American Dream: pop to present

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The British Museum opens it's doors for their latest exhibition this week, American Dream: pop to present. The US has a lot to answer in the wake off Trump's 7th week as US president, so we popped down to see if the American Dream really is still alive and kicking.

Roy Lichtenstein British Museum

Words by Danielle Morgan

Fragmented relics of the American Dream litter the halls of the British Museum's latest exhibition. Opening to the public only yesterday, incidentally marking just over 7 weeks since Donny Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the good old U S of A, the history and evolution of printmaking since the 1960s right up to 2014 is documented upon its walls.

As we're told by the curator of the exhibition, this collection was actually conceptualised before the candidates of the last election were even nominated. In a foreboding twist of fate, this body of work almost feels like a pre-emptive tribute to what America symbolised in the pre-Trump era.

'Political turmoil' is a term coined often, but in a time when no other phrase feels like it comes close in denoting what the US is currently experiencing, the contents of this exhibition seem a painfully nostalgic reminder of what the American Dream once meant for many. The Guardian's Jonathan Jones makes a good point, poignant if depressing 'There is such a thing as American civilisation. And we are watching it die.' The truth is a bastard, especially when it doesn't end all that well. But it isn't all doom and gloom; if you take one thing away from this exhibition it should be that there is hope for America. What that hope means is plastered across these walls; a service station, the ultimate beacon of freedom; Mao in drag, a reminder of how bad things can be. It will all get better. It must.

Drag Johnson 1967
Drag: Johnson and Mao, Jim Dine (1967)

Prominent works by Warhol, Rauschenberg and Close all feature in the collection, with more recent works by the likes of the Guerrilla Girls making an appearance. This exhibition celebrates the long term engagement the British Museum has had with America since it opened in 1753. It is a telling insight into how artists have tackled some of the most pressing issues of the last 50 odd years in experimental, novel ways, using a medium that, dating back centuries, is anything but. These artists have pushed their mediums to the limit in order to challenge what the American Dream really means, both to them and to the under and mis-represented minorities they have elected themselves as the spokespeople for.

Signs, Robert Rauschenberg (1970)

The advent of pop art in the 1960s saw artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg bring politics to the forefront of the American consciousness. Warhol himself argued that the repetition of an image takes away the meaning attached to it and leaves you with just that; an image. Eliminating the shock factor, the instinctive feelings you might feel of horror towards the electric chair, or nostalgia at Marilyn Monroe, what we are left with are the facts. What at first might seem like grossly exaggerated versions of an image, tarted up by altering the hue and saturation of a colour pallet, is in fact the opposite. The repetition lays everything out bare.

Lichtenstein's formalised pop art similarly ran with the theme of American iconography to mask the ways he dealt with the times; a manicured hand the embodiment of American consumerism, a comic style punch disguised as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. Oh, and let's not forget the ex pats and their slice of the American pie. Our very own Yorkshire lad David Hockney stakes his place here too, proving once upon a time your humble beginnings did not define you; there was such a thing as liberty and agency in the land of the free. Mingled among Warhol's demonic Nixon and Donald Sultan's desperate, faceless etchings of refugee's is Hockney, sole proponent of the American Dream.

Vote McGovern, Andy Warhol (1972)
Lichtenstein british Museum
Pow!, Roy Lichtenstein (1966)

'If you're never going to see one of my paintings and you'll only ever see the print, the print better be as important as the painting,' Chuck Norris affirms over grainy newsreel footage. And that mantra is at the crux of this exhibition; the vogue for printmaking during the 1960s and beyond was a call for contemporary art and ideas to become accessible to the masses. Popular art tackled the most pressing issues of its time; war, crime, race, gender, sexuality, and these weren't just issues that affected the high brow art world, they affected everyone and should be available to and discussed by everyone. As a medium that is usually omitted from exhibitions, this one is dominated by it.

Feminism has long been contested a dirty word, I must admit, until quite recently I didn't really 'get it', and without blindly speaking on behalf of everyone else, I would (humbly) argue that some other people might not have 'got it' either. And then the Guerrilla Girls came along, and they brought with them their monkey masks and statistics and all of a sudden it started making a little more sense. I knew it was good and right and moral, but I didn't know how to be one. How can I be a feminist? The Guerrilla Girls made it easy for me. And that is the point of print; making seemingly complicated issues easy to understand for those of us that never really 'got it' before. That has always been the beauty behind print; you no longer have to scrawl through essays and academic journals to grasp the issues you want to be passionate about; satire, popular art and mass produced print makes it all possible.

Guerrilla Girls Art
The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, Guerrilla Girls (1988)

And then, following a brief foray into minimalism and portraiture, we arrive at the end of the exhibition, greeted by one of the most recent prints to reside within it; Ed Ruscha's 'Ghost Station'. The optimism we met Ruscha with at 'Standard Station' in 1966 has all but disappeared, the colour ebbed away by the nagging feeling that perhaps the American Dream isn't all it's cracked up to be. The gas station; a temple for everything America symbolizes; freedom, adventure, reduced to a pallid, abandoned hull; the pathetic finale to a charade of hope and optimism. A bit like Trump, then?

The American Dream: pop to the present is running at the British Museum until 18th June 2018. Buy tickets here.