Pop culture starts here

Written by Sharon Eberson on .

By Sharon Eberson / Sunday, Sept. 14

A new book about Gorgeous George claims in its subtitle that he was "the outrageous bad-boy wrestler who created American pop culture." Testimonials by bad-boy filmmaker John Waters and fellow pop icons Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan and James Brown claim George as inspiration. By all accounts, George Raymond Wagner was a showman to rival P.T. Barnum and was known to say, "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!" And George was a man of his word.

So, was George cheating? Is he THE pop guy of culture? Pittsburgh's own Andy Warhol had just painted his first soup can in the early 1960s, around the time of George's death and 30 years after the wrestler became famous.

I was watching a great eye on pop culture, CBS's "Sunday Morning" program yesterday, which for my money gives news and culture more insight and context than any newsmagazine on TV ... where was I? Oh yes, and the program paid a visit to the factory (Warhol would be proud) of Jeff Koons, a guy from York, Pa., who tapped into the pop zeitgeist with huge public sculptures of fanciful, everyday things.

In a "60 Minutes" interview, Morley Safer used a voiceover to compare Koons' work to "the emperor's new clothes" - all explanation and no substance. Say what you will Morley, but you're bucking the tied of popular culture: Koons has a factory (Warhol would approve, I suppose) that employs dozens of assistants and his "Hanging Heart" sculpture sold last year for $23.6 million, a record for a living artist.

Is Koons' work art, Safer seemed to ask?

I think we can safely say it's pop art, at least.

Another example of contemporary pop art comes to Pittsburgh when Roberto Britto, who provided the moving sculptures for the Super Bowl XLI pregame show in 2007, brings a dozen of his works to the Waterfront Sept. 26-)ct. 19 as part of Britto Tours America. His vibrant colors and outlined in black -- see an example, above -- will call to mind Pittsburgh's own Burton Morris.

It seems to me that every showman who has gambled his career on the public's whims and won is responsible for a new chapter in the annals of pop culture. And what of the changing tides wrought by real-world inventions and ingenuity? Or fictional characters served up by Shakespeare and Cervantes (you can't tell me Don Quixote tilting at windmills isn't as much a pop figure as Gorgeous George).

Webster's dictionary takes a shot at defining it, because definitions are its business. To wit: "contemporary lifestyle and items that are well known and generally accepted, cultural patterns that are widespread within a population; also called pop culture ..." yada, yada, yada. (The inroads in language and reference material - puffy shirt, anyone? - made by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David earn them a special late 20th-century award as pop culture kings.)

It seems popular culture is, as that Elizabethean popmeister Shakespeare might say, as you like it. When it comes to pop culture, the more the merrier.

Washington State University has a Web site that breaks down popular cutlure into "forms" (film, music, sports, TV, etc.) and "issues" (race, gender, sexuality, censorship, imperialism) for "analysis" (textual, historical, audiences, production).

Phew. That's a little much. I was hoping to find the word "fun" somewhere, but msut have missed it.

In a search to define that pop culture that biographer John Capouya claims Gorgeous George gave us or that Washington State helps us analyze, I came across the Web site Pop Culture Madness, which defines its mission as a "one-stop information location for Popular Culture, Popular Music, Trivia, Jokes and a bunch of other stuff!"

By George, I think I've got! Pop culture is "a bunch of stuff."

Not satisfied with that or the dictionary, we asked some folks in the arts community what pop culture means to them. The responses are still coming in, but here are a few.

Please feel free to add you own (by clicking on "Commentary" below), and come back to this site for more from the people who are trying to get your attention and make their mark in pop culture.

What they are saying: 

Pop Art is of great meaning to me, my work and my life! Art for me is a reflection of life and the great metropolis, however, once a work is finished it should be available to a larger audience, even beyond the great metropolis, and this is what Pop Art represents for me. It is an art that reaches you, an art that reaches me, an art that reaches the world!! It reflects themes of the quotidian, and speaks through the colors and shapes of everyday life to bring a message to a vast and diverse audience. In my case, that message is one of happiness, of joy, of colors, of love and caring. And the multiplicity of Pop Art is great for me!! There are many ways in which people around the world dialogue with each other despite their differences, and Pop Art is my chosen dialogue! It is my livelihood and most importantly, my greatest joy to share my work and its colorful message with the world!!!
-- Brazilian artist Romero Britto, whose brightly colored, large-scale art has graced a Super Bowl pregame show, Hyde Park in London and other venues worldwide

The Beatles didn't just make that sound up. It was an English intepretation of American rock 'n' roll. Shakespeare made popular culture references all the time. Picasso is probably the best example of it. You draw from the vernacular around you.
-- Director Baz Luhrmann, discussing his upcoming film "Australia," a sweeping period sage with David Lean-style scope, in The Times of London

Hmmm... pop culture... perhaps it's the way we develop a shorthand that represents the zeitgeist. Maybe I think the zeitgeist is a brigde to the future and solely about the attractions and ideas of the young. Or does it include the cultural baggage that blends with current trends when one is over 30? I invited the audience to use their cell phones during a production of Shakespeare this summer ... to me the production felt like an example of anti-pop-culture-art ... by that I mean something more universal, rather than ‘baggaged' ... reaching up out of the depths to co-op pop culture ways and means. Is pop culture defined by age? can you be 46 and participate?
- Karla Boos, Quantum Theatre artistic director

As a composer, popular culture is one of many facets of our complex culture that I respond to - sometimes referencing it, rebelling against it, or creating music that is a parody of it. I like to get inside of popular music, because I like it! My latest close encounter with popular culture involves playing soprano saxophone in an Indonesian "Dangdut" band called the "Dangdut Cowboys." In doing so, I've learned a great deal about how popular music from India and the USA is able to blend with Arabic and Indonesian traditional music to create something very new, and very popular (in the East at least). Catch us on October 11 at Bellefield Auditorium when we open up for the most popular Indonesian Dangdut artist of all time, Rhoma Irama.
-- Mathew Rosenblum , Pitt composer and co-director of its Music on the Edge series

 We can't avoid pop culture, so why not embrace it? It took me years to come to this conclusion, one that would have been anathema to most of my teachers. But embracing pop doesn't mean we have to confuse it with art, whose territory is the human mind and spirit rather than the marketplace. (The borders of this territory are, admittedly, porous, with plenty of pop culture artifacts having artistic merit and plenty of art being bought and sold). Increasingly pop culture is the only culture we have in common, even for people with fancy educations, which means that making use of it is the only way to produce certain effects. And, at the risk of sounding nationalistic, I'd say that the referencing of pop, consciously or unconsciously, ironically or with love and loathing, is one of the main things that distinguishes American art usic from that of the rest of the world.
-- Eric Moe, Pitt composer and co-director of its Music on the Edge series



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