Jack the Dripper

By Namit Arora | Oct 2007 | Comments

Pollock2 Does art lie entirely in the eye of the beholder, or should it have minimal standards? Who decides what is art and what is only a visually appealing painting, photograph, or sculpture? What makes a sketch end up on a museum wall and another behind a refrigerator magnet?

Many years ago, during a visit to the SF MOMA, it struck me powerfully that the idea of art in the US had gone seriously amok—we have become, to quote Milosz, "indifferent to content, and react, not even to form, but to technique, to technical efficiency itself." The world, I felt sure, will one day wake up and realize that much of abstract modern art—in particular the abstract expressionism of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Kandinsky, etc.—has been the greatest sham in the history of art. I stand with the British art critic Craig Brown who too is "astonished that decorative 'wallpaper', essentially brainless, could gain such a position in art history alongside Giotto, Titian, and Velazquez."

Mark_rothko_2 I am certainly not for a frozen aristocracy of art. The world evolves, so too must art. New forms, mediums, techniques are not only inevitable but desirable. Yet, art to me is not about medium or technique. Art lies in the stories it tells, in the insight it reveals into the heart of the human material. Great art reflects the very depth of our being and experience. At the least, art is a mirror held up to us, to evoke a thirst, disquiet, longing, etc.—something we can try and articulate in words, however inadequate that might turn out to be. What we each see in that mirror varies of course and this is to be welcomed. Subjective appreciation flows out of our diverse experiences of life.

Hans_hofmann But what is fundamentally different about abstract expressionism is its disjunction from the "mirror test". Pollock, using his "drip technique"—poking a hole in a tin of paint to get a drip line—danced around the canvas, dripping paint on it using what has been called "action painting", stopping only when he would consider it finished. How did he know the painting was finished? His response: the same way he knows he has finished making love.

According to one supportive art critic, Pollock represents a "progressive purification in form and elimination of historical content". Kudos to Pollock for liberating the canvas from the tyranny of social and moral content. Imagine that! How dare a painting make demands on us, push us into self-awareness or confusion! Isn't it enough to be an eye candy? Poof! The expectation of human interest—as in a mirror held up—is gone. It's fine to do that, but why is this still called great art and collected by our best museums? What distinguishes these paintings from pretty wallpaper?

Pollock1_2This is partly a sign of the times. Like our political leaders, we get the art we deserve. Art got hitched to the market decades ago. Mass culture, with its fads, trends, and movements, engages, and stupefies ever larger audiences. "New money" consumers seeking the gloss of sophistication have to be smartened up and guided to the right acquisitions. Enter the academy and its scholars, who identify, analyze, and document art trends, classify and judge art and artists. Innovation and radical breaks become ends in themselves and are justified in the academy's jargon. Staid and serious practitioners are rarely interesting; tortured, flamboyant, alcoholic artists make better copy, playing into the stereotype of creativity and genius. Better still if the results do not even challenge or offend, or do so sensationally—the audience then is the largest, and they don't feel inferior about their own interpretations, because none is now privileged over any other! With sage gravity, the works are deemed "abstract", instead of what they at best are—the most creative decorative smudges in the world.

Kidpaint A few years ago, Marla Olmstead, a four-year-old was in the news for her alleged ability to paint like Pollock and command huge sums. Other children don't paint like Marla. Perhaps what she shares with Pollock is a freakish instinct to combine color, shapes, and lines on canvas, all detached from attempts to "mirror" human experience. We can marvel at this instinct but why call the output great art, stuff it in our best museums, and insult the intelligence of their visitors? The malaise in the American art academy is reflected rather well by critic Mia Fineman who defends abstract expressionists in this Slate article:

In the 1950s, artists like de Kooning and Pollock proposed a radically new way of thinking about painting: as the direct trace of the artist's physical engagement with the materials. "... the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act -- rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or 'express' an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event."

[The abstract expressionists] were great formal innovators, but even more important than Pollock's drips or de Kooning's arabesques was their revolutionary insight that a painting can represent nothing other than the process of its own creation.

... skeptics profoundly miss the point of the art they're trying to debunk. Yes, anyone can pick up a brush and slather paint on canvas in a drippy style that evokes Jackson Pollock. But it took an artist like Pollock to step back from his own work, which at the time looked unlike anything that had come before, and say, with bold conviction: "This is it. This is what modern painting looks like." In other words, Pollock taught us how to see art in a new way.

Is that all we expect from our best artists? The bold conviction to drip paint and call the result modern painting? To see art in a new way, without the new way being significant? Is this not prioritizing form and technique over content? How fatuous, to claim that "a painting can represent nothing more than the process of its creation"! I have no problem at all with painters who produce such works. But art critics—both lay and professional—ought to demand a lot more from art. Subjectivity of appreciation isn't an excuse to not strive for our very own aristocracy of art.

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