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What are the Key Characteristics of Pop Art

By Mary Smith. Updated: May 2, 2017
What are the Key Characteristics of Pop Art

It can be a little difficult to work out what pop art is, mainly because it has permeated so much of both highbrow and lowbrow culture since its inception. This is why we need to look at where it started to see what pop art is all about. The concepts within mass popular culture were not something new when pop art poked its head up onto the art scene in the mid-1950's, but they were not embraced within the limited scope of academic art studies and criticism. Pop art and its key list of characters came to change all that. It helped a larger audience navigate the often confusing pathways of artistic expression whilst allowing for its own mode of subversion along the way. Keep reading and let oneHOWTO tell you exactly what are the key characteristics of pop art.

You may also be interested in: What Are the Characteristics of Renaissance Art?

Before pop art

Pop art emerged in the mid-twentieth century. Like all new eras in art, it was influenced by what came before. One particular influence was Dadaism. This was a school of thought which rejected traditional social constructs and represented a tidal shift away from logic and reason through their artistic endeavors. Dada rose after World War I where a lot of young men and women across Europe had lost their lives. This lead to a great disenfranchisement with the type of society which would allow for such a war to happen. One of the elements they most despised was capitalism. It was capitalistic incentives for the bourgeoisie which led to the war and they wanted to counter it with absurdism and chaos.

Pop art was dealing with these similar issues of conformism and capitalism, but were to deal with it in a new and exciting way. They share certain structural similarities, however. Both movements used performance, found objects and collages to get their artistic points across. For example, you can trace an almost direct link between two of the most famous art pieces of the 20th century - the Marcel Duchamp produced Dada work Fountain (1917) and Andy Warhol's Campbell's Tomato Juice Box (1964). Both are found objects which carry a greater artistic (and societal) meaning beyond the obvious.

While some of pop art's characteristics are influenced by what came before, others are a reaction against it. The abstract expressionism which had been so popular in the post-WWII period was based on representation images which were hard to discern. This included work by artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack. Their work was often represented by blocks of color or streaks of paint splattered on a canvas. Both very different and yet very similar in that what they were depicting was very much in the abstract. Pop art was a return to bolder statements, to more representational works which would (and did) appeal to the viewer. Another way of describing the viewer is as a consumer, which brings us on to one of the most important characteristics of pop art.

Pop art and commericalism

If you look at advertising over the last half century or more, you will see that the line between fine art and commercial art is quite blurred. While famously artists like Salvador Dali had not just worked for, but appeared in commercials, not many had made as much of a direct correlation in their art until the pop art movement. This was because the commercial art world which used artists to sell product was becoming so clever. Concepts and conceits which were only previously found in the art world were being used by companies. This is as opposed to simply illustration or designed, something which had been used commercially since advertisements began.

Artists of the pop art movement needed to respond to commercialism for one main reason. It needed to connect to the people. This is what creates the "pop" in pop art. Abstract expressionism was loved by galleries and buyers, but was often disregarded by the general public as being too esoteric. Pop art wanted to cast the same eye which advertisers did over the public. Instead of trying to sell them product, they wanted to sell them art. To sell them concepts and ideas which would show up both the failings of capitalism and its opposite.

This idea of using commercialistic techniques to connect with an audience is probably best represented by Andy Warhol. His use of Campbell's soup can imagery, often with little addition to the design, was a direct comment on this power of consumerism. Advertising agencies would take any avenue they could to sell product. They were on the radio, in magazines and on TV. Pop art wanted to emulate this and used as many media (sometimes mixed media) as they could to get their points across. For a commercial to work well it needed to be direct and create demand for the product. Popa art sought to emulate this by having their work provide instant-meaning. Bright colors, collages, eye-popping imagery and more were used to create an instant response in the viewer/consumer. While this did not void its greater artistic meaning which is still being discussed, it did make it very appealing to a larger audience. This in part has led to the masses of content creation we see today.

What are the Key Characteristics of Pop Art - Pop art and commericalism
Image: dobersmanden.com

Pop art and lowbrow art

One reason why pop art was to become so popular was because it used popular media to get its point across. One of the first and greatest pop art artists was Roy Lichtenstein who famously used comic strips to make his art. He would appropriate images similar to how Dadaists would appropriate objects, skewing them or presenting them at a different angle. Lichtenstein is one of the key artists because he is also a bridge between the old and new art worlds. While the imagery of something like Drowning Girl (1963) was taken directly from lowbrow DC Comic books, the technique was not completely dissimilar to someone like Georges Seurat and Van Gogh who used pointillism to create fine art. This was the technique of using small dots to create a larger work (like pixels in a digital image) something which pop artists like Lichtenstein did with Ben-Day dots, the kind of dots used in commercial printing.

