MESSAGES AND THE MEDIUM
Pop to Popism Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, to March 1
APREVIEW article for this exhibition in another newspaper took the line that a show about pop was bound to be fun. No doubt the author was trying to be upbeat, given the poor publicity the Art Gallery of NSW has attracted recently, and the fact the article would go on to recall disappointing attendances for the America exhibition last summer.
But it was nonetheless an example of the way we so often evacuate the meaning of art and turn it into an object with superficial stylistic and decorative properties. Thus a baroque altarpiece can be reduced to a sumptuous piece of interior decoration and an ostensibly political work of contemporary art can become the hip moral alibi of an investment banker.
Admittedly, pop artists were not innocent of these tendencies to superficiality, cynicism and even exploitation. But one still has to assume any art movement has a core of authenticity — that the central reason artists make the things they do is they feel them to be in some sense a true, perhaps even urgent, image of contemporary experience.
One important role of artists is certainly to give voice to the emerging but still only semiconscious feelings, hopes and fears of the community to which they belong. This is why, when they are successful, their audience recognises, with surprise, delight or sometimes even dismay, things it had dimly felt but had never been able to articulate. In this sense the surprise of Giotto’s contemporaries at discovering a world of solid volumes, which spoke to them of their own new attitude to life, is directly comparable with that of Warhol’s viewers, discovering they lived in an environment of mass-produced commodities like soup cans.
And yet neither audience nor even artist may fully understand what these things mean, because the audience is still submerged in the experience, and because the artistic articu-