A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 303: Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead

Peter Pumpkinhead

Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead, Ron Kok, Mixed media, 2017

“Peter Pumpkinhead was too good
Had him nailed to a chunk of wood
He died grinning on live TV
Hanging there he looked a lot like you
And an awful lot like me!”

Is it possible to make art using the tropes of popular culture that has a much deeper context?

The art world answered this with a resounding “YES” many, many years ago. The Pop Art movement was driven by this idea. Yet people are still confused by it all. It is as if those pop cultural motifs block some folks from thinking any deeper about something. This may have a lot to say about us as the viewers. Many upon seeing Warhol’s stacks of Brillo pad boxes in a gallery may believe that ol’ Andy pulled one over on the art world with that one. Roy Lichtenstein’s big, colorful comic strip panels may seem cool in a way but, some may ask,  “Are they art”?

I set out this past week to make my own pop cultural artwork with a deeper context. I was inspired by October, by the colors and by the pumpkins. I was also inspired by a song, “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” by the band XTC. When the art world was opening up the possibility of pop digging deeper, rock musicians were doing the same thing. The Beatles Rubber Soul and Revolver albums were revolutionary this way: Accessible, popular music with themes that were introspective, dark and searching. On the surface, this art, be it on a wall or on the radio, seemed “poppy”, as in “shallow”. But that was only the surface.

We’ve become so accustomed to our music combining these elements that we don’t really think about it anymore. In fact, for some of us, we’ve come to expect it of music and seek out artists who dig deeper in subject matter while still keeping their music accessible and fun. Of course, people still don’t get it. Midnight Oil can put out a song called “Beds are Burning” back in 1987, about the theft and misuse of Australian Aboriginal land and sacred sites, and still have people think they’re singing about hot sex.

As I was working on the artwork above, I was bemused by the reactions of people who saw it. I help to run an art studio at my workplace, a day program for adults with developmental disabilities. Often when my students are at work on something, I’ll be plugging away at something myself. The comments I got on this piece were, “Beautiful!”, “Nice!”, “Oh, I like that! Is that for Halloween?” I thought, “Hmmm, interesting… So a human figure with a pumpkin for a head, crucified on a tree is ‘beautiful’ and ‘Nice’?” Frankly, I thought I was making something kind of disturbing, even for Halloween time.

Yet, as I thought about it, the reactions were perfectly natural. The colors were bright (at first, before the dark skies and creepy buildings were added) and the subject matter seemed fitting for the season: Jack O’Lanterns, scarecrows, autumn-looking.  I began to realize that this Pop Art thing will naturally create a response that first recognizes the familiar, the surface of the thing you’ve pictured. It is only with some added viewing, with a pause, with time to take in the whole of the thing can someone really begin to wonder “I think there’s more to this than first meets the eye.”

If you know the song “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” you know that it is really poppy. It’s a catchy little Brit-pop tune of the early ’90’s that is easy to get stuck in your head. And “Peter  Pumpkinhead” sounds like it could be a character out of a children’s  book. But as you really listen and take in the song, you realize it is an allegorical tale being told. The deeper context is the very common story of the revolutionary who shakes up the systsem and gets killed by the powers-that-be for his/her troubles. The deeper context still, of course, is Jesus Christ.

Would it be more to-the-point just to paint a picture of Jesus on the cross? Yes. But by doing it with an overlay of pop culture, it takes on a whole different angle. It is subversive, in a way, meant to take you off guard. It is also meant to help the viewer’s mind and heart expand, to not go through life just taking in the superficial. For me, the song and this artwork I’ve made are about looking at important things, significant events and struggles, sacrifices, pain and the human battle between what is good and evil in all of us. Putting it out there like this is meant to make that context accessible via the familiar.

I’m not so sure it achieved what I set out to achieve. But here it is.

Below are the lyrics to the song plus a link to a video in case you are not familiar with it.

The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead by XTC

Let’s begin
Peter Pumpkinhead came to town
Spreading wisdom and cash around
Fed the starving and housed the poor
Showed the Vatican what gold’s for
But he made too many enemies
Of the people who would keep us on our knees
Hooray for Peter Pumpkin
Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkinhead?
Oh my!
Peter Pumpkinhead fooled them all
Emptied churches and shopping malls
When he spoke, it would raise the roof
Peter Pumpkinhead told the truth
But he made too many enemies
Of the people who would keep us on our knees
Hooray for Peter Pumpkin
Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkinhead?
Oh my!
Peter Pumpkinhead put to shame
Governments who would slur his name
Plots and sex scandals failed outright
Peter merely said
Any kind of love is alright
But he made too many enemies
Of the people who would keep us on our knees
Hooray for Peter Pumpkin
Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkinhead?
Peter Pumpkinhead was too good
Had him nailed to a chunk of wood
He died grinning on live TV
Hanging there he looked a lot like you
And an awful lot like me!
But he made too many enemies
Of the people who would keep us on our knees
Hooray for Peter Pumpkin
Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkinhead?
Hooray for Peter Pumpkin
Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkin
Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead
Oh my oh my oh!
Don’t it make you want to cry, oh
Songwriter: Andy Partridge
The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead lyrics © EMI Music Publishing
Peter Pumpkinhead

 

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