Pop Art and Fluxus: The Necessity for a Commodified Art

Andy Warhol’s Pop Art and the International Fluxus era are best described as emphasizing attitudes of artists towards the mass consumption of art in the 1960s. Although Pop Art did not emphasize any direct participation or accessibility from the audience that it is directed towards, its images of famous celebrities were well known. Much like Pop Art, “Fluxus advocated anti-art, [but] it also, paradoxically, commodified itself” (Hopkins 108). To make art for everybody, it almost required “commoditization” because then it will become more easily accessible, thus engagement with art is entirely open to the audience, and even imposed. They both also exude a humor and play, perhaps at the expense of mass industrial processes and their effects on consumers of art. Warhol’s Pop Art embraced this concept from its conception, only through the mask of “high” art, or fine art. Although both modes of producing art aimed at creating art easily accessible and understood by the masses for who it was intended, the ways Pop Art and Fluxus achieved this goal are fundamentally different.

Gold Marilyn Monroe Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987) 1962. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 6′ 11 1/4″ x 57″ (211.4 x 144.7 cm). Gift of Philip Johnson. © 2013 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Warhol’s Pop Art advocates the idea that nothing is “original,” that is to say, no one concept or idea that an artist “comes up with” is “unique,” thus out of reach to the general consumerist public. Warhol’s Pop Art expresses this explicitly by painting the celebrity Marilyn Monroe several times. These are painted from original photographs, a medium that is easily distributable and found in the newspapers. Warhol portrayed a worshipping of commodity culture through his silkscreen paintings, as seen in Gold Marilyn Monroe. In Gold Marilyn Monroe, Warhol paints an image Marilyn Monroe’s face, characterized by bold solid colors to give her a minimal amount of dimension. It is interesting to notice that her face is so easily recognizable by the few colors and dimensions given to her image, because she is that iconic and embedded into the culture this painting is meant for. The rest of the canvas is painted in gold, giving Monroe’s image a sense of preciousness, as well as distance from the average art admirer. A plate of gold surrounds her image, and she is unobtainable by the average consumer, yet she is worshipped.

“The “sincerity” of Pop Art” (Hamilton 344) is something to consider when viewing and interpreting art made by Warhol that was essentially screen printed directly from a photograph so easily accessible by anybody. It is almost difficult to take a painting like Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe seriously because it seemingly glorifies a major celebrity of the time, but it is also causing isolation on the part of the viewer. Richard Hamilton says, “Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience)… expendable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy,… glamorous, big business” (Hamilton 344). Gold Marilyn Monroe does not seem to agree with all of these characteristics because a painting like this one is not “low cost,” nor “expendable.” In fact, Gold Mariliyn Monroe, as is true for many of Warhol’s artworks, attempts to merge the “glamorous” and “mass produced” through a means of elitist “high” art.

Ay-O. Finger Box from Fluxkit. 1965, Fluxus Edition announced 1964.

Fluxus artworks aimed to make “art for everybody” through a different method. George Maciunas initiated an organized international collective of artists throughout the world to create art that represents, “internationalism, experimentalism… play or gags… globalism… intermedia, experimentalism, chance, playfulness, simplicity, implicativeness…” (Smith 121). All of these proposed qualities of Fluxus are dependent on communities of people who enjoy creating art and try to do something different with it, or just do whatever they think is fun or thought provoking. Fluxus also fundamentally works “against the traditional relationship [in] art of the passivity of the viewer and the domination of the object” (Smith 134). The Fluxkit, assembled by George Maciunas, is an example of a collection of artworks that the “viewer” can actively interact and play with. The artworks included in the Fluxkit featured many objects (films, toys, games, etc.) made by artists that were a part of Fluxus. Ay-O’s Finger Box, a part of the Fluxkit, contains a small hole at the top, which is meant for the art admirer to put their finger through and feel an unknown object within the box. The Fluxkit playfully integrates the two experiences together in a way that Warhol’s Pop Art doesn’t do.

Fluxkit, 1964/65 George Maciunas (American, 1931-1978) Fluxus Collective (International, active 1960s-late 1970s). Fluxkit, 1964/65. Fluxus edition, assembled by George Maciunas (American, 1931-1978). Mixed media (vinyl attaché case), printed matter. 11 x 17 5/16 x 14 15/16 in. (28 x 44 x 38 cm) opened. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, Detroit / Photo: Walker Art Center

It is important to remember, “much Fluxus ‘mass-production’ was pledged not to profit-making but to the elimination of artistic ‘auras’”(Hopkins 109). This means of producing artwork is fundamentally different from that of Warhol’s Pop Art. There is a separation between the artist and the artwork, and this idea makes the artwork much bigger than the artist. This is a fundamental part of making artworks conceptually and practically accessible by anybody. “Although Fluxus’s nature can be traced to the works and artists associated with it, these are not exclusive determinants of Fluxus, but rather the residue and artifacts of its existence” (Smith 122). The art itself and the concepts behind them are more important than the name an artist makes for themselves.

