Thinking about the whole concept of pop culture art in the context of the internet, it’s tough not to look across the breadth of modern design — particularly in online indie-style art — and see the historic influence of Andy Warhol. It permeates the feel of the web in so many ways.
I didn’t realize just how much so that was true until I took the opportunity to wander over to the Art Gallery of Alberta, the hulking crumpled paper-ball of a steel architectural wonder on the corner of Churchill Square in Edmonton, and view the Warhol Manufactured exhibit before it leaves town next week. I gave the gallery an unjustifiably short forty-five minutes of my lunch hour earlier today, but this was long enough to get a taste and a sense of the artist and the influence he’s had on even lowly wannabes such as myself.
I really like pop culture. And I liked this. And so a few things were striking to me.
First, while the idea of mass manufacturing and consumer culture is something that many of us have strong opinions on in 2011, when Warhol presented his art inspired by popular culture — the advertising as his influence — it was not something he was dismissing or undermining, it was a style he was embracing, and setting out as a positive piece of modern society. A quote from one of the displays (and I need to paraphrase here because my memory is about as detailed as one of Warhol’s paintings, distinct in the message but blurry around the edges) went something like this: ‘The nice thing about a Coke is that there is no such thing as a better Coke. Coke is Coke, and whether you are rich or poor you’ll be drinking the same Coke as both the celebrity in Hollywood and the bum on the corner.’ In other words, consumer culture and mass manufacturing seemed to Warhol to be this great societal equalizer. (Though perhaps in light of the last few years of economic turmoil around the world, there is another aspect of consumer culture that is definitely not an equalizer. But… whatever.) His thoughts then seemed to reflect an idea that no matter how rich you were, you got the same quality of product. A Coke is a Coke is a Coke. Which to me is kinda like online, there is an equalizer of information and design. A website is a website is a website — and has the goal of being virtually identical no matter who views it from where.
Second, Warhol didn’t seem to be afraid of trying new ideas. As I puttered through the display it was clear that there were a lot of popular and more famous works at the beginning — the stuff that made him famous, no doubt — but then more obscure, more fringe, and more experimental works followed deeper in. He dabbled in film, and made oddly strange and very artsy (even by today’s standards) works. He went back to old ideas and re-invented. He got introspective and retrospective and almost self-mocking as his career progressed. I’m not sure what the lesson here is, but it seems at least to suggest that people — no matter who you are — are capable of changing, moving, growing, and all that fun stuff. And that’s all I might suggest as an interpretation to that.
And third, simply, you wander through and realize: this was the root of all this familiar iconography in our modern world. It’s not where it began, but where it was first really reflected back at us as something worthy of acknowledgement and appreciation. And that alone was awesome.
If you get a chance before it closes next week at the art gallery here in Edmonton — or any chance to see Warhol somewhere, anywhere else — and you have an interest in modern design, film, or photography — or particular interest in seeing how it reflects so much on our modern digital world — it’s worth a peek, even if you’ve only got forty-five minutes like me.
Edit: After writing this post I followed through and applied some warhol-style inspiration to my daily photoshoot. There are links to a couple of the results above.