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Thomas Crow’s scholarship has indelibly shaped the reception of Pop in the field of art history. In his 1996 book, Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press), Crow advanced a reading of Andy Warhol that has had a lasting impact on how scholars understand the artist’s conflicted relationship to mass culture. Specifically, he argued that Warhol’s most powerful work examined the breakdown of commodity exchange in postwar society, an impulse connected to a tradition of truth-telling in U.S. commercial culture. Crow’s interpretation has come to stand for one of the primary methodological approaches to Pop—the “referential” approach, as Hal Foster called it, in contrast to a “simulacral” reading (Hal Foster, “Death in America,” October 75 [Winter 1996]: 37–59). In his most recent book, Crow continues the central argument of Modern Art in the Common Culture—that the avant-garde and mass culture have always been intertwined—but expands his purview by examining the “long march” of Pop, from folk art to Jeff Koons. Crow clearly states his claims at the outset: he aims to situate Pop in a broader historical trajectory and to examine on its own merits the common culture that Pop represented. While art remains Crow’s primary focus, this book differs from Modern Art in the Common Culture in its sustained scrutiny of music and design, which are subjected to the same intense visual and historical analyses Crow performs on art objects.
Crow begins his history in the 1930s, with American folk art. While scholars have documented folk art’s role in the development of institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Crow makes a case for folk’s impact on the 1950s and 1960s avant-garde. The claim is boldly stated in the first chapter, “Before Pop There Was Folk,” which opens with John Kane’s 1929 Self-Portrait. As Crow explains, Alfred Barr and Holger Cahill championed this self-taught artist, who spent most of his life as a laborer in Pittsburgh, as an exemplar of home-grown modernism. Others associated with folk, such as Harry Smith, assembler of The Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), and musicians Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”), appear in Crow’s history. In his formulation, American Pop—his main focus, though he discusses Britain as well—hearkens back not only to a modernist European avant-garde, but also to the American folk tradition, with its emphasis on vernacular subjects, collectivist impulse, and allegorical bent.
As becomes apparent throughout the book, folk’s allegorical qualities play an especially important role in Crow’s argument. His focus on allegory has two principal ramifications: first, this line of thinking allows him to continue to challenge poststructuralist readings of Pop art, as he has done in his other work. Second, his definition of allegory, for which he relies on figures such as C. S. Lewis and Angus Fletcher—unfamiliar names in art history, let alone Pop literature—counters what Crow sees as an overreliance on (and misreadings of) Walter Benjamin’s notion of allegory, as defined in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (trans. John Osborne, London: Verso, 1998). In the chapter on Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines, for example, Crow, borrowing from Lewis, argues that these works constitute “subjective art for an objective age” (77). Instead of seeing the Combines as eschewing order and systematization, as many scholars have done, Crow argues that the Combines as a whole are loosely connected by references to mythology—for example, repeated evocations of rising and falling as embodying the story of Icarus. It is not that Rauschenberg directly represents these themes (though at times he does), but rather that as he continued to make work, these correspondences and convergences became an evolving system with its own force and impulses, such that the artist eventually yielded to the organizing powers of allegory. With this argument, Crow counters the idea that all attempts to interpret Rauschenberg’s works, as Craig Owens argued, “testify to their own failure” (quoted in Crow, 390n24). Rauschenberg’s work is not about the impossibility of symbolization and order, or a kind of randomness or chaos, but about finding unity and meaning in that chaos, in order to “externalize the dissonant complexities of his life” (77). While Crow’s reading is an intriguing way of theorizing how Rauschenberg represents his own subjectivity, one also wonders how his argument could extend to the social dimensions of his art. What does Rauschenberg’s mobilization of allegory propose about the construction of subjectivity (as a larger concept, not only as it applies to the artist himself) in the postwar era?
Crow returns to and builds upon his definition of allegory throughout, from his discussions of Robert Indiana to analyses of Beatles albums cover art. As a result of the book’s broad scope, his argument tends toward generality over specificity. Rather than considering single works or even artists in depth, Crow aims both to trace the evolution of allegory over time in an artist’s work and to delineate the wider networks and connections between diverse artists who employed allegorical modes of representation. To comprehend the allegorical in art, he argues, necessitates this kind of approach, because allegory encompasses a kind of world-making and meaning production that accrues through repetition and over time, as images congeal into symbols and cohere into stories. Crow enacts this approach in the chapter “Showdown on East Forty-Seventh.” Across fifteen pages printed with thirty-two images related to Warhol’s work (including installation shots and source photos), he imagines the world that the images collectively conjure—one inhabited by “protector heroes” in the guise of Elvis, dangers in the form of car accidents, looming death emblematized in the electric chair, and desire embodied in the figure of Woman (both the golden Marilyn and the raven-haired Jackie and Liz) (288–302). This section reinforces Crow’s argument that strategies of inventory, even when seemingly random and scattered, tend “towards resolution on an allegorical level” (304).