Benjamin Buchloh argues that Warhol, “freed himself… from obsolete concepts of originality and authorship and had developed a sense of the necessity for “teamwork” and “collaboration” and a… commonality of “ideas”—those universally prevailing forms of social production from which, traditionally, only the specialized and condensed talent of the artist as unique and singular creator had been exempted” (Buchloh 7). One idea or icon does not belong exclusively to the artist and those who can afford to consume “high” art. Oldenberg seems to articulate very well key common goals that represent Pop Art. He declares, “I am for U.S. Government Inspected Art, Grade A art, Regular Price art… Extra Fancy art, Ready-to-eat art, Best-for-less art, Ready-to-cook art, Fully cleaned art…” (Oldenburg 387). He declares an almost non-elitist type of art, which is consumable by anybody. However, the art of Warhol does not only appear to celebrate commodified celebrities and tragic events pictured in the newspapers, he appears to distort it and emphasize our desensitized and superficial relationship to the subjects depicted.

The relationship between Pop Art and Fluxus are present in the way they were presented to the public, in that they were both “commodified”. Warhol created paintings that were hung in museums and galleries and Fluxus works were produced in a way that encouraged an international collective of artists to come together in their various regions throughout the world to have fun and create art. Fluxus was also in a way inspired by what Pop Art was doing largely at this time because of the idea that “mechanical reproduction created the conditions for a politicized (socialistic) art for the masses” (Hopkins 98). Warhol emphasized this idea through his art and by saying, “mechanical means are today, and using them I can get more art to more people. Art should be for everyone”(Buchloh 5). Both seemed to exist for the masses and to question (and perhaps condemn) industry, but it could only do so through a mode of “mass production.”

In Pop Art, there is a separation from the concepts of the artist and the idea. Pop Art also did not advocate direct participation from the masses like Fluxus was. The Fluxkit was made and assembled by Maciunas and with small “toys” and games made by artists that could be directly interacted with, unlike a work of art created by Warhol, which were primarily paintings to be hung on a wall. That is not to say that Warhol did not encourage an environment where people could get together to create works of art themselves. But, he did it on a much smaller scale than was done by Fluxus, an international collective attitude towards art. In Fluxus, the participant is invited and required to take part in the art works. In Pop art, the inclusion of the viewer is imposed. A statement is being made about the masses, about their desire for possession of commodities, rather than giving them power over the artwork itself.

One cannot always take the resulting artworks of Pop Art and Fluxus too seriously. So who was more successful in their goals? In this sense, both attitudes toward art and mass production, are alike, but the way they appealed to the masses were fundamentally different. There is also a shortcoming to a fundamental aim that both artworks like the Fluxkit and Gold Marilyn Monroe seem to represent: accessibility to the masses. Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe solely did this by the iconic image of a celebrity during the 1950s and early 1960s. On the other hand, the Fluxkit, assembled by George Maciunas, made it into the hands of people who wanted to have a direct interaction and possession of artworks. However, Fluxkits only made it into the hands of few art admirers. In the end, these works ended up in elite museums, only to be gazed at because of their “uniqueness” and “preciousness” to art history. They did fulfill goals they were originally made for at one point in time, but they now serve as artwork, which is inaccessible and belonging to an exclusive and expensive collection of art that must be preserved.

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What is my body?

Untitled, Undergraduate Work, Melissa Gamez ©
Untitled, Undergraduate Work, Melissa Gamez ©

This is the first post that I am pretty much writing from scratch. It is an exciting feeling because I feel like a “real writer” of things. Anyway, events of the past few days have brought up a number of feelings and thoughts, old and new, concerning identity. Essentially, I feel at times that I do not genuinely know who I am, even at the most basic of levels. I am referring mainly to my cultural identity. It is difficult in many levels, to admit that we simply do not know something, but it is much harder to not know something about ourselves.

At times, I stare at myself in the mirror, trying to read every pore, every line embedded into skin, as if it could tell me something new. I think, “What is this body of mine made of?” Am I just a Mexican woman in America? Am I part indigenous, part European, part African? (Yes, Africans had a strong presence in the history of Mexico. Fun fact!) Sometimes I want to take one of those blood tests that trace your genetic information to geographic locations around the world!

Maybe my blood has been everywhere I have never been.

But, the more I think about it, the more I feel like mud. Of a mixture of many colors to make whatever I am: light woman in the Winter months, and dark in the Summer.

