here is showing off their stuff. They have the physical goods, both phenotypically and materially. They basically own tangible possessions that develop their image for them, and allow us to discern who they are.
Starting with the object our stud is grasping in his right hand: the enormous Tootsie Pop. Everyone knows what a Tootsie pop is, and we also know that it takes three licks to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop. The fact that he is clutching his sweet candy so close to himself portrays a hint of reliance on the product. There might also be a tinge of arrogance here, one might see our "Adam" as proudly displaying his immense treat, letting everyone know what they should suck on - nay we forget the phallic connotations.
The most noticeable aspect of this delicious candy, besides its phallic position and connotations, is the fact that is has "POP" occurring in big letters. This may have possibly been inspiration for the term "Pop art" along with the popular culture associations. But then what we would see here is a corporation lending its name to the label that is to be put on Hamilton as a "Pop" artist. This is just an act of dependence, or gratefulness, to products as well.
In the background of the collage, we see an end table with a lamp. However, the original lampshade seems to have migrated across the room and taken up residence on Mrs. Bodybuilder's head. In place of the initial lampshade is a new one with the snazzy red, white, and blue badge of Ford. The emblem does look like a shield, conveying that Ford will protect you, and be patriotic at the same time. In post-war times, patriotism is a must. However, it looks like there is a crown type figure at the top of the badge. This seems to be a sign of a patriarchal based philosophy, especially if they are implying that Ford is the "king" of cars. Moreover, this shows their dependence and loyalty to their royalty. Plus, there is the fact that Ford is just so illuminating that it goes perfect as a lampshade. There is nowhere in the continental United States that you cannot drive to in your nice, reliant, Ford automobile.
Moving on, it is good to know that they do not have just another ordinary vacuum, is it not? But, how are they going to coil up and store that monstrous hose? It looks like it is 15 feet long! That vacuum must have the most powerful suction known to man in order to get dirt and dust from one end of 15-foot hose all the way into the canister. The possession of the ultra-vacuum shows our homeowners' needs to have the newest and more desirable technologies.
So we know that the vacuum sucks, and that it probably sucks harder - as well as from farther away - as ever before, but who is the woman operating the device? I suppose that nobody can maintain their mainstream image when vacuuming their stairs, not even singing along to Clay Aiken bellowing out from your clock radio could maintain it, so you get a maid. And now with its longer hose, the hired help can stay farther away from the homeowners. If nobody wants to be seen doing the vacuuming, they certainly do not want to be seen cavorting near or, God forbid, with the hired help - that would be too much. The presence of the vacuum cements an arrogant image of the two individuals in the collage; they can afford the best vacuum, and they know it. Thank God for prosperous times!
Right outside the homeowners' window in the collage, we see an old picture of Warners' Theater in, what could possibly be, New York City (see image located here: < http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst203/images2/moviecrowd.html>). The movie advertised in the collage, The Jazz Singer, is oft incorrectly famed for its release in 1927 as the first ever "talkie." However, The Jazz Singer "was not the first Vitaphone (sound-on-disk) feature, it was the first feature-length Hollywood "talkie" film in which spoken dialogue was used as part of the dramatic action" (Dirks 1). The Jazz Singer is a story about the son of a Jewish Cantor who must choose between carrying on his family's traditions and performing vaudevillian stage acts in blackface. Even though the movie is about not totally adhering to traditions, which would seem good, the main significance of that scene outside the window is the peoples' love for, and necessity to be near, the tradition of advancing technology and marketable production.
One big aspect about his movie is the fact that the Jewish man changes his image. He changes his name from Jakie Rabinowitz to Jack Robin, so it does not sound Jewish, and he does performances in blackface to further mask his identity. This manipulation of physical image changes the audiences' view of him and allows him to conform to show business ideals. It is another example of how someone physically adorns themselves forms their image.
The jazz singer's reasoning for pursuing his show biz career contradicts what he later shows his mother. He claims that it is jazz music that is in his heart, but when he makes it back home, he has another agenda. He brings his mom a diamond necklace and tells her that if he is successful they are going to move up to the Bronx, and he will "buy you a nice black silk dress, Mama. You'll see, Mrs. Freedman, the butcher's wife, she'll be jealous of you. Yes she will. You'll see if she isn't" (Dirks 2). Basically, money and fame are what apparently occupy his heart; the popular culture of that time distorted Jakieās reality and he was nearly stubborn enough to choose show business over his family.
We see two more sources of technology and sound in Hamiltonās collage: the tape recorder and the television. The tape recorder, with tape on both reels, seems to have been used, but its placement on the floor is confusing. I believe this to be just convenient for Hamilton, because it really could not fit anywhere else. In any event, it is on display with the rest of their cool things, like the television.
The television is on and functioning, but nobody is currently watching it. Giving the sense that all their gadgets are merely luxuries, not matter how much they desire them. It looks as if there is an AT&T commercial on, planting the seed in the viewersā heads that: first they need a phone, and then they need to enter into a contract with the telephone company giving them a long distance calling plan which covers nights and weekends. These two seem simple enough to fall for anything - that is why they have that overkill vacuum.
