When is it art?

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ARTISTS want to be taken seriously - even when they work in a medium that seems lighthearted. Roy Lichtenstein is a multitalented Pop artist, best known for paintings and drawings that parody everyday life - they look like graphic art from comic books and newspaper advertising. So what makes them ``serious art,'' in contrast to illustrations of Superman?

Study the painting ``WHAAM!'' and you will hear two voices: The first is the surface story - ``I pressed the fire control ... and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky ... WHAAM!'' The second is Lichtenstein, telling his philosophy of art.

In the Superman cartoon below, the artwork is a vehicle for the surface story. In ``WHAAM!'' that story is less important. It serves as the launching point for the real discussion. Lichtenstein paints comic strips the way one might paint a still life of fruit. As with apples and pears, it is the artist's perception that charges otherwise neutral objects with significance and emotion.

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Still, Lichtenstein purposely avoids creating the illusion of a natural world. His paintings do not invite the viewer to step inside; they insist on being looked ``at'' as objects depicting objects.

Like many artists, Lichtenstein is a rebel. It's easy to see the influence of years of rigorous training in drawing in his work; but it's also clear that he does not automatically accept what others teach him.

The forms in his paintings appear as flat shapes on flat backgrounds, often distorted or oversimplified; the relationships between them are not ordered in a classical way. Consider, also, his selective palette - mainly primary colors with black and white - a radical decision. Depth and shadow are indicated by dots and crosshatches, rather than changes in tone and color. Written words play a role in both the design and the narrative of his paintings.

These are, of course, features inherent in comic strips. And yet it is Lichtenstein's deliberate choice to use them. This choice is similar to another artist's choosing the Cubist or Impressionist style. Such styles really only serve as backdrops - starting points - from which the individual's own particular identity develops.

Like other serious artists, Lichtenstein pushes his particular form of expression toward its limits.

Like the cartoonist, on the other hand, Lichtenstein has a very limited medium in which to convey a very complex message - about not romanticizing art. He does this with great irony and distinctive style.

One thing to learn from Lichtenstein is that in art, anything is OK. It's best, however, to have good reasons for doing what you're doing.

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