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Lichtenstein–Irony vs. Icons

September 9, 2012

Oftentimes Christians don’t do enough to engage modern art and artists. We tend to look at something, say “it’s ugly and nihilistic” and move on. We need to move on to looking at art, engaging with it and making intelligent judgments about it. When non-Christians create a piece of art that reflects their non-Christian worldview, we should be there intelligently responding to it. Christians are called to stand on the Rock, not live under a rock.

At the same time, however, if we have looked at a piece of art seriously and come to the conclusion that it is ugly and nihilistic, then we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Intelligence and wisdom are not solely the province of the hip, the fashionable, and the avant-garde. Sometimes an artwork that is in an unfamiliar milieu expresses Truth, Goodness and Beauty in new ways; sometimes it’s just the latest trash. We don’t need to be beholden to whatever today’s avante-garde community is parading as great art, but neither do we need to dismiss it out of hand. (I have written more about this in my post “In Defense of Modern Art.” The opinions of H.R. Rookmaaker and Calvin Serveeld on the subject are invaluable.)

It is with this in mind that I write my impressions of the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit that I had the privilege of seeing at the Chicago Art Institute. The first day that I went to the Institute there was almost no one at the exhibit. The second day the line for Lichtenstein stretched through the museum, and I was not able to see it again. Lichtenstein is called “the father of Pop Art,” and is best known for his pictures taken from comic books of his time period. The exhibit started out with his first painting taken from a comic book, titled “Look Mickey, I’ve Hooked a Big One.” Lichtenstein took the picture from a panel in a comic book, but whenever he took his works from comic books he always changed details, sharpening colors and contrasts, slightly re-arranging lines. He was not a plagiarist. “Look Mickey” was the picture that launched the Pop Art revolution, as well as the picture that led to Life magazine declaring Lichtenstein one of the worst artists in America (back when Life did fun things like that.)

A Modern Masterpiece

Also in the first room were several of his paintings (pieces?) that has patterns of straight lines which were jarringly set off by thick swaths of paint (in a few of the paintings you could see where the paint had dripped on the canvas.) I wasn’t able to draw out any significance from these.

Lichtenstein’s trashcans–Irony or Icon?

The next room had Lichtenstein’s paintings of mundane household objects, some of which had been taken from advertisements. The objects included things such as a pair of sneakers, a composition notebook, a spraycan, a tire, an engagement book, and a trash-can. It is easy to conclude that Lichtenstein’s aim here was simply to point out the banality of middle-class American capitalist life (a theme that has been repeated so much throughout 2oth and 21st century art that it has grown tiresome.) Lichtenstein’s trash cans and tires are just cheap irony. But perhaps they can be taken in a post-ironic way, appreciated as a connection between the Reformed and Iconic traditions. Maybe when Lichtenstein paints some sneakers or a tire, he is spreading the message that everything is special, even sacred. A tire as a tire is not mundane, because nothing is mundane. (Except for, perhaps, the lust for excitement.) One of Lichtenstein’s pieces in this room showed a woman opening up a trash can as a diptych, a form of art usually associated with religious expression. Perhaps Lichtenstein intended these pieces to be ironic, but authorial intent does not dictate the whole of a work’s meaning. When I looked at these pieces, I was overwhelmed by the “thingness” of the things, and the importance and even symbolism of objects we think of as mundane. If this interpretation is legitimate, it means that Lichtenstein is far closer to Luther, Chesterton, Lewis, and Serveeld than he would wish.

“Keds.” After seeing this painting, I cannot think of tennis shoes in the same way again.

Whatever good feelings I had in the gallery of household items evaporated when I went into the next room, which was dedicated to Lichtenstein’s paintings on the subject of Love and War. The phrase “All is fair in Love and War” is one of the most profoundly stupid ideas to enter into our communal culture. Love and War should be the things in which there are the most rules, strictures, conventions, guidelines–call them what you will. It is as grossly unfair to try to date two girls at the same time to as to shoot noncombatants. It is as revolting to send a girl a detachment of tanks as it is to send a group of soldiers barely holding out under gunfire a dozen roses and a box of chocolates. One of the strange ideas of these modern times is that if any human thing is to be great it must be absolutely and completely unfettered by any rules or conventions. The exact opposite is the case–to be great, a human thing needs to conform to rules. The greatest human things–Love, War, Religion–are not absolutely unfettered, but run wild within strictly ordered limits. A man who shoots bad guys is a hero; a man who shoots everyone is a monstrosity. A woman who passionately loves one man is a noble and inspiring person; a woman who passionately loves one man after another is a shameless hussy.