Throughout the book, Crow argues that art does its most lasting and important work when engaged with the representative and symbolic functions of allegory. By theorizing Pop as an allegorical mode of art, Crow continues to make the case for the representative and symbolic capacities of Pop—how it proposes models of subjectivity, ways of being and living in the world. At its best, Pop “proves itself over and over again to be a domain in which fundamental conflicts can be rehearsed, dilemmas of human existence so basic that their imprint on art has to be traced over centuries” (385). By seeking to trace Pop’s production of meaning vis-à-vis mass culture, Crow presents an intriguing counter to poststructuralist readings as well as those that skew overly contextual or biographical. His broad narrative complements equally important recent studies of single Pop artists, such as Michael Lobel’s Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), and serves as a reminder of the necessity for diachronic historical analyses alongside in-depth, synchronic studies.
At times, however, Crow’s framework seems stretched to its limits. Situating Jasper Johns as engaged with American folk, Crow argues that the artist can be understood as Harry Smith’s foil: while Johns was the avant-garde artist drawing upon historical folk art, Smith presented himself as a folk artist in order to construct an avant-garde vocabulary in his films. However, Crow’s sketch of the relationship between Johns and folk seems to be largely based on the appearance of similar content (use of the flag, for example) rather than conceptual connections. Moreover, many of Johns’s subjects and materials are contemporary, such as cutouts from the New York Times, or difficult to pin down to any particular historical moment, such as letters, which become anonymous by virtue of his use of stencils. John often seized upon objects that were just about to become obsolete, as opposed to reaching farther back into the past to borrow from what Crow calls “folkloric templates” (50). In this case, then, it is not clear that the allegorical approach sheds new light on Johns’s work. Here one wonders about the absence of certain artists in Crow’s narrative, such as Corita Kent. Kent’s 1960s screen prints, which delve into the intersection of vernacular culture and the populist aims of Vatican II, seem especially relevant to Crow’s interest in allegory.
Though Crow’s goal is to examine the “long march” of Pop, the book would nonetheless benefit from more sustained examination of key works. This is especially true in regard to Crow’s discussion of design, which brings to the table crucial and undertheorized issues in Pop scholarship. However, while he delves into design throughout (discussions of Push Pin Studios, an insightful reading of Robert Indiana’s LOVE images), too often his analyses seem truncated. An important example is found in chapter 4, in which Crow discusses the Royal College of Art student journal Ark (1950–78) in relation to the work of the Independent Group. As Crow argues convincingly, Ark seems to foreshadow definitive techniques of Warhol’s 1960s prints: serial repetition of the found image, black screenprint over a monochrome field, gridded organization. Here we see the potential of Crow’s claim that “design history crucially records the preconditions for the special historical cases that at this point suddenly emerged into art history under the heading of Pop” (105). However, the chapter ends abruptly there, without showing the reader the stakes of this important statement. What specific qualities of Ark did Independent Group artists borrow to produce art objects that became keystones of aesthetic memory? How and by what means do those borrowings become art objects? What do these objects say about the commercial culture they reference? While Crow touches on techniques used for Ark, such as color printing and innovative layout, more analysis of the history of these techniques, and even their own potential allegorical meanings, would help to clarify how this design work acts as the “precondition” for the Independent Group’s artworks, that is, what it offered to them as the conditions for a new model of making art. This discussion is also missing in the section on Ed Ruscha’s books, which rely so heavily on commercial art. Ruscha, after all, was one of the Pop artists who most successfully, to borrow Crow’s description of Indiana, simultaneously balanced “two sets of skills and two professional formations in suspension, thereby joining two divergent publics in a rare moment of contiguity” (322).
Crow’s insistence on the importance of design reinforces the need for more incisive historicization of graphic design and commercial art (and indeed, more precise definitions of these slippery terms). His book provides an impetus for further research into the relationship between art and design, histories that will consider not only the well-known figures such as Milton Glaser, but the largely anonymous and quotidian labor of the illustrators, layout artists, and printers who produced the bulk of the mass culture that gave Pop its form and its content. As Crow acknowledges, design is largely glossed over in art history, too often seen as a backdrop to Pop’s innovations. The Long March of Pop is a reminder of the pressing need to excavate histories of design, and in turn to ask how these histories can help us to see Pop—and the culture it engaged—anew.
John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Fellow in Photography, Harvard Art Museums
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