Drive it away and it gallops back

Barthes, “That Old Thing, Art…”, included in the catalogue for the Pop Art exhibition at the Istituto di Cultura di Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1980; translated by Richard Howard in The Responsibility of Forms:

As all encyclopedias remind us, during the fifties certain artists at the the London Institute of Contemporary Arts became advocates of the popular culture of the period: comic strips, films, advertising, science fiction, pop music. These various manifestations did not derive from what is generally called an Aesthetic but were entirely produced by Mass Culture and did not participate in art art at all; simply, certain artists, architects, and writers were interested in them. Crossing the Atlantic, these products forced the barrier of art; accommodated by certain American artists, they became works of art, of which culture no longer constituted the being, merely the reference: origin was displaced by citation. Pop Art as we know it is the permanent theater of this tension: on one hand the mass culture of the period is present in it as revolutionary force which contests art; and on the other , art is present in it as a very old force which irresistibly returns in the economy of societies. There are two voices, as in a fugue—one says “This is not Art”, the other says, at the same time “I am Art.”

Art is something which must be destroyed—a proposition common to many experiments of Modernity.


Now the fact, in mass culture, is not longer an element of the nature world; what appears as fact is the stereotype: what everyone else sees and consumes. Pop Art finds the unity of its representation in the radical conjunction of these two forms each carried to extremes: the stereotype and the image. Tahiti is a fact, insofar as a unanimous and persistent public opinion designates this isle as a collection of palm trees, of flowers worn over one ear, of long hair, sarongs and languorous, enticing glances (Lichtenstein’s Little Aloha). In this way, Pop Art produces certain radical images: by dint of being an image, the thing is stripped of any symbol. This is an audacious movement of mind (or of society): it is no longer the fact which is transformed into an image (which is, strictly speaking, the movement of metaphor, out of which humanity has made poetry for centuries), it is the image which becomes a fact. Pop Art thus features a philosophical quality of things, which we may call facticity. The factitious is the character of what exists as facts and appears stripped of any justification: not only are the objects represented by Pop Art factitious, but they incarnate themselves, they begin to signify again—they signify that they signify nothing.

For meaning is cunning: drive it away and it gallops back. Pop Art seeks to destroy art (or at least to do without it), but art rejoins it: art is the counter-subject of our fugue.