My mother's kitchen walls make better use of color
August 27, 2005 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Why are Jackson Pollock's painting considered to be art?

Specifically, his painting in this style.
posted by 517 to Media & Arts (69 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's pretty, but is it art?
posted by corpse at 9:31 AM on August 27, 2005

Art is anything produced by an artist. Whether it's "good art" or you like it is highly subjective, but for something "to be considered art", it just needs an artist to say "this is my art".
posted by benzo8 at 9:35 AM on August 27, 2005

Response by poster: okay, why is it considered art that is worthy of gallery walls and books?

In other words, why have I heard of him?
posted by 517 at 9:36 AM on August 27, 2005

Response by poster: there also should be an s at the end of painting.

posted by 517 at 9:40 AM on August 27, 2005

One of my favorite quotes about art, posted in the blue by our own -harlequin-:
If a car is rusted up on blocks, no-one says "I can't beleive anyone would claim that this is a car", you say "Wow, that's a really crappy car". Same deal with art. If the car sucks, say so, but trying to make out that it's somehow not actually a car is silly, no matter how useless the car is.
517: I think it just comes down to the fact that he was the first person to do that sort of thing, and he did it at a time when the world was receptive to it.
posted by Eamon at 9:46 AM on August 27, 2005

One of my profs was telling me how Pollock's paintings were interesting in that they were fractal in nature, and that amazingly, as he got older, their dimension changed gradually (the fractal dimension).

This was part of a conversation as to whether introspection could reveal cognitive models of intelligence.

The pollock example suggests that perhaps, at least with respect to the motor cortices, there is chaotic complexity. There is no way a human could draw what he did using conscious planning. He was tapping into pretty deep parts of his mind - almost like he was pouring fourth some of the raw dynamics of his brain process before they get organized into coherent patterns.

at least this is the interpretation I gleaned from the brief conversation and I may be mixing up the fractal dimension thingie.
posted by spacediver at 9:47 AM on August 27, 2005

If you really want to know, stand in front of an original painting.
posted by JohnR at 9:57 AM on August 27, 2005

Why have you heard of him? I think a better question would be: If you've seen his work, and don't like it, why are you wasting your time asking why other people do?

It seems painfully obvious that you're not actually interested in why other people like it; rather, you're just looking for a public forum to show off your disdain of his style.

Grab a pen and paper and write this one down: ART IS SUBJECTIVE. People like what they like for a multitude of different reasons. Some are academic in their judgement, some emotional, and others have breakdancing kangaroos whisper ornery opinions in their right ear on sundays, twice. Noted? Good.

If you're still interested in why some people are into 'action painting', you may want to check this out.
posted by defenestration at 9:58 AM on August 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

defenestration, I'm not sure 517 was dissing Pollock, just asking what made his abstract art famous.

I could be wrong about where 517 is coming from though...
posted by jikel_morten at 10:06 AM on August 27, 2005

check that. I just saw the page title.
posted by jikel_morten at 10:06 AM on August 27, 2005

Um. What?

If you want to start a real conversation about the subjectivity of art, that would be cool. But it seems like what you want to do is say "This guy is famous with stuff that looks like I could have made it in my garage and I think that's cheating so it can't possibly be ART."

Why not debate cave paintings as art? Why Pollock?

If you want to know why Pollock is considered "art" it's because he was the first person to decide "You know what? You don't have to have a pre-set composition to have a painting. You could make the painting about the process and not about the finished product. I'm going to make paintings that are very very fast as opposed to the langorously slow style that is still taught in art schools as the way of the old masters."
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:09 AM on August 27, 2005

I once saw a short film of Jackson Polluck actually making a painting. It looked like a lot of work - and it wasn't exactly obvious what was needed next, while he was painting.

His works sell for what they do because of his unique style, and because he wasn't just randomly putting paint on canvas.

As noted above, judging art is a subjective thing. After all, a painting is just paint on a surface - anyone can do that. But it (normally) takes a lot of training, and practice, before other people think a painting is worth paying a lot of money for.
posted by WestCoaster at 10:11 AM on August 27, 2005

If you think it is not good art, look at your example and explain why you don't like it. That will help you to answer your own question.

Is it because it is not representational -- not a picture of a specific thing such as a Rubens naked woman?

Is it because it's not geometric -- not, for example, definite shaded areas such as a Rothko or Mondrian?

Is it because you think there is insufficient artistic craftsmanship shown by his technique?

What sort of art do you like? How often do you go to art museums? Which ones? What do you like when you go there?

Look around at home right now and tell us what you have hanging on your walls.
posted by pracowity at 10:12 AM on August 27, 2005

you have to understand modernism, and specifically post-war US modernism, if you want to understand why Pollack's paintings are great.
Also, it seems like maybe you don't understand abstraction.
Its not just that he did it first, but that he did it first at a moment when he represented a trajectory in modern art. Like he took it further than anyone before him...
Anyway, its can be difficult to look at a single modernist painting and really understant why it is great. Instead, you have to understand what's going on in modernism at the time. If you're really interested, read some Clement Greenberg, Pollack's greatest defender. Basically the argument is that Pollack's paintings are the essence of what paintings should be--large, flat canvases covered in layers of paint.
Finally, it also really helps to see the painting in person. This particular masterpiece is huge and very textured. seeing on the internet does nothing for it.
posted by alkupe at 10:14 AM on August 27, 2005

Its an example of Action painting.

