The term “Political Pop art” was coined by art critic Li Xianting in 1992. It refers to a trend begun in 1987 of depicting influential political figures and major political events in China in a satirical manner. According to Li, certain paintings by Yu Youhan, Zhang Peili, and Wang Guangyi, fall into this category. Political Pop artists considered Andy Warhol to be an important reference for their aesthetic language. [YL]
On Andy Warhol: Perhaps Simplicity Outshines Complexity
Narrated by Wang Guangyi
Compiled by Li Jianya. Translated by Lina Dann and edited by post editors.
Andy Warhol Makes the Ordinary Even More Ordinary
Back in college, I came across Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys almost simultaneously. The first work of Andy Warhol I ever saw was his Marilyn Monroe. It was so simple and so untouched by artificiality, without any trace of “painting.” It was in a sense perplexing, but still, I knew that the adoration I felt for Marilyn Monroe had arisen from the bottom of my heart.
The first time I ever saw a Beuys was in an imported magazine that included illustrations of some of his works. Of course, I could not understand the text because it was in a foreign language, but the pictures were genuinely alluring; to me they seemed less like works of art than like works of what I call “alchemy.”
Appreciating the works of Warhol and Beuys was challenging and puzzling; I was indeed bewildered. It was almost like reading Kant’s books, when often I found myself perplexed by words. But these were words that, despite being baffling, were also fascinating. In my pursuit of art, these two artists have influenced me greatly. To this day, they remain my favorite artists.
Beuys is what I call an “alchemist”; he is an artist who creates enigmas, as he has always created layers and layers of "mist." For instance, in his performance piece How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, it isn’t particularly clear what ideas he is trying to bring to the table. "To explain art to a dead hare" is indeed a difficult task. And the degree of such difficulty is perhaps beyond Beuys’s own grasp. All this mystic sense that he presents in his works is what makes me so fond of him. At times it feels as if he is giving serious thought to certain questions, and yet all of these questions are somehow so detached from, or even devoid of, reality. He seems to be discussing art from a metaphysical standpoint. He practically puts himself in a position where neither truth nor falsehood can ever be proven.
As for Warhol, he makes the ordinary even more ordinary—he lives in the light of day. When people tried to discuss his art with him, they would ask, “Is this what you meant?” Then even to the most obvious or foolish questions, he would usually answer, “Yes, that is exactly what I meant.” There is a particularly famous interview with Warhol where, during the whole thing, he answered questions with either “Yes” or “No.” These were his only answers. In the end, all that the media could report about the art was what they inferred or interpreted from his one-word responses.
This is actually related to the essence of Warhol’s works, for he eliminated from them all traces of individuality or personality. You see them as by-products of industrialization, of mass production, and so on. This is exactly where his greatest contribution lies—in industrializing artworks. He chooses meaningless images, transmits these meaningless images in meaningless fashion, and convinces everyone that they are actually meaningful.
Danto Gave Warhol’s Works Their Transcendental Value
The German art critic Klaus Honnef once made a very accurate remark about Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. He said that they are like “the palm and the back of a hand.” From what I see, Warhol’s work only reveals its true greatness when it is appreciated alongside Beuys’s work. The two exist on the same level; without Warhol, Beuys’s art loses its sense, and without Beuys, Warhol's becomes boringly mundane.
If we look at Warhol and Warhol only, art would seem to be so lacking and superficial. But if we place Beuys next to Warhol, we see that contemporary art has its true aura. Beuys is concerned with politics and even involved himself in political activities, such as those of the German Green Party. But from my point of view, these are not important. What Beuys does is to use politics as a means of doing. From the same viewpoint, Warhol’s art is a means of removing the so-called aura of art.
Yet does this mean that Warhol’s works do not have an artistic aura? Not really. For instance, Warhol has a piece in which he used silkscreen printing to depict numerous pairs of high heels. High heels are are objects that are charged with highly subjective meanings; when you use them in your art, there is always something attached to them. This is the allure of the aura of contemporary art. You inevitably think of the aura, of its reason for being there and of all that is around it or beneath it; otherwise, how would you explain the high heels in the painting?
Perhaps Warhol wasn’t giving much thought to all of this when he created his works. After all, Warhol’s ideas for his works are based on industrialization. Most of today’s high heels are the products of mass production. Warhol’s silkscreen printing technique is also an industrial method. In fact, none of us can claim to genuinely know what Warhol’s true ideas were, but the person who bestowed the aura upon Warhol’s works was the philosopher and art historian Arthur C. Danto. In April 1964 Warhol exhibited Brillo boxes in the Stable Gallery on East 74th Street in Manhattan. Danto went and saw those works, and he was the one who gave Warhol’s art its transcendental value.
We all know that Warhol rarely ever answered questions directly and, of course, we may say that this is how some artists choose to represent themselves, that is, by letting others speak for them, letting others bestow meaning on their art. Thus, if it were not for Danto, who gave transcendental descriptions of those works, Andy Warhol would not be the Andy Warhol we know today.
The simplest and perhaps the most truthful explanation we can give of Pop art is that Pop artists take what is easily found in the everyday world and reinvent or represent it in a particular way. On the surface, this idea seems banal and commonplace. But if this were all there was to Pop art, then it would be meaningless and would have no artistic aura. So in this regard, we must thank Arthur Danto, because not only did he give Warhol his significance, he also gave Pop art its significance. Before Danto, many writers had critiqued and commented on Pop art, but no one had given it a sense of transcendence.
