The American Dream - Pop To Present
The American Dream - Pop To Present
Many of us associate propaganda with the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Chairman Mao. But what about America? Flipping the idea to reflect on the United States during the Cold War, wasn’t the American Dream and its dissemination much in the same way another form of propaganda too, albeit for liberal causes?
Artists have often been co-opted by propagandists and used as a tool of soft power. During the Cold War, for example, CIA secretly used and promoted American Abstract Expressionist art as a cultural weapon. Viewed through this prism, prints were also an ideal tool for the purposes of propaganda for their ability to be mass reproduced and disseminated. Tracing the evolution of America’s power through the medium of print, a new exhibition at the British Museum, “American Dream: Pop to the Present”, contemplates American society through the lens of pop art and printmaking.
Reflecting on representations of the American Dream from its heyday to its decline, at the start of the retrospective, we see the height of US confidence and assertiveness in the post-war boom years. Whether unwittingly or not, artists’ iconic representations of the Star Spangled Banner, the space age, gas stations, swimming pools and bubble gum machines can be seen as symbols of US propaganda that sell a lifestyle of confidence and liberal power.
But from the giddy heights of the 60s and 70s, this gave way to a gradual disintegration of the Dream as the very idea of the country’s exceptionalism began to be increasingly critically questioned by artists in the ’80s and ’90s. Opening shortly after Trump’s inauguration as the current political temperature rises, now firmly in the age of terrorism, austerity and post-truth, can the idea of the American Dream even stand up any more?
According to Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, the exhibition’s timing is opportune as the notion of the American Dream is being challenged on all sides: “As a new President enters the White House and another chapter of US history begins, it feels like an apposite moment to consider how artists have reflected America as a nation over 50 tumultuous years”.
Freedom, prosperity and beauty in the stars and stripes
Using a historical curatorial trajectory, which for an institution like the BM seems appropriate, we start out in the 1960s. Early on in the exhibition, it seems fitting to pick out a symbol of the height of US nationalist propaganda: the very flag itself. Liberal artists like Jasper John found beauty in the Stars and Stripes and reinvented it using printing techniques. Intertwined with this liberal depiction of America is the idea of freedom in its various guises. Ed Ruscha’s “Standard Station”, portraying a gas station in Amarillo, evokes a momentous highway journey. Translated as zooming architecture with the bright Texan sun as a focus, the freedom and space of motor travel it represented is a quintessential American Dream.
The mid-20th century USA was also a nation of brash self-confidence, with New York and California offering competing visions of prosperity. Contrasting the NY and LA aesthetics and experiences, Richard Estes’ photorealism focuses on facades of the Big Apple’s diners, restaurants, hardware stores and anonymous corporate offices. Counterposing this vision, David Hockney in California was spellbound by swimming pools that featured in many homes representing a lifestyle of carefree leisure, affluence and perpetual sunshine.
Another dimension of American affluence is shown through images of advertising and consumerism, a mainstay of US popular culture and brand propaganda. The supermarket and its vast cornucopia of choice is represented in Wayne Thiebaud’s eye-popping veneration of an everyday object of consumerism – the bubble-gum vending machine – in a characteristically fun example of pop art.
Unabashed optimism to the beginnings of disillusionment
Pivoting from unabashed optimism to the beginnings of disillusionment, Rauschenberg is perhaps the artist who manages to say it all. The rocket-sized “Sky Garden” from his “Stoned Moon” print series marks the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landings, revealing the optimism of space travel during a period of great prosperity. But through it all, we see a sinister military fighter jet and the cynicism of consumerism, demonstrating the inherent dichotomy of the age. Looking at another Rauschenberg, “Signs” stands out as it recalls key moments of the ’60s by using a montage of Kennedy’s portrait juxtaposed with wounded US soldiers in Vietnam, a blood-soaked black man reaching out to the body of Martin Luther King, anti-war student protesters calling for peace, a singing Janis Joplin, and the optimism of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. But when did things start to go wrong? The twin moments of Kennedy’s assassination and Nixon’s impeachment are two epochal moments in US history. Emblematic of the political tumult of the decade, Andy Warhol’s “Jackie II” shows the mourning widow isolated in her grief but caught in the full glare of the world’s press. Another Warhol print, “Vote McGovern”, depicts the above-named senator’s opponent, Nixon, with a livid green face, yellow lips and demonic orange eyes in a vividly stinging representation.
Has the American Dream turned sour?
Touching on darker themes, the Aids epidemic and gay rights are brought to the fore for the first time through Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz’s work of the 1980s. Correspondingly, women artists also questioned notions of patriarchy. May Stephens’ “Big Daddy” uses the figure of her father – an incarnation of patriarchal, small-minded America – surrounded by hats standing for symbols of male authority: a policeman, the military, and a Ku Klux Klansman. Seeing this piece, I couldn’t help but reflect on Trump’s power base and the dangerously patriotic, insular vision of America he currently represents. Has the once mighty liberal American Dream of imagination, freedom and inclusivity finally turned sour?Reflecting on over 60 years of US history and taking inspiration from sources as diverse as Hollywood to household objects, the vibrant prints on display show a multifaceted look at modern-day America’s power and influence. Yet they also tragically trace the trajectory of its decline. What could have been a mere shallow, vacuous celebration of Americana and the propaganda of the mid-20th century boom years instead excellently manages to dig deeper and address the grittier side of history as well as the wider divisions in US society that persist up to today. Tracing the creative momentum of a superpower, as the exhibition guide succinctly (and astutely) summarises, “There are as many dreams as there are Americans”. Whether any of these will get realised in the age of Trump is anybody’s guess.
“The American Dream: Pop to the Present” runs at the British Museum until 18 June 2017.
Written by Vanessa Moore,
Visuals courtesy of the British Museum