Why is it art? Because its the product of a deliberate aesthetic act, whose intention, while "spontaneous" in its particulars, was nevertheless an outcome of and signifier for a particular epistimological state (embodied at one historical moment in the person of Jackson Pollock dribbling and splashing housepaint on a canvas laid out in his shed). The existence of and research into this state--raw cognitive activity, "the Unconscious," whatever--was becoming the object of great interest in the epoch in which Pollock worked, and thus his paintings became iconic as individual expressions of the subconscious working out a mode of expression for itself through ritual--a ritual in this case consisting of laying down paint on canvas in a garage.
On preview: what defenestration said.
posted by Chrischris at 10:15 AM on August 27, 2005

Me, I can't stand Pollock. Pretentious boring splatter crap. But I love Mark Rothko, which many people feel as badly about as I do Pollock. Can't explain it, but Rothko's paintings are deeply moving for me.
posted by Nelson at 10:24 AM on August 27, 2005

sigh. I've studied both art and fractals kind of semi-seriously, and, I dunno, that fractal assertion just kind of annoys me, spacediver. Perhaps it's true, (although there's no initially obvious way for me to imagine how anyone could apply a definition of fractal dimension to a painting, but fractals just seem to get tossed around too much, too loosely, and this seems like an example. (Sorry, not trying to rag on you.)

Well. Beyond the fact that Pollack's work was fucken' badass and visually punchy in a way that people hadn't seen before, it was _important_ as part of the abstract expressionist movement. "What these artists did have in common were morally loaded themes, often heavyweight and tragic, on a grand scale. In contrast to the themes of social realism and regional life that characterized American art of previous decades, these artists valued, above all, individuality and spontaneous improvisation."

There's lots and lots and lots of ways the abstract expressionists, and the kids who came after them and rebelled against them did hugely amazing and important work. Some of them were dealing with the trauma of the war, modernization, rejection of modernization and/or modernism, landscape, subjectivity and objectivity, etc.

I'm not actually that familiar with the critical notions on Pollack, but I believe there's been a lot of writing on his work in relationship to the ideas of the American West (I think that's a Clement Greenberg-ish school) as well as automation, and oxymoronically, the importance of the Artist and her/his individual mark. Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois have written a really really cool book called Formless
that discusses a very wide range of artist, many of them major abstact expressionist in the context of Bataille's ideas of Formlessness. It's very readable, even if you don't know Bataille, and they do talk about Pollack in several places. Krauss, if I remember correctly, really takes issue with the Greenberg school and the way they reify and put an "aura" around Pollack's work - she keeps stressing the "lowness" of the work - Pollack literally did paint on the ground, and he'd sort of cement all kinds of crap onto the canvas, like cigarette butts and what not.

More fundamentally, this way of working is about something different than what people had been painting up till then - speed, materiality, pattern, contingency etc. To be really, stupidly simplistic about it, a pollack drip painting is to a standard western still life as a... I don't know, is to MTV.

And I'd really like to see a picture of your mother's kitchen.

posted by slipperywhenwet at 10:24 AM on August 27, 2005

oh. Crap. Should read:

as.. "a really slowly edited and boring tv show is to MTV."
posted by slipperywhenwet at 10:28 AM on August 27, 2005

I love abstract art. People often ask me "What's the point of a canvas completely covered in blue paint?" or "What's the point of splatter paintings?" To me, the problem of such questions is "what's the point...?" My appreciation of art has nothing to do with it having a point, if by "having a point" we mean it makes some sort of intellectual statement. Though I'm not alone (and may even be pretty normal in relation to the "Aaverage Joe's" understanding of art), my views on art don't mesh well with common intellectual or scholarly viewpoints, which see Art History as a dialogue about ideas. According to this view, an artistic movement makes a statement and then a later artistic movement responds to that statement. To me, this is a totally boring way of viewing art.

Art affects me emotionally and sensually much more than it affects me intellectually. So just like I'd never ask, "What's the point of cheese?" or "What's the point of a flower?", I would never ask "What's the point of a painting."

I'm always surprised when people don't like abstract art when it's on the wall of a museum, because those same people seem to enjoy it when it's on their clothing (in the form of a pattern) or on their wall (in the form of wallpaper) or on their bedsheets, plates, etc.

To me, the joy of an abstract painting in a museum is that it is pure -- it's JUST the design. So I can focus on the colors and lines and shapes and not be distracted by plates, sheets and t-shirts. I can let the colors affect me and make me sad or happy or giddy or whatever.

I love representational painting, too, but in such paintings color and shape and line generally take a supporting role. So you can't, say, focus purely on the color blue and how it makes you feel, because you're distracted by the fact that the blue is part of a blue military uniform or whatever.

I think people don't get abstract painting because they overcomplicate it. They assume it's a secret code of some sort and try to discover the hidden meaning. To me, the real joy is the surface. The immediate way the painting slaps me in the face.
posted by grumblebee at 10:36 AM on August 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

Good comment, slipperywhenwet.

Different strokes for different folks. Like others have said, it doesn't matter whether you like it or not, it's the artist's intentions.

And yeah, I'd like to see your mom's kitchen, since the painting you linked to uses color pretty damn well.
posted by strikhedonia at 10:37 AM on August 27, 2005

And grumblebee said what I would have said if I'd had my coffee already.
posted by strikhedonia at 10:41 AM on August 27, 2005

This thread about Rothko contained some spirited defenses of Pollock, if you care. But it sounds like you've already made up your mind.

I don't get much out of Pollock - it might be an unusual dog, but it won't hunt for me.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:47 AM on August 27, 2005

grumble, you actually do make a really good set of points, and generally the actual experiential part of a work is often not that discussed, maybe because it's A) hard to verbalize, and B) subjective.

If someone was only trying to make a statement or set of statements they could do it with an essay. For me, what makes a work really truly interesting is if becomes open to a range of readings and interpretations and it can visually kick my ass.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 10:48 AM on August 27, 2005

I hate notions like alkupe's, that you don't consider a painting great, but understand that it is. I don't see how you can say that the asker does not "understand abstraction". You can understand abstraction, know a lot about art and its history and still consider appraised works banal or uninteresting.