I never grew up in a family where we actively talked about our people, and I don’t mean in the general sense. I mean our people, our family, who we are and where our bloodlines have flowed through. I am confined to supposed nationalities and current day borders that serve nothing more than a political sense of control. Why is this? I am thinking more and more about the answers to my questions, and the more I do that, the more I feel the need to step back. Further and further until I have to start way at the beginning to get where I want to be: the present. I wish we would remember to remember.

The Art of Cindy Sherman: Transcendent Feminism

Cindy-Sherman3Cindy Sherman once stated, “A photograph should transcend itself, the image its medium, in order to have its own presence” (Sherman, Statement 926). Her body of work is vast and is reminiscent of countless individual perspectives of the world. Sherman is best known for her work because she is the primary subject for her photography. However, Sherman’s work is not self-portraiture, in that she is not trying to show the world who she is. She says, “I’m trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than of me” (Sherman, Statement 926). Sherman, a woman, dresses up as various unique women and this calls for a feminist analysis. But, her work goes beyond the purposes of feminism. One might even interpret her work as adhering to sexism and the objectification of women, but I argue that her work is in fact “working from the inside” of patriarchy in order to dismantle it and force the viewer to realize that they are a part of that society and actively accept and challenge it as a part of themselves.

It is a common misconception that photography is a vehicle for reproducing historical truth. Art photographers have taken this medium and expanded its purpose from documenting historical and everyday events into fantastic and dream-like scenes that are constructed, thus “unreal.” Concerning the medium of photography as art, Batchen argues that “… the production of any and every photograph involves… practices of manipulation…. the absence of truth is an inescapable fact of photographic life” (Batchen 48). He also proposes that photography is on the verge of death. But, the death of photography has been occurring since its conception, and not in the sense that people will no longer use it, but because it cannot provide us with any form of truth. He says, “photography’s passing must necessarily entail the inscription of another way of seeing—and of being” (Batchen 50). Sherman’s work is indicative of this change in the purpose of photography, not just because she fully constructs the scenes in her work and utilizes herself as the primary subject, but because she is challenging her viewer’s way of interpreting the world.

Sherman’s black and white series, The Untitled Film Stills is one of her most important bodies of work because of the controversial feminine nature in which she presents herself. Sherman takes a variety of dramatic and vulnerable female roles in each photograph, and records scenes she has constructed, as if they were taken in Hollywood films from the 1950s. In Untitled #6 (Fig. 1), Sherman is the center of attention, spread across a bed wearing an open silk robe, revealing the front of her body, wearing a bra and panties, and with a mirror in hand. Sherman’s pose in Untitled #6 is entirely feminine, in the sense that she is open, and revealing her body, rendering her vulnerable and helpless. Indeed femininity is synonymous with vulunerability. Her gaze is directed somewhere out of the frame, thus having the interpretation of being non-confrontational, and perhaps in distress.

untitled6Figure 1. Cindy Sherman. Untitled #6. 1977. Black-and-white photograph, 8”x 10”. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image.

It is easy to interpret this photograph in particular with having no other purpose than to perpetuate feminine stereotypes of vanity and helplessness. Another interpretation of this photograph however, does not serve as a reification of the helplessness and sexual objectification of women, but forces the viewer to wonder about the thoughts this woman may be having at this very moment. Her gaze is not blank and dumb, but thoughtful and with expectation. As a female viewer, one must think “to reveal, re/discover our true selves, we have to follow the feminine… gaze… The woman… looks somewhere above herself… beyond the frames of the picture”(Kérchy 187). In fact, the woman must look within herself, so the mirror in her hand is useless, and maybe Sherman is realizing this. It seems as though she is at the very moment when she feels like she can let her image free. This is in stark contrast to the penetrating and non-pensive male gaze that defines and objectifies women. Kérchy describes Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills as “a revolutionary feminist attempt encouraging female spectators… to inspect their internalization of images of femininity and—after having recognized their misrecognition as feminine subjects—to try to look and see who they really are” (Kérchy 185). Indeed, there is more depth to women and femininity than is shown through appearances, fashion, and sex.

The Centerfold Series contains some of Sherman’s first explorations with color photography. She continues some of the same feminist and voyeuristic themes as seen in the Untitled Film Stills. However, Sherman makes even more extreme and emotional leaps into the intimate lives of women she becomes. When viewing the Centerfolds, one experiences “isolated women… in private settings, [and] we inadvertently take on the role of voyeur” (Knafo 147). Sherman’s imagery causes discomfort and uncertainty for intruding on these women by presenting these photographs as large 24” x 48” spreads. In Untitled #96 (Fig. 2), she is dressed as an adolescent and is spread out onto the tiled floor, with an ad from a newspaper clutched in her hand and the other hand placed beside her head. The presentation of this photograph is reminiscent of pornographic spreads in magazines, and she is again vulnerable, and stretched across the image, making it easy for the viewer (male and female) to consume her (Jones 41).

untitled96Figure 2. Cindy Sherman. Untitled #96. 1981. Color photograph, 24”x 48”, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image.

