In the early 1960s a spectre was haunting New York, the spectre of banality. Hannah Arendt was publishing her articles on 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' in the New Yorker, and the mostly Jewish intellectual community associated with Partisan Review, Dissent and Commentary was appalled by her notion of the 'banality of evil' . The very phrase (many readers got no further) seemed to trivialise the Holocaust, to make its fundamental crimes literally superficial. Meanwhile a new breed of artists was advancing another brand of banality, with divisive effects on the art world. In 1960, independently at first, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol had begun to paint cartoons and advertisements drawn from tabloid newspapers of familiar characters and generic products - Popeye and Mickey, tennis shoes and golf balls. When Lichtenstein moved on to comic strips - romance and war comics were his preferred material - the accusations of banality only grew more shrill. The profundity endangered by the cold surfaces of this new Pop art was the pathos of Abstract Expressionist painting and its feverish gestures; mainstream critics, who had finally come around to Jackson Pollock and company, were not happy about this turn of events. In 1949 Life had showcased Pollock under the banner: 'Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?' In 1964 the same magazine profiled Lichtenstein under the heading: 'Is He the Worst Artist in the US?'
LRB 22 August 2002 | PDF Download