Saying "I don't see anything good in this, those who do, what is it you see?" should be perfectly legitimate. The diminishing and lecturing tone of alkupe and defenestration is the dumbest of all things in the art-interested community.
posted by springload at 11:03 AM on August 27, 2005

Slipperywhenwet: You may indeed be right - I'm just going on what my prof told me (and he's a pretty intelligent dude, though he may well be wrong.)

That said, I too dislike when people throw around the term callously - just yesterday a dear old friend of mine was complaining about how his fractal kaleidoscope had broken - took me a few minutes to explain to him that not all complex and pretty patterns are fractal!

Anyway, here's a page that purports to prove and describe the fractal nature of Pollock's paintings.
posted by spacediver at 11:03 AM on August 27, 2005

why is it considered art that is worthy of gallery walls and books

Because people want to see it and talk about it. Even you. It's interesting = It's art.
posted by cillit bang at 11:13 AM on August 27, 2005


You misunderstood my post. Please check the title of his question. He was being condescending, while simultaneously trying his damndest at being witty. I personally love questions akin to "I don't see anything good in this, those who do, what is it you see?", but gaining a better understanding of different people's viewpoints, in my opinion, wasn't the true intention of asking what he did, especially in the way that he did.

I could be wrong.
posted by defenestration at 11:17 AM on August 27, 2005

It is what it is what it is.
Look, I'm not the hugest Pollack fan (I'm in the camp that loves Rothko, though I'm not quite sure why it seems like there's always one or the other) and in a little bit I'll give a contrarian reasoning for why you've "heard of him."
But the next time you see one of his works in person, think about it not on the wall, but on the floor, the way he painted most of his works. I find that makes them a lot more interesting and rhythmic. A good Pollack is like a good bit of bop jazz. See one in person and think about it, and you should make the connection.

For the contrarian defense:
The reason why you've heard of Pollack is that he was a red-blooded American iconoclast in the world of modern art. At the time, the big names were folks like Picasso and DeKoonig, who were outside of the American post-war milieu. Pollack was easy for the mainstream press to mythologize, and the idea of "action" in his paintings made it easy to promote to younger art audiences (including the myth that he splattered the canvases instead of dripping). His alcoholism and his constant philandering made him seem like that flawed rebel that we all like so much in America, and his paintings coincided with the birth of cool jazz, intellectual jazz, beatniks and coffee shops. His life was the story, but by being the first to really do what he was doing, the stories could focus on his novelty and not on a serious discussion of his merits. Plus, folks in the art world loved him.
It's ironic that he and other post-expressionism abstracters tried to remove the human from the art and turn it into an image that had its own meaning, as he's held up as a Personality (as Ed Harris's docuflick showed).
In my opinion, while he had some brilliant stuff, he's kinda a second-rate Kandinsky (even though Kandinsky's actual content was wildly different, there is a connection).
Oh, and the fractal stuff? Post-facto bullshit, in my humble. But that's like most of art: you make it first, you analyze it later.
posted by klangklangston at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2005


Oh, and the fractal stuff? Post-facto bullshit, in my humble. But that's like most of art: you make it first, you analyze it later.

why so? Have you read the page I posted? I'm not saying it's definitely fractal, but why would that be so incredible? If you're going to call bullshit, then at least study the arguments of those who propose it isn't, and then build a relevant reply

fractals aren't all tidy like mandelbrot and julia
posted by spacediver at 11:25 AM on August 27, 2005

Because of the CIA.

No, seriously. Apparently, the CIA funded the Abstract Expressionism movement, and especially Pollock, as a way of creating an avant-garde movement not associated with marxist/communist thought.

Anyway, I can't stand Pollock, but enjoy Rothko. Can't really explain it. It's just so.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:25 AM on August 27, 2005


You have a point, I didn't read the title. Titles like this are the dumbest of all things in the art-uninterested community.
posted by springload at 11:38 AM on August 27, 2005

As a corollary, why are people interested in things I am not interested in?
posted by xmutex at 11:46 AM on August 27, 2005

Response by poster: Sorry, I haven't gotten to read through all the post yet, I didn't expect this to be such a complex question and was planning on reading them latter this afternoon.

The question was poorly phrased, it obviously is art. The reference to my mother's kitchen walls has to do with the fact that I don't see that his paintings require any skill to produce and I have always thought of them more as the physical manifestation of the politics of art. It was off-hand but I really am interested in a real discussion of his work.

The observation that I haven't seen his work in person is true.
posted by 517 at 11:47 AM on August 27, 2005

I used to hate Pollock too, but understand and appreciate his work better since seeing Pollock. Plus I'm hot for Ed Harris so that didn't hurt.

I haven't seen them in real life either...a lot of art doesn't work well in 2D.
posted by Sorcia at 12:11 PM on August 27, 2005

I really like klangklangston's reference to jazz. I am no art expert whatsoever and I've only seen Pollock's Blue Poles (away from the web or book) but I've always felt it somewhat ironic (or perhaps not) that this abstract impressionism came of age at the same time as jazz improv. I find that I'm better able to relate to the free form style with the idea of jazz in mind. I like (not love) the style a lot and seeing it hung on a wall is amazing. It's a visceral feeling for me. I don't need to read dissertations to enjoy it. It's speaks to our primitive, automatic and neural selves...for me.
posted by peacay at 12:15 PM on August 27, 2005

Spacediver: Because the page you linked to assumes that all chaotic systems can be described as fractals, and is incredibly selective about the paintings that they cover from Pollack. They also rely on a descriptor of Pollack's painting that wasn't constant (his drip technique) in order to support their suppositions.
Really, the tip off comes from their use of conditional qualifiers in the first couple paragraphs, where their language essentially points out that they're using post facto justification for Pollack's images.
If the description of fractal is expanded sufficiently, then yes, Pollack's paintings can be understood as such, but that requires such a stretch that the descriptor becomes too weak to support the contention.
Or, in other words, you can always find a larger pattern that encompases a smaller one if you're willing to expand the larger pattern sufficiently. While the argument that these paintings are fractals isn't as weak as the argument that they're a demonstration of God in action, the similarity is there.
posted by klangklangston at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2005

A lot of people who say they don't like Pollack because "his paintings (don't) require any skill to produce" are not familiar with the scope of all his work. The painting you linked to, the famous stuff, the stuff that caught the public imagination, is from one specific period. Here's an article you might find interesting that talks a little more about his background and his earlier, less drip, paintings. He studied with Thomas Hart Benton and his color choices and composition really reflect that influence. Don't assume that because he chose to be an action painter, for a lot of good reasons that have been cited above, he couldn't "draw" or paint in another style.