Her adolescent age is apparent because of the flatness of her breasts and her sneaker visible through the top left corner of the frame. This is in contrast with Untitled #6, where her sex appeal is flaunted by her nearly naked, spread body. The sexual nature of Untitled #96 is much more subtle if we were to take a closer look at her red-painted nails and the slight up of her skirt. These small details label her as a feminine being, thus sexual. According to Knafo, “The culture’s stunning superficiality is reflected back to us and the question as to whether the artist will quest for an inner, psychological identity is still open” (Knafo 147). Sherman’s gaze toward somewhere outside of the frame is shown here, like in Untitled #6, indicating a pensive and complex young woman.

Sherman demonstrates that there is more to the way we interpret femininity, than just that women are capable of being sexually objectified. She explores human sexual identity through this feminine lens through her “Sex” series. Her work in this series is ironic, because the closer she comes to unveiling the psychology of human identity, the less she depicts herself, an actual human being. Untitled #263 (Fig. 3) shows “[Sherman’s] doll play [which] allowed her to enter territory that would have remained inaccessible had she restricted herself to the use of her own body… she leaves human beings behind…” (Knafo 153). Sherman’s exploration of femininity has become multifaceted, forcing the viewers to associate themselves with her own exploration of sexuality and identity, purely through fragments of the human body. Her work is no longer for a purely feminist understanding, but for a person who can take feminine stereotypes (passivity, sexiness, helplessness) and patriarchal ways of interpretation (voyeurism and superficial pleasure) from the cultural context and make one realize that their visual interpretation stems from these.

untitled263Figure 3. Cindy Sherman. Untitled #263. 1992. Color photograph, 40”x 60”. Cindy Sherman: Retrospective. 1997. 169. Plate 130. Print.

In Untitled #263, male and female genitalia are conjoined with a large bow, combining two different sexual parts of the body into one common form suggesting that one cannot be without the other. Sherman also leads the viewer to watch from a “perverted desire… [and] it is looked at from within by two mannequin heads—one of which hides its gaze from us, the other of which (clearly male) confronts us at the same time” (Jones 47).  The smirking male gaze is exposed by showing a head detached from its body insinuating the fragmented view we have of sexuality and identity through our inherent patriarchal lens.

Our perception about ourselves as sexual beings is broken, and Sherman is attempting to restore this in a hard-core and sexually explicit manner. This photograph would make both men and women feel uncomfortable, not just because of the exposed genitalia, but because of the more private characteristics that one’s genitalia might have. This includes a heavy amount of pubic hair, the vagina stuffed with a tampon (a woman’s menstruation period is a generally uncomfortable subject), and the penis-ring (provides pleasure for men). The large-scale size of the work is also highly confrontational to one who would view this in person.

Who are we, according to Cindy Sherman? She has deviated from artificial portraiture, into the complex human mind, and its desires and perverse notions. This is where our true selves lie. She utilizes herself, a feminine body, and seemingly perpetuates stereotypes about women and the superficiality of sex. By doing this, her work introduces “… a new view [which] signifies a feminist revision of femininity, reaching new possibilities of identification beyond (yet within) the dominant ideology” (Kérchy 188). Essentially, she has worked to give a different definition of femininity and sexual identity from within the constraints of a patriarchal culture. In relation to Sherman’s work, Jones argues, “we constitute ourselves as embodied subjects through technologies of representation in relation to other embodied subjects.” We would like to think that these photographs are nothing but pure fantasy and imagination because they have been staged, but we are a common part of this world that Cindy Sherman has devised, and there is no escaping it.

Works Cited

Batchen, Geoffrey. “Phantasm: Digital Imaging and the Death of Photography.” Aperture (1994): 46-51.

Jones, Amelia. “Tracing the Subject with Cindy Sherman.” Cindy Sherman: Retrospective. the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1997. 33-49.

Kérchy, Anna. “The Woman 69 Times: Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills”.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) 9.1 (2003): 181-189.

Knafo, Danielle. “Cindy Sherman:Dressing Up and Make-Believe.” Knafo, Danielle. In Her Own Image: Women’s Self-Representation in Twentieth-Century Art. Cranbury: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp., 2009. 144-156.

Sherman, Cindy. “Statement.” Stiles, Kristine and Peter Selz. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. 2nd Edition. University of California Press, 2012. 926.

“Wild tongues..”

“Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.” -Gloria Anzaldua

Maybe through this form, I can be free. Maybe my words will get lost or shoot at you too rapidly, but they will not be repressed. My words will escape the tongue and into my fingers.