The Connection between the Great Criticism Series and Political Pop Art is a Matter of Historical and Political Circumstance
Whatever Beuys and I have or don’t have in common is pretty noticeable, and the differences between us can probably be explained by looking at Warhol. Warhol’s works are direct and clear; his art comes to us easily—what he shows us is exactly what we see. But this is also the problem with his art: it seems superficial. However, when I try to look beneath this superficiality—while I cannot say I see something deep and profound, I can certainly vouch for the existence of some kind of wisdom.
Warhol’s aesthetic lies in the “beauty” of the ordinary, in the “beauty” of the mass culture. His works are actually technically very artful, well executed, smooth, and abundantly layered. Yet given the conditions at the time—a time when Expressionism and abstraction were dominant, a time when peculiar brushstrokes and bizarre materials were fashionable—Warhol’s values were apparently considered counter to the mainstream. His aesthetics arose from the mass culture, but in my view, this is different than if they had arisen from the people.
The concept of “the people” is a political concept, one that under most circumstances refers to the lower class and is associated with industriousness, hardship, and dedication. The concept of “the masses,” on the other hand, seems to me to be more related to the idea of “citizens”—of people in a society who are more concerned with materialism, consumption, and pleasure. My art refers to the concept of “the people,” and not “the masses.” This is the understanding I bring to Political Pop art.
Li Xianting was the first person to connect my Great Criticism Series with Political Pop art.1 Back then I was working on the idea of using newspapers published during the Cultural Revolution2 in my work but hadn’t yet figured out the details. Later on, Zhang Peili gave me a book about newspapers from the time of the Cultural Revolution, which eventually helped to launch the Great Criticism Series.
In the collection Zhang gave me, I found campaign posters addressed to workers, peasants, and soldiers.3 I used a grid to enlarge and transfer those pictures onto canvas because I wanted to retain the rudimentary, clumsy feeling of the original images. I incidentally included a Coca-Cola logo in a painting and I found it interesting, and so I kept it. This is how I came to create the first piece in my Great Criticism Series, Great Criticism: Coca-Cola.
In the latter half of 1990, I took photos of the five works in my Great Criticism Series and sent them to Li Xianting. Old Li responded by letter and noted the connection between my works and Political Pop art. His remarks were justified back then, given the historical and political situation. Nonetheless, if nowadays the media still sees me as nothing but a Political Pop artist, then they will have overlooked some even more important things.
In Warhol, I See What Society Expects of Me
Frankly speaking, Andy Warhol and I are very different because we come from different backgrounds. In Warhol’s works, you see great quantities of Western, commercialized objects. In my art, you will not find images that have been produced through the manipulation of photographs or advertisements; I build my art via the strength of “the people.”
Western logos are complex to me because they carry a sense of fetishism. In the Great Criticism Series, I tried my best to maintain a neutral stance in presenting the two ways in which I believe human beings operate. One reflects a utopian attitude, the other a fetishistic leaning. I placed both of these things into the same frame. The combination of these two disparate tendencies is one of the things that draws peoples' attention to the Great Criticism Series.
Comparatively speaking, Andy Warhol’s works are simple, and mine are complex. More often than not, simplicity outshines complexity. Warhol impels the masses to give meaning to meaningless images. Even in response to the silliest or most naïve questions, his response is always, “Yes, that is exactly what I meant.”
But I am different from Warhol. My education and background prevent me from being as extremely simple as Warhol can be. So, when it comes to ideas and concepts, Beuys has a greater influence over me, which is why, when I try to explain my own works, I am more willing to use ambiguous words to interpret them. In me you will see some very complicated, unorthodox things, especially when it comes to ideas—I enjoy a way of thinking that allows for uncertainty, obscurity, ambiguity, and even a twisting of the facts. After all, Conceptual art has ambiguous boundaries, just like ideas—things we cannot touch and cannot see—do when we speak of them.
As for Andy Warhol, his influence on me is mainly in how I see myself when it comes to what society expects of me. On a deeper level, I admire Beuys’s work, but as an artist who bears societal self-expectations, I also relate closely to Warhol. From a popular view, people might be more easily attracted to Warhol’s work because its outward appearance is very worldly and easily understood—even though we might not know what it actually means.
For the original Chinese text, see The Beijing News, October 9, 2013.
The text is translated from the Chinese by Lina Dann and annotated by Yu-Chieh Li and Lina Dann. All images have been added by post editors.
The Cultural Revolution, also known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, began in 1966. Mao Zedong, the chairman of the ruling Communist Party, was being threatened with insubordination by fellow politicians. As a means to secure his position, Mao encouraged all citizens to confront their superiors and usurp their power. Thus he unleashed the Cultural Revolution, using the newly empowered citizens to overthrow his political enemies. The movement was meant to have a profound impact mostly on culture and morals but it eventually affected the country’s social structure and economy as well. [LD]
During the Cultural Revolution all people in subordinate positions were called to engage in “great debates” with their superiors, with the aim of challenging and discrediting them. Such confrontations were encouraged within family hierarchies (sons vs. fathers) as well as professional ones (workers vs. employers). Workers, students, peasants, and soldiers, collectively called “gong nong bing” (literally, “workers, peasants, soldiers”), were those mainly addressed by these huge campaigns, which greatly advanced Mao's Cultural Revolution. The campaign posters were very popular and could be seen everywhere at the time. [LD]