Also, here's another vote for going to see them in real life. The size alone is overpowering and I think you will begin to have an idea that these are far from being random collections of drips and splotches. These are paintings done by a talented artist with an impressive professional background: they are not what a housepainter gets on a drop cloth.

FWIW I like Pollack and Rothko!
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:53 PM on August 27, 2005

I don't see that his paintings require any skill to produce...

This tells us a lot about you and your aesthetics. To you, the amount of work it LOOKS LIKE the artist has done affects the value of the work. I am not criticizing you for this. It's totally reasonable. But note that not everyone cares (as much or at all) about artistic effort.

I, for one, do not. If I discovered, tomorrow, that the Mona Lisa was painted by a machine, I would still admire it just as much. I don't care about the human effort, I care about the EFFECT the painting has on me -- the effect its colors, shapes and representational elements (i.e. the story it is telling) have on me. I am at one end of an extreme in this regard. Many people care about effort AND effect (or the perceived effort IS what affect them).

People tend to misunderstand others who are different from them in this way. Perhaps it never occurred to you that someone might not care about effort when judging art. When I was younger, I never guessed that some people DO care deeply about effort. When I figured this out, it explained several things to me.

I always wondered why people seemed to admire movie special effects which you could tell were unreal (I see this all the time with computer animation). People tend not to like effects that look totally fake. But they do tend to admire effects that look just a little unreal -- so that you can tell that they're effects. (I'm not talking about stylized effects; I'm talking about effects that are meant to look realistic.) I suspect people like them because they can detect the effort behind them. Totally naturalistic effects seem effortless (even though the are probably the result of GREAT effort). Similarly, people seem to admire acting that is skilled but not completely realistic. They like to be able to tell that the actor is acting. Actors who seem totally natural -- like real people filmed in a documentary -- get less attention than good but bombastic actors.
posted by grumblebee at 12:56 PM on August 27, 2005

If you really want to know, stand in front of an original painting.

Yes. I was pretty indifferent to Pollock until I went to the big MOMA show a few years ago, and it blew my socks off. Talking about art based on reproductions is pretty pointless.

For my money, jazz is relevant, fractals not. But YMMV.
posted by languagehat at 12:57 PM on August 27, 2005

Since when is art about skill involved? Why do people always bring up the "I could make that" argument. Art is aesthetically appealing. Does that look good? Yes. It's art. Why would anyone get offended at what is defined as art and what is not? Most of life's work can be considered art.

The problem is people have a very linear definition of art. They think, "art = paintings on a wall!"

Just because there are some condescdending art pricks that will giev you bullshit reasons for why something is art, there is nothing wrong with Neoist art or "art for art's sake."

I could write essays on how easy it is to program a tetris clone--but is it fun? If it is, it works. And it is most assuredly a game.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 12:58 PM on August 27, 2005

If a car is rusted up on blocks, no-one says "I can't beleive anyone would claim that this is a car", you say "Wow, that's a really crappy car". Same deal with art. If the car sucks, say so, but trying to make out that it's somehow not actually a car is silly, no matter how useless the car is.

That's an interesting analogy, but it still leaves a few questions open; namely, if one continues subtracting pieces from the car, at what point is it no longer a car? At one point is it being a car no longer a sure conslusion? We can remove the tires and put it up on blocks and it's still clearly a car, but what if we remove the doors and the seats and the engine and the paint, and so on.

I think this question is similar to one that a lot of modern art addresses, explicitly or implicitly.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:33 PM on August 27, 2005

The only thing good I can say about Pollock, the movie, is that it exposed me to his earlier work which I really like.

Also, when a famous artist dies tragically, their work can be overvalued.
posted by joseppi7 at 1:33 PM on August 27, 2005

Art is anything produced by an artist.

And an artist is someone who produces art.

posted by Mo Nickels at 1:41 PM on August 27, 2005

Although I don't agree, I can understand those who feel that appreciation of abstract art must be insincere, and those who affect the appreciation nothing but a group of snobbish poseurs.

Abstract art, by definition, is hard to relate to things that we know, things in the world.

Abstract art attempts to make a direct appeal to your heart and intellect, bypassing things like reason and rationalization. It doesn't want you to name things when you look at it - "That is such a beautiful landscape, or figure"

It wants your eye to roam around, it wants to go directly into your head without all your opinions about it.

In that sense, appreciation, as so many others have pointed out in this thread, is truly dependent on your direct experience of the art. You have to stand in front of it, and feel its vastness, and feel its impact on your visual field.

And, you may do so, and still not feel anything. I looked at a lot of abstract art before a piece finally drew me in - it was the work of Brice Marden, who might be seen as a more refined (or at least understated) version of Pollack.

Looking at his works, at a show at the Dia in New York, I finally "got it" which I could intellectualize about ad nauseum, but that's not the point. The point is that the artwork was like a bell, and the sound resonated with something inside me, and, in short, I really enjoyed the exhibit.

This moment of resonance, in some ways, was like "cracking the code" and since then there are many shows that have affected me profoundly. The fierce colors of Joan Mitchell's work and the childlike scrawls of Cy Twombly are some of my favorites.

