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THE KINKS AND TATE MODERN: ONLY ONE OF THEM IS POP

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When you think of Pop Art, you think of exuberance, irreverence and a rejection of the stuffy and traditional view on what art should be. A movement that pulled in ‘low brow’, every day sources such as ads, graphic design, packaging, pop music, comics, and movies. More precisely, British artist Richard Hamilton, who was part of the seminal Pop Art collective the Independent Group, listed the ‘characteristics of Pop Art’ in 1957 in a letter to architects Peter and Alison Smithson, his fellow group members:

Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.

Well, quite.

So it was with relish that I rocked up to the The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern, an exhibition focussing on Pop Art beyond the pivotal British and American scenes. I fully expected to find energy and joie de vivre. Instead the show felt like a visit to a modern art museum in a former Soviet republic, with a rather bored-looking curator in the corner and pieces that look like they come from foundation art students five years after Pop Art first arrived.

The exhibition’s aims are laudable if misguided. It’s trying to open up the concept of the Pop Art movement to include more women artists and more global artists. But it entirely misses the point. Pop Art is not just a distinctive aesthetic, it’s about the philosophical motivations behind it, most of which hold a mirror up to the world and find joy and colour in the mundaneness of it all. But the vast majority of work on display here looked like the Pop Art aesthetic had merely been appropriated for far more cynical and pretty darn miserable ends – with its explicit anti-regime, anti-war, and Feminist activism. 

It was a welcome relief to go to Sunny Afternoon later that weekend. This new musical tells The Kinks’ life story through the band’s music. Now there was a life affirming, heady joyous celebration of one of the great cultural movements of the past. The story of the rise to fame of two working class brothers was cleverly woven into the use of their legendary songs, without trying to clunkily force the songs into a false narrative that wasn’t really there.

The Tate Modern could learn a thing or two.