While Dada helped form the idea that you could use anything to make art, pop art ran with it. While the stuffy elitism of the art world was used to only using sculpture, painting or similar classic media, pop art used anything. It's not a coincidence that Campbell's soup is something which could be found in almost every American's pantry. It was a direct connection to the consumer. Pop art used music, film, poster work, fashion, performance and, some could argue, even the artists' lives themselves to proliferate their artistic ideas. Ed Ruscha was one of many who explored the use of sloganeering as part of pop art. This was similar to how advertisers would have a tag line for their work to draw people in. It is something you see now more than ever in Tweets and Instagram feeds, once again showing how important the characteristics of pop art are still today.

What are the Key Characteristics of Pop Art - Pop art and lowbrow art
Image: warhol.org

Pop art and celebrity

One of the great characteristics of pop art was its connection to celebrity. Just as the advertising industry uses actors, TV presenters and musicians to promote product, pop art used celebrity to put their own points across. The first main way was to use the images of celebrity. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James Dean and many others started to appear in pop art work. Often detailed in bright colors or used in repetition. It is not a difficult concept to understand when you see Warhol's Eight Elvises (1963) juxtaposed with his Campbell soup cans that there is concern over the commodification of people and personality. New Zealand pop art artist Billy Apple has gone on to explore the relationship with art and product by making actual products such as cider cans and even the price labels themselves into art.

The importance of celebrity in popular consciousness was also linked to the rise of the teenager in the 1950's, many of the teenage heart throbs like Mick Jagger and David Bowie would frequent Warhol's "Factory" a New York art space which has had films made about it. Using these characters to promote the work, with the Velvet Underground Warhol helped to use musicians and their music as pop art. Many of the works featuring celebrities used techniques such as print screening, collage and photography. These are all media used popularly to propagate celebrity culture, now being used in pop art to comment on it. Even when using fine art media like sculpture, artists like George Segal made it representative of regular people in a lowbrow manner. His technique was purposefully unrefined and direct.

Sexuality was a large part of pop art's key characteristics. This is not to say that sex and sex and sexuality had not previously been explored through art. It is to say that pop art used sexualized images from lowbrow commercial art to make its points. Often covers of pulp novels, pornographic magazines or even low budget nudity filled art films were often not considered art in their own right. Pop art would come to blur this line quite considerably with its images. A lot of pop art's key events took place in the 1960's, a time when pop art helped to move towards the "free love" movement of the counter culture.

What are the Key Characteristics of Pop Art - Pop art and celebrity

International pop art

While a lot of pop art was made in America, there were many countries besides which used similar techniques. In fact, it could be argued that pop art really originated in the UK. One of the key differences is to do with pop art and commercialism. This is because of how important America was and is in terms of capitalism. The elusive and indefinable "American Dream" was something which pop art was in the process of dissecting. The difference is that places like LA and New York were at the epicenter, whereas artists like David Hockney and Allen Jones were on the outside looking in. The Independent Group (IG) were having the same discussions about commercialism and set the bar early, but it could be argued that their work had a different aesthetic compared to their American counterparts. Japan, Italy and Spain also had notable pop art movements.

What are the Key Characteristics of Pop Art - International pop art
Image: artmarketingsecrets.com

Pop art's influence

Pop art's influence is great on both parts of its namesake. It was very important for the art world, opening up boundaries and providing inspiration for many artists who may have previously thought they could not work in this field. It could be argued that the use of lowbrow art techniques and preoccupations lowered the standards of fine art. Equally, you could say that it elevated a whole substrata of artistic work which had not been given its due consideration. Artists like Keith Haring, who had frequented Warhol's Factory in his youth, took the bold color palette, direct imagery and instant meaning and used pop art techniques to create. He even opened up his Pop Shop, a store which sold his art work as a way to bring his art direct to the people and break down elitist barriers in the art world (many dealers were angered by Haring's tendency to give his art away for free). This was greatly reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg's The Store where he had artists create everyday objects and sell them as art. You should also take into account how pop art has influenced New Media art too, though they do differ in certain aspects.

The other great influence of pop art was on the "pop" element. Where before art was inaccessible, now it could be put onto posters and fridge magnets and key chains and album covers. It was something many people across the world could identify with and didn't have to dissect to get enjoyment out of it. If you go onto street vendors across the world, you will see T-shirts and posters often using or even parodying much of pop art's key characteristics. Perhaps pop art's most impactful characteristic was the furthering of the idea that anything and, by extension, anyone could be art. Warhol's comment that everyone would have their "fifteen minutes of fame" has a direct link to reality TV and celebrities like Kim Kardashian who are arguably only famous for being famous.

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Arianna Nempu
its not what im looking for i asked whaat r the characterictics or pop art and i got a C for my project
OneHowTo Editor
If you copied directly for your project it is normal to get a low mark.
Your own work is important when grading, so don't shoot the messenger.
Hope you learned from this article though.
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Daniella
this was really helpful and straightforward, the first article I've found that actually tells me what I want to know!! good job guys :)
Joman Hussein
Very good site Fun information for kids especially in their art lessons
Alba Charles (oneHOWTO editor)
Thanks Joman, we're glad you like it!

What are the Key Characteristics of Pop Art
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