Reproductions of artwork, like the Pollack you link to, or the works I do, are a poor substitute, but not completely without value.

I think that trying to see these artworks as one might approach music is a good idea, because instrumental music is an abstraction that we are all comfortable with, and enjoy without question.

For example, in the Pollack you link to, you can easily see the rhythms of those loopy black wishbone like shapes that parade across the top. They have a kind of grace and delicacy that I promise you would be quite a challenge if you tried to emulate it on your own.

And, in fact, that's another great way to appreciate the craftsmanship of the work. Try to do it. While your work might have much merit, in all liklihood, you will notice a kind of clumsiness or awkwardness that is completely absent in the confident work of someone like Pollack.

The fact, is, as someone pointed out, he knew what he was doing, and his training and understanding of composition, dynamics, rhythm, color, these all come through in the abstract works we see.

Bottom line, for most people, appreciating the work of an artist like Pollack may not come as easily and without effort as one can appreciate a new song or movie. It may, but likely it will not. If you are interested, I recommend you take drawing courses, for everything starts with drawing, and go to museums. That may sound like work to you, but it sounds like you are interested, and if you are, it's a lot of fun.
posted by extrabox at 2:19 PM on August 27, 2005

I just realized that many people here have mentioned the difference between looking at a reproduction of the art and standing in front of the original, preferring the latter. But they haven't clearly explained why the original is better. I agree that the original is better, but if I was new to abstract art, I would read this thread and assume that the original was better for some mystical reason that I couldn't understand.

The original is better for several reasons. For instance, you can actually see the brush strokes in 3D on the original and the colors will be more vibrant (you can create many more colors with paint than you can with standard printing techniques).

But the main reason the original is better (in my option, of course) is because it is bigger. Much much bigger. (Of course, I am generalizing.) And scale is a trick artists use to make their works fly like a bullet directly to our senses.

We are naturally affected by vastness: think of the ocean, the grand canyon, outer space, etc. And these things never show up well in snapshots, because snapshots can't capture the scale well.

This is why it's an extraordinary experience to stand in front of a vast Pollack canvas. In a book, it looks sort of like a scribble on a small piece of paper. In a gallery, it looks like a whole chaotic universe that you could easily fall into.
posted by grumblebee at 2:37 PM on August 27, 2005

No, the original is better because it's the original—the actual art, as opposed to a sort-of-similar rendering of the art. If you're going to dislike me, at least do it on the basis of an encounter with me, rather than an impersonator. (Would a reproduction of a painting be "better" if it were ten times as big?)
posted by languagehat at 4:46 PM on August 27, 2005

languagehat, I'm confused by your tautology: the original is better because it's the original???? If I invent a new kind of sandwich and you make a copy of it with the same ingredients, does mine taste better than yours because I made it first?

The original isn't better because it's the original. It's better because it has certain qualities that the copies lack (or lacks certain bad qualities that the copies have). I have suggested that one of those qualities is (or tends to be) scale.

You ask if a reproduction of a painting would be "better" if it were ten times as big. It might be. Remember, I also said that the original had a 3D quality (brushstrokes) and generally richer colors.

What if you could make an EXACT copy of the original -- with all of the qualities of the original (scale, color, 3D)? Would it be as-good-as the original? I say DEFINITELY. If it's an exact copy of the original then the only way in which it's different from the original is the fact that it's not the original. In which case, if you still think that the original is better, then you have a sentimental attachment to the original.

I'm not saying this is bad. But I share this attachment. I don't care a fig whether I'm looking at the original Mona Lisa or a copy. But if it's a copy, it better be just as well-crafted as the original. Otherwise it won't affect me the same way. And all I care about is how it affects me.
posted by grumblebee at 5:04 PM on August 27, 2005

I bought Patrick O’Brian’s “Picasso: A Biography” the other day, figuring that the man who wrote the delightful and perceptive Aubry-Maturin novels could help me understand what’s so great about Picasso. And it’s working, I think. Here’s an example. Picasso hated being asked, “What does your art mean?” O’Brian quotes Picasso as saying:

“Everyone wants to understand art,” he cried angrily. “Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of painting people have to understand...”

Now, I don’t take that outburst as the sum total of how Picasso thought art should be approached, but to me it’s a helpful point. If I go back to the Pollock 517 linked to above and look at it, just look at it--without asking what it means or who painted it or how it fits into art history—then I find myself thinking, “Hey, neat.” If I were strolling down a street and turned the corner and saw that Pollock as a mural on a wall, I would stop and look at it and say, “Wow, that’s pretty amazing”. I might even wonder who did it and if I would see any more somewhere.

For me, for now, that’s enough. I suppose just like fine wine, knowledge, experience and training can deepen one’s appreciation of fine art. But, perhaps, the reaction has to come first. Otherwise, why put in all that effort? Why try to learn more if my reaction is distaste or indifference? But it’s hard, I think, to have an unvarnished reaction to a famous painting when it comes loaded down with so much freight. Like that Pollock. It sits on a museum wall. It no doubt costs millions. The cognescenti think Pollock’s the cat’s meow. If I can’t see what’s so great about it then clearly I’m an idiot. When I have all that in mind, I feel a truculence, a sullen resentment toward the painting. Well, if I can put all that aside, just put it aside and forget about it and look at the painting, well then, I say it’s pretty neat. I have no idea what it means, and I don’t care.
posted by mono blanco at 5:06 PM on August 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

They're much more interesting in person. Some of them are almost sculptural, since there is so much paint on the canvas.

Honestly, if you're going to be questioning what is and isn't art, Pollock would be pretty far down the list nowadays. He used paint on canvas and hung it on the wall. That's almost traditionalist.
posted by smackfu at 5:22 PM on August 27, 2005

....I would read this thread and assume that the original was better for some mystical reason that I couldn't understand.

