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Andy Warhol: The Images of Classical Antiquity Just Don't Know Where They Are Going

Updated on July 22, 2020

Pop Art and the New Gods and Kings of Modern Art

Was Andy Warhol a shaman or a charlatan? This is a question one critic put forth when examining the life's work of the legendary and visionary pop artist.

This question can be answered with another, very curt, question: does it matter? As long as Warhol's work is something you enjoy looking at, it has achieved its goal. Enjoyment was all the reaction that Warhol wanted out of his audience. He was not a person prone to self-importance, and he generally viewed his work from a perspective of ''what you see is what you get'' simplicity.

Ironically, this approach contributed significantly to the growth of a very revolutionary, influential, and frequently misunderstood modern art movement: pop art.

The Birth of Warhol as Pop Artist

Pop art receives casual dismissals for the obvious reason. Celebrating images from television programs, movies, and the supermarket seems outright odd to some. Honestly, pop art influences follow similar natural outgrowths that traditional art movements did.

The origins of Warhol's involvement with the pop art movement has no epic tale associated with it. When Warhol began his career as an artist, he started by painting subjects that appealed to him. Selecting Campbell Soup Cans as the subject matter of a work of art can be called innocuous to the point of ridiculousness. Warhol did like Campbell Soup, though.

Around the time of Warhol's emergence to prominence, the artists' pomposity on the NYC scene generally weighed down of a lot of their work. Actually, the same could be said of artists that came long before and long after Warhol. They suffer from the sins of being self-centered and self-indulgent. Artists see themselves as more important than their art, and the finished works show it. Worst yet, artists with these attitudes go against all effective approaches of gaining longstanding recognition.

Art movements tend to emerge organically out of the time period in which they are born. Quality artwork will maintain relevance to its times. Poor quality art will always come off as a contrived attempt to be something special, shocking, intellectual, brave, daring, or whatever adjectives you wish to use that avoid using the correct adjective: boring. Art movements that are forced in their motivation are not motivated at all. At best, they can be flash in the pans and gain some notoriety, but they ultimately fade away and are mercifully forgotten.

''Everyone is famous for 15 minutes'' if they can produce shock art that draws quick and immediate attention. Do you sincerely wish to "just" be famous for a mere 15 minutes?

Simple, Ordinary and Shocking

Warhol's material, while seemingly trite in its subject matter, was influential in its motivations. Not that that was ever the plan.

At its core, you could say that Warhol's work was a silly idea. Maybe it was, but it resonated with many people in the art world that probably found the mundane nature of Warhol's work to be refreshing. At the very least, they knew what exactly his subject matter was. It was neither surreal nor abstract. Rather, it followed the classical notion of recreating known and distinct images.

Warhol's work truly was shocking because it was so mundane. That represents the irony of what he was producing. And to an extent, he was producing art as opposed to creating it. Warhol never hid the fact that he wanted to make as much money as possible with his artwork and other endeavors.

While no one would ever suggest that Warhol's lifework was trivial, it was not. In fact, his approach indeed did have the proverbial finger on the pulse of what many truly believed. This outcome was clear in his path to presenting new gods and kings in his artwork.

The New Gods and Kings

There existed a somewhat sly understanding that the subjects of classical gods and kings throughout antiquity were considered contemporary at the times of their creation. During the Renaissance period, classical images achieved a rebirth of sorts when used as subjects in some very legendary works.

Warhol threw much of this on its ear when he created a movement reflecting equals parts a mockery of the imagery of classical gods and kings and the next step in the natural evolution of the process. The gods and kings of the 1960s were not Zeus, and none of the 12 Caesars meant very much to modern sensibilities. And truthfully, they had not meant very much for thousands of years to the average person. The then-contemporary superstars were John F. Kennedy and Marylin Monroe. Warhol selected figures such as these as replacements for the classical icons of antiquity. Hovering between the blasphemous and the logical, images such as these did strike a chord with the public. And it could be argued that Warhol became more accepted in the pop culture realm than so many of his contemporary fellow artists, one who never gained much notoriety outside of art gallery circles.

A Human Facet

One of the unique aspects of Warhol's presentation of modern heroes and legends is they were not always presented in a flattering manner. Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Mohammad Ali, and Richard Nixon, among others, had a tendency to be portrayed in somewhat less than flattering images. In a way, these deities of pop culture were made very, very human in their presentations. The humanity should not be considered all that radical of a presentation. They are, after all, human beings.

Was Andy Warhol's contributions to the world of pop art a clever con job. Maybe it was, and perhaps it wasn't. For his fans and followers, it does not matter.


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