Given the staggering amount of material that has been painted out of the themes of Love and War, Lichtenstein’s paintings give us few new insights into the areas. The paintings in this room are themselves taken from panels in comic strips of the 1950s, the time period before comic books became really good. (In a side note, comic books disprove the idea that anything older is better. If you don’t believe me, look at Iron Man’s original costume.) Lichtenstein’s technical prowess is evident in this room. The way he colored his paintings was by using dots of color. If you stand far away from the paintings, a person’s face will look peachy-white, but as you get closer, you will realize that it is actually made up of red dots on a white surface. The effect that you get from looking at a Lichtenstein from across the the room and slowly walking toward it is quite striking.

  As impressed as I am with Lichtenstein’s technique, I am not as impressed by what he does with it. Love and War are the two areas in which humans show the most nobility. They are the themes of The Iliad and The Odyssey. They should show man at his best and worst, the heights of his goodness and the depth of his evil. So why does Lichtenstein reduce these two themes to cartoon superficiality? Lichtenstein’s War pictures have no context–they are just pointless violence with no context. They do not show good; they do not show evil–they are simply absurd. Lichtenstein’s Love pictures reduce men and women to ridiculous stereotypes. The classical Venus of the Renaissance or the Madonnas of Icons are real women who we feel we could have a real conversation with. Lichtenstein’s women are as flat and two dimensional as the comics he took them from. In the room before, Lichtenstein, whether intentionally or unintentionally, made small things seem great. Now he makes great things seem small.

The girl was quite unaware that Brad had absolutely no intention of helping her whether she called him or not.

The room after that had some of Lichtenstein’s paintings of painting, including his famous “Brushstroke.” “Brushstroke” was a sort of middle-finger to Jackson Pollock and his fellow paint drippers, exposing the banality of Abstract Expressionism. Like many of Lichtenstein’s works, it is taken from a comic book. The work is essentially a painting of a painting, one seems designed to make us think about the nature of painting. Like many of the other residents of Meta-ville, however, it’s intellectual exterior covers up its boring essence. “This is a painting about a painting”–so what? A painting about a girl or a spring or a mountain reminds us of deep, universal truth. A painting about painting reminds us of how clever and avante-garde we are. In the room were also several sculptures, or, for lack of a better word, “metal thingies,” that were meant to be explosions. They were big, garish, banal and meaningless–like explosions in a bad comic book or a Nicholas Cage movie. I looked at the sculptures, but could discern nothing behind their surface meaning. It was banality covering banality. Or perhaps it was Hipsterception: Irony covering up irony covering up irony and so on.

“Brushstrokes” The red paint looks like blood. Not sure whether that is symbolism or coincidence.

The next room contained some of Lichtenstein’s landscapes. Several of them were nifty, but most looked like something that would be on the wall of a dentist’s office. Perhaps this was Lichtenstein’s intention–like bees, you never can tell with modern artists. The room after that had Lichtenstein’s own version of art history, consisting of his reworkings and parodies of famous pieces and styles. Several of these were terribly clever–a few were stylistically magnificent. Yet I could not shake the feeling that Lichtenstein was once again making great things small in order to show off his own greatness. His childish rendition of Washington Crossing The Delaware seemed to trumped the message that Lichtenstein was more enlightened than these dead white America-lovers, that patriotism and beauty were just old fashioned ideas. Perhaps I am falling too much into the hermeneutic of suspicion, but given the bitter irony that infuses modern art, I think this would be a legitimate interpretation. In this room I also saw Lichtenstein falling into the creepy modern art practice of reducing the Feminine to long hair and breasts in several pictures that I have elected not to share. (Well, why don’t you praise me?)  The art in this room was not all simply bitter irony or creepy, perverse sexuality, and I think a post-ironic appreciation of some of Lichtenstein’s “art history” is necessary. The main question is: is Lichtenstein simply doing these parodies in the spirit of genial fun, or arrogant bitter irony? I’m not sure that Lichtenstein knew the answer.

Lichtenstein’s parody/reworking of “Washington Crossing the Delaware”

The next few rooms went by very quickly, mainly because they were rather dull. There were pictures of mirrors, pictures of Lichtenstein’s studios, pictures of Lichtenstein’s old pictures (In a moment of snarkiness I am tempted to call this period Lichtenstein’s “Nickelback Phase.”), and sculptures that look like something that would have been taken out of an alien movie theater from the 1970s. (Or for that matter, a human movie theater from the 1970s). At one point I pretended to look at one of the 70’s movie theater sculptures very intently, mainly because I was interested in a conversation that two of the security guards were having. The smart set often bores, but the working class never fails to intellectually stimulate.