Thats it.
posted by JohnR at 5:38 PM on August 27, 2005

I have this same argument a lot with a friend of mine. To him, Pollack is a fraud and a charlatan, a mean joke played on ordinary people by art critics and gallery owners. He points to the fact that Pollack was a drunk and used to paint whilst drunk by randomly drizzling paint on a big board on the floor of his garage. I would counter by saying there was no randomness in Pollack's work: real randomness looks a lot more ordered, and his technique was irrelevant. My defence of Pollack was hampered by the fact that I, like 517, had never seen anything other than tiny reproductions of Pollack paintings.

I need to go back a bit here. In Australia (where I live), when one talks of going to see a Pollack painting, one is usually referring to Blue Poles which hangs, most of the time, in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. The NGA purchased Blue Poles in the early 1970's for $2m, more than had been paid for any painting by the NGA up to that point. This caused a bit of a stir. An MP in the opposition conservative coalition said something to the effect that the painting was not art. Prime Minister Whitlam's quick and oft-quoted reply was to the effect that the NGA would be culturally poor if it contained only examples of what the opposition MP considered art.

The first time I went to see Blue Poles with my friend, who lives in Canberra, the painting was gone. A note saying it was currently touring the US was mounted in it's place, just below a postcard-sized reproduction of the work that I had to bend down to squint at.

The next time I was in Canberra, it was for my friend's wedding, which took place near the NGA sculpture garden down by Lake Burley-Griffin. The (informal) reception was held in the NGA member's lounge on the top floor of the gallery. Security guards (who all seemed to be quite old) and gallery officials escorted us through the empty, silent gallery and up five flights of stairs. After a couple of hours of standing around nibbling on finger food with no-one to talk to I was hot, tired, bored and eager to get away, so I sidled out the door and started walking down the flight of stairs to the outside. I reasoned that a few minutes' walk in the fresh air would recharge my batteries, and then I'd return.

On the way down I came to a landing which had an open door into the gallery. I didn't see that at first. All I saw were some small sculptures in a brightly-lit antechamber. I wandered in to take a look at them, then realised an entire floor of the gallery lay open before me, albeit in semi-darkness. I strolled in further and ogled at art undistracted by noise and crowds. I didn't hurry. I took my time.

Eventually I came to a sort of indoor balcony that overlooked a big room on the ground floor, and it was there I saw Blue Poles on the far side, vast and silent in the twilight, completely dominating the room, about 25 metres away. I started backtracking, looking for a way down to the ground floor so I could stand in mute, undisturbed contemplation in front of it the way I had been permitted to do with so many other paintings that evening.

It was then that security pounced on me. They were nice about it and I came quietly. It turned out I'd been setting off alarms all over the place, but the officers were spread a little thin because of a TV production being filmed outside in the NGA grounds. I could have been a prick and asked why they were leaving doors unlocked and wide open, with not so much as a sign or a red velvet rope to indicate 'Stay OUT', but they were so polite and understanding about everything I decided not to. They didn't detain me or anything, just escorted me back to the party and showed me a balcony I could use when I needed some fresh air.

So hopefully third time's the charm, and next time I'm in Canberra I'll actually get to see the damn thing up close.
posted by Ritchie at 6:06 PM on August 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

Thats it.

JohnR: Huh?
posted by grumblebee at 6:51 PM on August 27, 2005

First day of Art Criticism in first year University we had to write an essay on one question:

"What is Art?"

I'll have to dig that essay out of my basement, I have no idea what I wrote.

I think you should answer that question first before critiquing a painting.
posted by chococat at 7:01 PM on August 27, 2005

Would a reproduction of a painting be "better" if it were ten times as big?


(eg. Damien Hirst's Hymn and Charity)
posted by cillit bang at 10:37 PM on August 27, 2005

This thread is good and has much truth in it. But I feel strongly that it is missing one important thing.

If you don't like it, go make your own.

I'm as serious as a cancer tornado. Making more art is the best possible dialog you can have with art itself.

Go make art.
posted by loquacious at 3:39 AM on August 28, 2005

No, the original is better because it's the original—the actual art, as opposed to a sort-of-similar rendering of the art.

This is a strange idea. It strikes me as a kind of stamp collector's view of art. Granted, an original work might have some historical value, but I think that faithful, authorized copies have just as much aesthetic value as the original. Are Rodin's sculptures less impressive because they were cast multiple times?

Just yesterday, I saw a reproduction of Duchamp's Large Glass, and it knocked my socks off. I hadn't realized how big it is....
posted by mr_roboto at 3:42 AM on August 28, 2005

If I invent a new kind of sandwich...

If you think a painting is equivalent to "a new kind of sandwich," I can't help you. You and mr_roboto have clearly overdosed on postmodern theory if you really have trouble with the concept that the original is better because it's the original. But, as I say, I can't help you. Enjoy your reproductions and discourses of paradigm!
posted by languagehat at 5:45 AM on August 28, 2005

languagehat, it seems you really CAN'T help, which is too bad. Because I REALLY don't understand what you're saying. And all you keep doing is repeating that originals are better because they are originals? I have no doubt that you mean something important by that -- something that (if I could understand it) I might benefit from greatly -- but can't you see that the literal words you're using are tautological? Are you absolutely unable to take a stab at explaining some other way?

What you're saying is similar to saying, "Abraham Lincoln was the best president because he was the best president." How is that in any way a helpful utterance.

Do you mean that you just FEEL that the original is better but can't explain why?

I am honestly baffled.

And, no, I was saying that painting is equivalent to a sandwich. Sandwiches are rather mundane items usually (though I've tasted some good ones) and paintings are (sometimes) deeply profound and beautiful. I was using sandwich to try to make a point -- similar to my Lincoln point above -- that saying an original of ANYTHING (a painting, a sandwich, a president) is better simply because it is the original is not a meaningful utterance.

