By: Brennan Carley, Taylor Cavallo, and Dan Siering
Most people from our generation know many famous pieces of art solely through commodities, as opposed to the original pieces themselves. While this exposure to fine art is undeniably valuable to the public, it is imperative that we understand the artists’ intentions and appreciate the original paintings themselves.
van Gogh: Starry Night
Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is certainly an infamous art icon. His legacy is filled with pithy little anecdotes: that he was insane, never sold a painting during his lifetime and that, of course, he cut off his own ear. Regardless of his troubling personal life, van Gogh is a timeless painter whose talent is evident among art connoisseurs and amateurs alike. While all of his paintings are beautiful, featuring bold, vibrant colors and harsh brush strokes, his most famous painting, and perhaps one of the most famous and recognizable paintings in the world, is Starry Night. There is something about this painting that resonates with the average viewer—something relatable, intangible, and truly moving. As the painting is so beautiful, it is no wonder that it has been recycled in the world of pop culture. Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris featured van Gogh’s painting as the backdrop movie poster, despite the fact that the painting does not depict Paris. From coffee mugs to cakes to fake nails to shoes, Starry Night has grown to infamy through commodification. While it is questionable as to whether or not van Gogh himself would appreciate this, it has brought the beautiful painting into the lives of many.
Keith Haring: Radiant Child
In the end, he may be best remembered for a mural depicting a skeleton holding a burning dollar bill as the words “Crack is Wack” are splashed across the handball wall. An artist and social activist, Keith Haring got his start with chalk drawings in the New York City subway system. He brought pop art to a deeper level with his radiant baby, a kneeling outline of a child with broad, black strokes and flashes branching out from his body. Later in the ’80s, he befriended Andy Warhol, who later became the subject of Haring’s work, including his popular “Andy Mouse” series.
Haring was an advocate for AIDS-related charities, and later, in 1990, succumbed to AIDS-related complications. He gave a voice to a generation too afraid to speak, splattering his powerful and meaningful graffiti on subway cars, billboards, and even the ceiling of the New York Historical Society, which was recovered and restored last year for public viewing. Alongside Jean Michel-Basquiat, he was the preeminent graffiti artist of the decade, like a less secretive Banksy. His Keith Haring Foundation enlisted his imagery to help spread awareness about the disease that would quickly bring the genius’s life to an end.
Today, artists like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj wear skintight bodysuits plastered with Haring’s symbols, but no star has yet taken the time to explain their significance. The artist’s works have seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years—Urban Outfitters ran a t-shirt line with his images, and several popular shoe lines featured sneakers emblazoned with the art—but his messages of acceptance and awareness should be considered just as important as the pieces they inspired.
Rene Magritte: Treachery of Images, Son of Man
With his simple surrealist themes, Belgian painter Rene Magritte decisively and directly challenged the basic concepts of modern logic during his career, which spanned the majority of the 21st century. His paintings and sketches have been the center of deep and complex discussions in philosophy and art history classes throughout the world. Perhaps you have had a class where you’ve meditated on his infamous work The Treachery of Images, which juxtaposes a sketch of a pipe with the phrase “This is not a pipe.” Or perhaps you had looked at his Son of Man painting and tried to assess why the heck he put that apple in front of that guy’s head.
Nonetheless, since his death in the late ’60s, the surrealist’s thought-provoking images have been spoofed and adapted endless times by the metrics of pop culture. Whether it’s placing the suited gentlemen on the tops of Macbooks or replacing the pipe with a toilet or a Nike high top sneaker, at least a portion of the legacy of Magritte lies within a commoditized sector of modern society. Yet with his use of such modest and comprehensible symbols, can you really blame pop culture?