Dreams: Unconscious Creations in Art

Hi everyone! It’s a been a while since I posted anything new and as I’ve had troubles sleeping these past couple weeks, I’ve done a lot of thinking about dreams. I have both the blessing and the curse of remembering them vividly but they rarely ever effect my daily life. It’s difficult to imagine any of these dreams changing my life in any significant way, let alone impacting the world. For many artists, their dreams do just that and in the 1960s, delving beyond the realm of consciousness appealed to many people. What I find the most inspiring about these dream-stories is, these artists don’t incorporate dreams into their philosophy and, as far as I know, practice lucid dreaming. They simply stumbled upon something beautiful and decided to use it.

“It was fairly mystical when I think about it. It was the only song I ever dreamed.”

Paul McCartney, On Yesterday

Paul McCartney

One of the greatest songs McCartney ever wrote, Yesterday, came to him in a dream and it’s such a good song, it’s almost surprising that he admits it. Apparently, he played it immediately after waking up and feared he may have remembered it from somewhere else. The lyrics took awhile longer to come to him but I personally like the original filler, “Scrambled eggs. Oh, baby how I love your legs.”

Although I’m a major Beatles fan, I have to admit they were more arrogant than other 60s Artists (they were also about ten years younger than my favorite painters and experienced a wild amount of success much earlier in life.) I don’t believe dreaming art takes away from any genius or credit someone should receive but I can understand why that’s a popular opinion. McCartney could have easily attributed it all to his own genius, and although he still told a great story, it’s one that really connects him to these visual artists who valued dreams and ideas of art outside the self ( he was friends with Richard Hamilton and probably very aware of many artistic philosophies at the time). Whether he intended it or not, I think the story speaks to his belonging as a 60s artist at heart.

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns with Flag, 1955

In 1955, Father of American Pop Art, Jasper Johns had a dream where he painted the American Flag. Soon after he awoke, he painted it in real life and it went on to become one of the post famous paintings in post WWII art. If we examine the heavy paint blotches and the slight abstractness of the flag, we see again another blending between “art and life” or, if you are new to this blog, a kind of haziness that has the appearance of something from a dream-world. Johns often uses familiar symbols in his work that are up to the interpretation of the viewer. The American flag is a familiar symbol to everyone but it does not inspire the same feelings in all of us. Johns himself claimed to be objective towards this meaning wanting the viewer to interpret it however she wishes. At the risk of over-analyzing, we can think of the symbols in our dreams the same way. They are familiar to us and they likely mean something but what do they mean? Johns, of course, wasn’t bothered by this mystery. He used it to invite us into his work thus combining “art and life.”

What I love the most about these stories are dreams coming to the artists like opportunities. Instead of attributing it all to their own genius, they take a more humble approach and focus on the art itself. As I share more about these amazing artists, I hope it becomes apparent they never relied on genius as much as an appreciation for life and were genuine, even selfless, in that way. They appreciated things for existing and were inspired by a love of life which is something I want to do more often.

The New York Theory

Although Pop Art is a relatively young movement, art historians argue about how and where it began. I think all their theories have some merit so I want to cover the most prevalent ones in my posts and have you decide which one you agree with. I’m starting with the first theory I encountered; that Pop Art began in New York City. I’ve settled for the “New York Theory” since it doesn’t have a name yet.

Leading up to the mid 50s, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant art form but many people struggled to understand it. If you’re unfamiliar with that movement, it’s the kind of art that would make a skeptic say, “My five-year old could paint that.” Then, according to this theory, in 1955 Robert Rauchenburg created a multimedia piece called, The Bed, that opened the public to new views of art. 

The Bed was part quilt, part Expressionist painting and left critics confused. It wasn’t completely abstract or completely realistic; it was a whole new brand of art. This lead many critics to fear America was reverting back to naturalism in art.

The Bed-Robert Rauchenburg 1955

Apparently they had nothing to worry about. Rauchenberg’s friend, and for some time, his lover, Jasper Johns, used this opportunity of combining the abstract and realistic to recreate familiar symbols such as American flags, maps, and targets. These symbols mean something to everyone but that something depends on her own experience. Depending on what way you look at it, the American flag, for example, could evoke feelings of pride and patriotism or feelings of fear and anger. Johns wanted to connect with the viewer and, unlike an Abstract Expressionist, did not want art to focus on his emotion. This way art became more about the viewer’s perception than his own.

Close up of Target with Four Faces- Jasper Johns 1955

“I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings.”

Jasper Johns

The shift away from emotion became popular with other artists and led to a completely objective form of art: Pop Art. Instead of symbolic color, Pop Art featured items people used in everyday life such as beer cans, cars, and Coke bottles. Perhaps the most well known Pop Artists are Roy Lichtenstein (known for his comic-like art) and Andy Warhol (known for his celebrity portraits and Campbell’s Soup can). Warhol later became regarded as a “pure pop artist” for his objective portrayal of everyday objects that, according to him, “don’t really mean anything.”

Marilyn Monroe- Andy Warhol 1962

Pop Art expanded the definition of art to include people and life outside the galleries meaning those who couldn’t easily relate to Abstract Expressionism weren’t expected to intellectualize Pop Art.  According to this theory, it began with Johns and Rachenburg as a rebellion against established art. As we’ll soon discover, not everyone agrees…

Chipp, H. (1968). Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Famous Artists Annual: A Treasury of Contemporary Art. Westport, CT: Famous Artists Schools Inc.

Jason, H.W. (1986) History of Art.  New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.