By the way, I hate postmodernist. I've never read seen/read/heard anything postmodern that I've liked. So I don't get your point about that either. My favorite artists are all much older than that: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, etc. I do like some modern artists like Pollack. But my favs are the old masters. And I have no time for self-reference or any of that postmodern stuff. I like a good story, a pleasing color, a nice tune, etc.
posted by grumblebee at 6:41 AM on August 28, 2005

Oh, and that "discourses of paradigm" link (WHY did I click it?) was like a spike through my head. Your post was crystal clear compared to that. That writer should be "horsewhipped with a horsewhip," to quote David Mamet.
posted by grumblebee at 6:43 AM on August 28, 2005

And I have no time for self-reference or any of that postmodern stuff. I like a good story, a pleasing color, a nice tune, etc.

Read Marshall Berman.

[postmodernism = modernism.]
posted by slipperywhenwet at 7:29 AM on August 28, 2005

slippery, I have no idea what that article was about, but when I read stuff like this...

In other words, the history of capitalism must be periodized, and its determinate trajectory reconstructed, if we are to have any sober understanding of what capitalist ‘development’ actually means. The concept of modernization occludes the very possibility of that.

...I want to bang my head against the wall. What on Earth does this have to do with an exciting story, in which you wonder how the hero is going to thwart the bad guy's evil plot? What does it have to do with a beauty of the color blue? What does it have to do with the sound of a French horn?
posted by grumblebee at 8:48 AM on August 28, 2005

That's a badly written and fairly opaque sentence, but not exactly incomprehensible. It's also not written by Berman. All That Is Solid... has really good, close and comprehensible readings of Goethe's Faust Baudelaire's prose poems, Robert Moses' New York surgeries (Berman frames him as a pretty good bad guy) and some russian literature. Theory and narrative.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 11:06 AM on August 28, 2005

Is his theory in any way arguing that art is political? Is it in any way arguing that art is chiefly about ideas -- about proving various propositions? Is he in interested in art as a dialogue in which a newer generation of artists responds to an older generation of artists (rebels against them or whatever)? If so, I am totally uninterested. I'm also not too interested in biographies of artists (how the artist's life influenced the art).

But if he's writing about pieces of art as devices for tickling the senses, then I'm interested. To me, art is the most important thing on Earth. But I only care about it as a sensual medium. So if his theory helps me understand why "King Lear" makes me cry (and helps me discover more works that make me cry or laugh or get turned on or get scared out of my mind) then I'm all over it. If his work helps me create art that makes people laugh or cry, then I'm salivating for it.

(I don't dislike ideas and history, by the way -- though I'm not a fan of politics. But I think there are better vessels for these topics than art. What art does best is make me emote.)
posted by grumblebee at 11:22 AM on August 28, 2005

Lots of interesting chat about how and why to personally appreciate Pollack or not, but it all seems a bit OT for the original, clarified question. You’ve heard of Pollack simply because what he did, like thousands of other cultural and artistic innovators, forever changed the rules for anyone who was seriously interested in art and culture at the time, just like this and apparently this did, each in their day. Whether the objects he made are particularly likely to suit your present-day taste as things of beauty, or whether you’d choose to put a reproduction of any of his pieces on your wall has no bearing whatsoever on Pollack’s importance historically. Does this really surprise you? Surely you’ve noticed that cultural importance and personal taste are largely unrelated values? Are the Duchamp and Duccio pieces ref’ed above important/valuable because you’d like to have reproductions of them on your wall?

Seems to me that NO “breakthrough” modern art is important because it particularly adheres to or breaks with any current canons of aesthetic taste. It’s important to the extent that it rewrites the “entrance requirements” for being an artist at all. It’s important if it alters relevance, expands the possibilities for future expression, unlocks more interesting artistic behavior/new art.
posted by dpcoffin at 11:57 AM on August 28, 2005

dpcoffin, thanks for that, a very interesting comment. Reminds me of Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" theory vis a vis literature. Certainly in the Picasso book I mentioned above, O'Brian makes a similar claim for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
posted by mono blanco at 11:34 PM on August 28, 2005

grumblebee, I apologize for assuming you were coming at this from a postmodernist perspective (and that "discourses of paradigm" link goes to a postmodernist-babble generator; sorry about the spike) -- that's what usually prompts doubts about the importance of original art, hence my assumption. But I'm as baffled by you as you are by me. My statement isn't a tautology; it seems to me self-evident that an artwork, unlike a sandwich, is a unique creation that can only be truly represented by itself, not a reproduction. Perhaps it's the word "better" that's the problem; does my previous sentence help clarify what I mean? I mean, it's conceivable that your attempt to copy a Manet painting might turn out to be in some sense "better" than the original, but its quality is its own -- in other words, it's a new original that took its inspiration from the Manet. Does that make more sense to you
posted by languagehat at 1:53 PM on August 30, 2005

posted by languagehat at 1:53 PM on August 30, 2005

We are clearly having some sort of confusion in which each of us isn't understanding the other in some fundamental way. If we're to make progress, we'll have to delve into basic assumptions. One tool we can use is analogy. So I may, at times, refer to mundane objects (i.e. sandwiches) in order to make a point. Rest assured, I am not saying art is like a sandwich. What I am saying is that art, being a part of our universe, must share some properties with other objects in our universe -- including objects that are simpler to understand and discuss. We have to be careful with "art" because it's such a loaded word. Art discussions can very quickly become so emotional that all possibility of rational discourse goes out the window. In general, this is a good thing. If art didn't affect our feelings, it wouldn't be of much use. But art's emotive power does sometimes make discussion ABOUT art difficult. For instance, if you think there's a way that Beethoven's 9th Symphony could be improved, it's very difficult to say so without angering people. Your suggestion will likely strike them as similar to one which suggests their child could be improved.

