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

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 100: Speaking of Art

kandinsky circles

Wassily Kandinsky, Concentric Circles

“My kid could draw that!” “What the hell is that supposed to be?” “I don’t get it!”

Art can elicit a lot of emotions from people. The one that continually surprises me is hostility. Usually it comes when someone is confronted with what we might call Modern or Contemporary Art: an abstract painting or sculpture, a canvas with three stripes of color on it, an artwork made of found objects or something gruesome, offensive or just plain creepy. It is, of course, a broad generalization to put all contemporary art in this camp. But there has been enough of it over the last one hundred years to put a lot of people off a visit to the art gallery.

There is a part of me that understands the hostility. In fact, there are artists who have intentionally tried to piss you off, so if you are then…  job well done! But it is still a shame that there is a popular misconception about contemporary art. It is not all garbage nor does it exist simply for shock value; it is not a big con being pulled on an unsuspecting public; it is not a thoughtless and talent-less attempt at fame and fortune. Certainly, there are charlatans in the art world. But I suspect they don’t get very far before someone peeks behind their curtain to reveal what they’re really about.

Art is about conversation, a sharing of ideas, an opening of thought and imagination and feeling, an exploration of what it means to be human and why it matters. Art must be understood as being on a journey, one that will never end. But the journey is the thing, not the destination. Artists wrestle with big issues in their lives and in the world through what they create. They can be embarrassingly open and vulnerable; they can be intentional pains-in-the-ass; they can be sweet and warm; they can be angry or grieving or in love or seeking or lost. It all comes out in the art.

In an attempt to help bridge the gap between contemporary art/artists and those who view or experience their art, this post is a combination of images and words. Using the works of some of the giants of 20th century art along with their words, I’m hoping it opens a bit of a window into their reality and their motivation.

Artists aren’t trying to exist in a different world from everyone else. Artists are striving to make sense of the world they share with everyone else.

kandinsky composition VIII

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII

“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.”

Pollack Autumn Rhythm Number 30

Jackson Pollack, Autumn Rhythm number 30

“It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”

the-tilled-field-1924 miro

Joan Miro, The Tilled Field

“The joy of achieving in a landscape a perfect comprehension of a blade of grass.. as beautiful as a tree or a mountain.. What most of all interests me is the calligraphy of the tiles on a roof or that of a tree scanned leaf by leaf, branch by branch.”

Collage with squares arranged according to the laws of chance

Jean Arp, Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance

“Art is a fruit that grows in man like a fruit on a plant or a child in its mother’s womb.”

478.1953

Willem deKooning, Woman

“I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it – drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or idea.”

les demoisseles d'Avignon

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoisseles d’Avignon

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

i-and-the-village-chagall

Marc Chagall, I and the Village

“My hands were too soft.. I had to find some special occupation, some kind of work that would not force me to turn away from the sky and the stars, that would allow me to discover the meaning of life.”

Warhol Cambell's Soup Cans

Andy Warhol, Cambell’s Soup Cans

“How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something.. I think that would be so great, to be able to change styles. And I think that’s what’s is going to happen, that’s going to be the whole new scene.”

Calder arc of petals

Alexander Calder, Arc of Petals

“The next step in sculpture is motion.”

nude-descending-a-staircase-duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending Staircase

“You cannot define electricity. The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition.”

the-two-fridas-1939

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas

“I’ve done my paintings well… and they have a message of pain in them, but I think they’ll interest a few people. They’re not revolutionary, so why do I keep on believing they’re combative?”

the-persistence-of-memory

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

“The fact that I myself, at the moment of painting, do not understand my own pictures, does not mean that these pictures have no meaning; on the contrary, their meaning is so profound, complex, coherent, and involuntary that it escapes the most simple analysis of logical intuition.”

broadway-boogie-woogie mondrian

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie

“I wish to approach truth as closely as is possible, and therefore I abstract everything until I arrive at the fundamental quality of objects.”

four dark reds rothko

Mark Rothko, Four Dark Reds

“If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”

petunia no 2 okeeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe, Petunia #2

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

joy-of-life

Henri Matisse, Joy of Life

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado 1970-72 Christo

Christo, Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado 1970-72

“The work of art is a scream of freedom.”