Art Movements in Art History - Emergence of Pop Art in Britain
Art Movements > Pop Art > Emergence of Pop Art in Britain
Emergence of Pop Art in Britain *
British Pop Art first emerged out of the activities and discussions of the Independent Group,
a collection of critics, painters, architects, musicians, designers and other persons
concerned with the relationship between industrial design and the arts. The group was
first convened by an architect, Reyner Banham, in the winter of 1952/1953, and was
reconvened by Lawrence Alloway and John McHale in the winter of 1954/1955.
Popular culture was selected as a theme for the discussions of the Independent Group
during its 1954-1955 season. This interest was related to the group's perception of their
time being one of profound upheaval, and their endeavour to come to terms with the
changing nature of the urban experience in postwar Europe. The development of systems of
mass communication was perceived as having altered the nature of the environment
Previously, people had experienced events in a direct or immediate way. Now their
experiences were regarded as being (to a large extent) of a secondary nature, existing and
acting, for example, via television.
The Independent Group sought to come to terms with their new age by accepting, indeed
embracing, popular culture rather than by attempting to enforce a separation between it and
the fine arts. Alloway notes:
' We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard amongst most intellectuals,
but accepted it as a fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically. One
result of our discussions was to take Pop culture out of the realm of "escapism", "sheer
entertainment", "relaxation" and treat it with the seriousness of art.'
This enthusiastic consumption of popular culture involved a glorification of the United
States, the country most advanced in the development of media systems. As Alloway notes:
" Hollywood, Detroit and Madison Avenue were, in terms of our interest, producing the
best popular culture."
By embracing popular culture, the Independent Group was challenging the privileged
position of art in the total spectrum of culture. Instead of advocating a separation of "high
art" from "low art", its members were advocating what Alloway termed a continuum
between the fine arts and popular culture.
The concerns of the Independent Group can be located in a number of exhibitions from
the 1950s. The best-known of these --- "This is Tomorrow", held at the Whitechapel Art
Gallery, London, in 1956 - proved a significant landmark in the emergence of Pop Art in
Britain. The Whitechapel Art Gallery was divided into areas allocated to various groups
which organised a variety of displays. A notable inclusion in the exhibition was a collage by
Richard Hamilton entitled Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So
Appealing?, a satiric work that presents stereotyped individuals in an environment
reflecting their nature and identity. The work typifies the Pop enterprise in its direct
cooption of elements from the media and in its use of signs as subject matter. The figures
represented, for instance, are not individualised but standardised advertising types; so
when they make their appearance in the collage they engender a network of associations and
connotations derived from their previous incarnation in the media and popular culture. They
thus serve to evoke questions about the systems of communication from which they are
The chief source of British Pop Art from the late 1950s onwards was the Royal College of
Art in London. Unlike Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, the artists graduating from
the school were not party to the discussions of the Independent Group, but they nevertheless
absorbed most of their ideas.
* Drawn from notes compiled by B. Schmahmann for the University of South Africa