Now, if you feel that art exists in some special, magical realm -- one that literally shares nothing in common with sandwiches, dirt, nuts, bolts, atoms, molecules, etc. -- then we probably have no grounds for discussion. We'll just have to respect each other's points-of-view (or be baffled by them) and move on. To me, the "magic" of art is that it is built out of ordinary substances and ordinary human urges and yet it yields objects that affect us powerfully. These powerful effects are also ordinary -- in the sense that it's normal for people to laugh, cry, fall-in-love, etc. When I am wrapped up in one of these emotional states, it doesn't feel normal or ordinary. It feels remarkable, profound, etc. But if I remove myself from my feelings, I have to admit that I'm experiencing feelings that everyone else feels too. And that art is one of the many catalysts for these feelings. Art is special because it can generate these feelings quickly. So while it may take me months (or years) to fall in love with a real person, I can fall in love with a character in a novel in a matter of hours.

Okay, so lets say we have art object A (which could be a novel, poem, movie, sculpture, etc.) which is composed of ordinary atoms and molecules. It's not the atoms and molecules which are special -- it's the pattern they're in that is special. Now lets say that this pattern makes me cry. This sad feeling is also special. Lets say A was created by artist X.

Now lets say that artist Y creates object B, which is an exact copy of the object A. When I say "exact copy," I don't mean that it's made of the same atoms and molecules as A. That would be impossible. If it were, it would BE object A. But I've admitted that the molecules and atoms themselves are mundane. It's the ARRANGEMENT of them that is special. We can build "identical" chairs made from different nails and pieces of wood, because each different nail and piece of wood is the same as each other nail and piece of wood -- in every way that we care about. As-long-as the arrangement is the same, the chairs are the same (as-far-as we're concerned). Same with art. If B has the exact arrangement of atoms and molecules as A, it will affect me the same way as A. It will also make me cry.

(Actually, B's arrangement can differ somewhat from A and I won't notice the difference. Taking chairs as an example, the type of nails used in two "identical" chairs can be somewhat different and I will probably still experience the chairs as being identical.)

Moving away from abstraction, let's talk about novels: you and I can both read "The Great Gatsby" and love it (substitute a different novel if you happen to dislike "Gatsby".) But we're both reading copies. The original, if it exists, is a typed (or longhand) manuscript created by Fitzgerald's hand. Is Fitzgerald's manuscript somehow better or more important or more Gatsby than your hardback or my paperback? If so, how? In other words, HOW WILL READING THE ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT MAKE US LAUGH, CRY OR THINK DIFFERENTLY FROM READING A COPY OF IT?

A fair objection might be "art isn't just about the emotional/intellectual way it affects you." Fair, but you need to go farther. Okay, so what else IS art? Or rather, what else is the point of art. As-far-as I'm concerned, art's only worth (and it's GREAT worth) is its power to affect. If you feel that it has some other value, that's fine. In fact, that might be the locus of our disagreement. So I'll be quite clear and honest about my prejudice. I care about art because it makes me sad (happy, etc.). If a copy makes me just as sad (happy, etc.) as an original, then (as-far-as I'm concerned) there's no qualitative difference between the copy and the original.

Another fair objection might be, "Yes, but the copy won't ever affect you the way the original will." If this is your claim, I would like you to explain it and back it up. Now, you might say...

a) It's impossible to make an accurate copy. I would definitely agree that it's DIFFICULT to create an accurate copy of some skillfully made works of art unless the copier has skill equal to that of the original artist (or can utilize the original artist's skill -- see below). For instance, I can't carve an exact copy of Michelangelo's "David" without having Michelangelo's skill. And it's UNLIKELY that I have that skill, because M was a rare genius. But it's certainly POSSIBLE that I might have his skill. It's possible, because M was human and I am human.

It's also quite possible (here's the "see below") for me to use a machine to help augment my less-than-Michaelangeloish skill-set. In other words, I could take a cast of "David" and produce an exact copy. Or use some device to laser-scan "David" and make an exact copy.

In either case, if the copy is exact (or exact-enough) it will affect my nervous system the same way the original did, in which case it will evoke the same emotional/intellectual response. Ergo, by my affect-based aesthetic, it is qualitatively the same as the original.

b) The original was created BY the original artist, so it's historically important. I agree totally. But I think people continually confuse Art History with Art Appreciation. When I read, "The Great Gatsby," I don't care a fig about F. Scott Fitzgerald. I can about Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and the other characters in the book. When I read a biography of Fitzgerald, I care about Fitzgerald.

My way is not the only way. Some people care more about the artist than his work. For them, the work is a way of learning more about its creator. Some people care equally about the work AND the person who created it. All of these interests are valid. But we should be able to see that the work and its creator ARE two different things. And they CAN be appreciated separately. This becomes clear when we note works like "The Iliad" of which we know nothing about its creator. We can still love such works.

If you separate Art History from the art object -- and if you have the skill or technology to make an accurate copy of the object -- how is the copy qualitatively different from the original? At this point, I think you have to fall back on religious language. "The original is better because it has an aura or force or the artist's soul in it." I am an atheist, so such language is meaningless to me. But I grant it may have power for many people.

By the way, I should note that I'm an artist myself. I may not like to admit this, but I DO think it's true that if someone makes an exact copy of my work, in all useful senses, that copy IS my work -- or it's just-as-good-as my work. My creative role was coming up with the original PATTERN. An exact copy will contain that pattern.
posted by grumblebee at 9:03 AM on September 3, 2005

In either case, if the copy is exact (or exact-enough) it will affect my nervous system the same way the original did, in which case it will evoke the same emotional/intellectual response.
In my experience this is not true. Do an experiment with Matisse.
posted by JohnR at 7:28 AM on September 16, 2005

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