Since fashion and interior design is important to the mainstream consumer, it would be important to Hamilton's "Adam and Eve" as well. We can see the adequately matched furniture of stylish design, free of dog hair, and placed in manner that accentuates their possessions. This line of furniture is probably mass-produced and available to all whom can pay for such commodities. The furniture shows that they care about the comfort of their, and their guests', posteriors, as well as the look of their interior.
Protecting their hardwood floors we see a black and white carpet, quite a bit uglier than the rest of the furniture, and for that it seems out of place. The carpet itself resembles the static you see on television when the cable goes out - implying that there is no signal available. That is what one would gather from these individuals anyway, a sense of nothingness; they are dependent on products and image.
Draped over the arm of one of the chairs is a newspaper. No doubt it is precisely placed and opened up to see how their stocks are doing. Although it might be that they are pretending they keep up on what is going on in the world - politically, ecologically, etc., to make them look more like activists. They should just hope that nobody that comes over actually knows what is going on, but the chances are that their friends have the same habits that they do.
On the coffee table we see one teacup. This definitely shows that they have class, because only sophisticated people drink tea. This loose representation of maturity, however, is nicely contrasted with, what looks like it could be, a paper airplane sitting next to it. The most peculiar and intriguing item on the coffee table, however, is the canned ham. I do not know if this ham is replacing art, is supposed to be art, is a mouth-watering reminder to make dinner, or is a subtle way for Hamilton to sign his collage. Either way, the meat is on display, not unlike the two homeowners. Furthermore, this is not just any meat, it is of the porcine variety - insert pig stereotypes here. It may be getting tiresome by now to repeat that they are dependent upon this brand of packaged meat. Fortunately, there seems to be an interesting unforeseen inspiration in this ham. For is this ham on the coffee table seems like a very Andy Warhol thing to do - as does the large specimen of candy on a stick Mr. Bodybuilder is holding.
If this ham were as Warhol would intend it to be, its presence would be admirable. This collage is not necessarily before Warhol's time, but I believe it was before Warhol's focus on name brands and celebrities. It does seem funny that this canned ham would be included in a work of social commentary, because I think canned hams are inherently amusing. The famed late night program Late Show with David Letterman had a long running joke involving canned ham giveaways. These Letterman hams were souvenirs, though. The canned ham on the collage coffee table has nowhere near the sentimental or artistic value.
There is one other aspect of this collage that has seemed to inspire, or be inspired by Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein. The large "Young Romance" poster adorning the wall in this room looks like something that Lichtenstein would do. Since Hamiltonās work does not necessarily chronologically come before Lichtenstein's either - Lichtenstein's Spray is dated to 1952 - one cannot discern whom may have inspired whom from this collage.
However, there is much to be said about this piece of artwork. First of all, it definitely over powers the portrait that inhabits the space over the television. "Young Romance" is bigger, more colorful, more dramatic, and more telling of the twosome's lifestyle. The "young" aspect is most intriguing as it may serve as pseudo fountain of youth, and as an up-lifting sentiment, to the two lovebirds as they start to advance in age and sag in places. The art may also remind them of how they want to be, or what they should try to live up to. There is a certain melodramatic soap-opera-esque standard, and these two may rely on that rulebook and mass media for how they should conduct their carnal delights. There might also be an egotistical hint in the prevalence of "Young Romance" in the room to show-off how desirable they are. Either way, the presence of that artwork in the room is a definite overcompensation for an apparent lack in that area.
Aside from all the things they do own, it is interesting to explore what they do not own. We can see that the only phone in the room is on the television. This may serve to show the continual source of the homeowners' inspirations and desires; they watch television to learn about what else they need. They do not have any magazines or catalogs on their coffee table, how else would they have known what kind of vacuum, or ham to buy?
The twosome are actively missing are their clothes as well. This has to be a purposeful action on the part of the artist to strip the consumers naked so they cannot hide anything. Another way to have the consumers not be able to hide their lives is by not giving them any curtains to put on their window. However, if the two homeowners are so proud of their possessions anyway, they would not care if they existed in a virtual fish tank.
Perhaps the thing I like most about this house is the view of the moon! However, in that close of proximity to the moon, there is no atmosphere. Which is kind of just like where these two are living anyway. Hamilton commented on '50s optimism by saying: "We seemed to be taking a course towards a rosy future and our changing, Hi-Tech world was embraced with this starry-eyed confidence" (Birnbaum). To take this quite literally, these two have their heads in the stars, all the while thinking that they are in heaven. However, the truth may be that they are actually in some kind of hell.
We can discern many things from the two subjects in Richard Hamilton's 1956 collage just by analyzing what the two do and do not have. Their image is dependent on the things they own, and the things they own are determined by mass media and mainstream consumerism. The main ideas Pop art has about consumerism, as well as fame, and placing value can be seen to originate in Hamilton's collage.
Birnbaum, Daniel. "Richard Hamilton: Museum Ludwig, Cologne." ArtForum. http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m0268/4_42/111696417/p1/article.jhtm l (21 April 2004).
Dirks, Tim. "The Jazz Singer (1927)." The Greatest Films. http://www.filmsite.org/jazz.html (22 April 2004).