One of Lichtenstein’s “Imperfect” Paintings

The next room was filled with Lichtenstein’s “Perfect” and “Imperfect” paintings. The “Perfect” paintings were filled with patterns of color and lines lines that zigzagged across the canvas. The “Imperfect” paintings were much the same, except that some of the lines careened off the canvas. (See the above picture.) The museum-provided notes informed me that “Lichtenstein acknowledged the series as an evolved parody: ‘It seemed to be the most meaningless way to make an abstraction . . . dumb paintings . . . [like] the nameless or generic painting you might find in the background of a sitcom, the abstraction hanging over the couch.'” I was quite relieved to know that I had gone into Chicago to see the visual equivalent of Everybody Loves Raymond.

After that came Lichtenstein’s nudes. Again, they were taken from comic books, but Lichtenstein took the clothed female figures from the comic books and made them nude. The result is shallow, demeaning, and anything but sexy. In fact, it’s simply gross. Lichtenstein takes away all of the mystery, symbolism and nobility from sexuality. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Lichtenstein takes the sexuality away from sexuality. The best you can say about illicit lust is that it is illicit–there is an element of love and risk that mirrors the relationship with the Divine, even though this element is taken and twisted and perverted. But with Lichtenstein’s nudes, sexuality isn’t a broken mirror. It isn’t even there. The tackiest Maxim or Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition cover at least shows Woman as having power, mystery, even being somewhat sacred and separate from men. There’s a bit of The Madonna in Madonna. But Lichtenstein’s nudes take the Feminine and Sexuality and make it banal, or even worse. It is like eating a day-old McDonald’s hamburger. It is sad to note that there is more truth reflected in a teenage boy hiding a Playboy centerfold under his mattress than in these paintings. Lichtenstein’s nudes also reflect the greater currents of misogyny that flow throughout his work. Lichtenstein may or may not have painted his “glamorous” comic-book women as an ironic commentary on sex stereotypes, but he never painted (to my knowledge) a real woman to counter the negative stereotypes. Several of Lichtenstein’s works, such as his sculpture “Galatea” and his horrifying “Woman III,” rank as some of the most grossly misogynistic artworks ever composed. Anyone who thinks there is a necessary correlation between women’s liberation and modern art is fooling himself.

Woman III

“Woman III” One of the most objectifying pictures of Woman ever made. I will resist the temptation to psychoanalyze Lichtenstein in light of this painting.

The final room in the exhibit consisted of Lichtenstein’s efforts to synthesize his methods of paintings, including his nifty technique of painting with dots, with the tradition of Asian landscapes. Lichtenstein’s methods and message look paltry compared to the tradition that he is working with. In fact, one interpretation of these works could be that his irony and banality were subsumed within the nobility of the Landscape tradition. On a surface level, the mix that Lichtenstein creates is visually jarring, and doesn’t particularly excite me as something I would want to put in my living room. Still, the paintings in this room seem to escape the banality of most of Lichtenstein’s work.

Yellow Cliffs

“Yellow Cliffs”

In the end, Lichtenstein reminds me of a Peanuts story arc where Charlie Brown meets a kid named 5. 5’s dad, after seeing how society increasingly gives humans numbers instead of names, renamed his family with numbers. When Charlie Brown asks 5 if that is his dad’s way of protesting, 5 replies “No. It’s his way of giving in.” Lichtenstein seems to be doing the same thing here. From his paintings, it is obvious that he ironically reacts against sex stereotypes, commercialism and the shallowness of Capitalist America. Yet he never paints an alternative. Instead of showing us deepness and richness, he just shows us more shallowness. Instead of showing a better way than commercialism, he just regurgitates advertisements. Instead of showing us a real woman, he just takes the fake women and makes them even more fake. Lichtenstein was clearly a talented artist (it annoys me when well-meaning Christians assume that modern artists “can’t draw”) but he rarely used his talents to show truth, beauty, and goodness to a world starved of such. Also, in the light of events such as the Holocaust and in the light of personal tragedies and triumphs, Lichtenstein’s art seems hollow and shallow. There is nothing here for someone who has found a lover, or lost a child, or has grown in greater appreciation of God. The irony is cheap and petty compared the staggering realness of life. The common man and the intellectual both see that Lichtenstein’s art willfully communicates banality and meaninglessness. The intellectual nods approvingly, while the common man shakes his head and walks away.

Current Listenings: Manipulator, Fall of Troy

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Katy permalink
    September 10, 2012 3:36 am

    This was fascinating to me! Thanks for letting us “walk through” the Lichtenstein exhibit with you, Nick. Your commentary here and in your Modern Art post are really excellent!

  2. September 11, 2012 2:12 am

    Step aside Paul Johnson! Before I read this article, I only connected the small country to the south of Belgium and between France and Germany with the name Lichtenstein. I even wondered at times why people lived in Lichtenstein, why did they live at all. You have given me much to think about, including, “Is that boy doing any of his classwork?” and “How did he get to be so knowledgeable?” and “Why is anyone voting for a second term for the President?” Granted, I am a little ADD, but the art did not help create a focused worldview. Glad we exiled you to Wheaton.

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