- Susan Sontag from Against Interpretation.
Warhol was unquestionably at the head of the Pop Art movement and the most recognizable symbol of it and its invasion of American society. Criticized at first by Modernists who said that Pop Art was without meaning, (Peter Selz gave the particularly damning critique, "These works leave us thoroughly dissatisfied…most of them have nothing to say… they are hardly worth the contemplation a real work of art demands." [Mamiya 1]) it was Pop Art's surface value that made it so popular. It could be understood by anyone precisely because there was nothing behind it other than what the viewer took to the painting. The images were bright, shocking, and familiar. Many were slightly disturbing in their blatancy, but they where by no means lacking in meaning. Content and symbolism, yes, but meaning, no.
The fact that Pop Art was a critique of the consumer society that had risen after World War II was obvious, and its commentary on the effects of conformity and repetition cannot be missed in the blatant repetition of images and conformity of design in the paintings themselves. The commentary becomes all the more obvious when placed in the history of the era. After World War II, the call for production of goods was enormous and the economy boomed. Levittowns (cheap assembly line houses invented by Bill Levitt) rose which were so similar that it is said that with one wrong turn and a resident could walk into the wrong house unwittingly. Suburbia was created and with its sprawl the need for more cars and more washers and more dryers. The consumer race was on in the postwar boom and the comparable (to today) lack of variety in products (cars often came with two or three models and a host of color options) made sure that most families who owned essentially the same houses also owned essentially the same cars and washers and dryers.
The repetition inherent in this consumer society was not ignored either. The spotlight on media and image saturation that occurred as audio-visual kingdoms rose and the first TV generation grew up was also reflected in Pop Art. As Susan Sontag, one of the foremost postmodern critics, states in the above quote, "redundancy is the principal affliction of modern life," and it is this affliction that so fascinated Andy. His style, more than any other pop artist's, emphasized the replication of the images that were proliferating American society and culture. Not only was this seen in his paintings but in the production of them. Warhol came to silk screening because according to him, he wanted to be a machine and what screening allowed him to do was create an assembly line technique for art. He would chose the images and then have his studio helpers (literal factory works as Warhol's studio was named the Factory) screen in the photos. (click here to view the screening process.)
Finally, the impersonal nature of the media saturated consumer culture of the Pop Art era found its critique in Warhol's morbid paintings. Pictures of car crashes, his electric chairs and others, were all shocking photos taken from newspapers and reproduced in stark contrast on bright colored backgrounds. The subject matter in itself was so far from the concept of art as beauty that they shocked the public. Just the images themselves and their disturbing repetition made the impact and gave expression to the ideas already in the American mindset. Its meaning and value was determined by the viewers and its resultant popularity made Pop Art the primary artistic movement of a generation.