The British Museum presents: The American (Unobtainable?) Dream

The American nation, currently in a politically frenzied state not that dissimilar from our own, still unfortunately showcases yet also battles scenarios of racism, feminism, and many more “isms”. The Guardian recently reported that a rise in hate incidents stemming from feelings of white supremacy is apparent, perhaps coincidentally not long after Trump’s inauguration.


The British Museum’s ongoing exhibition, tracing the history of such stigmas from the 1960s, in turn optimises these for both the artists on display and the viewers standing by, in a clearly direct and simplistic fashion. The plethora of works indicated to me, as member of the young generation, that these battles will continue to recur throughout my lifetime despite advancements being made by our governments, or even society itself.


Adjoining rooms distinguish the key components in America’s history, with one of the last ones encompassing the female expression of self and others. If we begin with Applebroog’s American medical association completed in 1985, the striking visual presence of the defenceless female body being subjected to male gaze is unavoidable. The female figure is defenceless in the sense that her eyes are masked, unable to see the three male onlookers pictured below her. Her nakedness attributes to the male figure on the right of the picture sucking his finger, evidently displaying an inherent male, sexual desire. Works such as this weave the problems faced by women, and men, into the visualisation of the picture: the problem for women being perceived as purely sexual objects; the problem for men being generalised as beings solely perceiving the female race as these objects.


Another piece epitomising the American Dream are titled Eric (1985) and Cindy (2002) crafted by Robert Longo to Applebroog’s discussed work. Two pictures adjacent to one another illustrate a man and a woman, their faces concealed, either dancing erratically or physically reeling from pain; the ambiguity of Longo’s piece is immediate. Both the gender figures echo the “Yuppiedom” phase of 1980s America, a yuppie being a young professional working in the city with good earnings and an affluent lifestyle. Both of Longo’s employed personas reinvent the genre of portraiture by more figurative means than his predecessors of the 70s, these including Alex Katz’s Self-portrait also on display. The male and female are both distraught by the chaos of city life, and simultaneously revelling in its tempting vices – notably, alcohol and the “club scene”.


Andy Warhol’s variety of works capture the genre of Pop Art so fascinatingly, with his piece entitled Marilyn Monroe eclipsing the Hollywood star’s face in a range of lights – literally. Created in 1967, a series of prints showing Monroe’s same facial expression were repeated with changing hues. Each picture illuminates different aspects of Marilyn’s face; either her eyes are made to look tiresome, or her lips are coloured to off-putting or tempting. Warhol successfully grasps the emotions surrounding Monroe’s tragic death in 1962 and, since this series of artwork is so vivid and eye-grabbing, it immediately sets the tone for the rest of the museum’s exhibition; one evocating both the prosperity of America, and its incomparable darkness.


Although the unutterable truth that the many “isms” remain a recurring problem in 21st century America, artworks such as Ida Applebroog’s American medical association, revert the stigmas back to their fundamental simplicities prompting viewers, like me and you, to consider the concepts in a revived and untainted light. Bringing together a large plethora of works by emerging and already famous American artists from the mid- to late-twentieth century reminded me that notions such as racism, running deep in America, can not just be represented as political or social misconducts. They are also notions with artistic and expressive capabilities, these being more favourable to the former. Is the quintessential American Dream still achievable, and is the great striving for it observed more than its actual execution?


‘The American Dream: pop to the present’ runs at the British Museum until 18 June; tickets £13 for students.     

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