A new controversy is rocking the art world to its foundations. Using sophisticated computer analysis, a physicist has concluded that some paintings attributed to Jackson Pollock are fakes.
The very concept of a fake Pollock is mind-boggling. It boggles my mind, anyway, and my mind is pretty hard to boggle. Many have tried, and a few have startled or puzzled it briefly, but few have actually boggled it.
I believe it was an original Pollock, one of those freestyle drip jobs he became famous for, that first inspired the philistine comment, My kindergartner can do better than that! This brings us to the nub of the problem. Can sophisticated computer analysis distinguish between a genuine Pollock and the product of a kindergartner?
A devilishly difficult question. Before you answer it, consider that Pollock, assuming he was right-handed, may have done some of his work with his left hand, just to confound the critics and future computer analysts. But for convenience, lets posit that all his genuine works were done with the same hand. Lets also posit that distinguishing between his genuine works and fakes isnt just a waste of time.
Despite his towering reputation in the art world, I think even his most ardent admirers would concede that draftsmanship wasnt Pollocks long suit. Like many others, he may have chosen to pursue a career in serious art only after reluctantly realizing he lacked the skill to succeed as a cartoonist.
If so, it may have been a fortunate decision. Just when computer graphics seemed to be making the cartoon obsolete, this venerable art form is causing more riots than all the great Parisian artists put together. Nobody ever says of a cartoon, My kindergartner could inspire bigger riots than that! And when it comes to rioting, kindergartners are no slouches.
And of course if Pollock had ever painted anything that looked like anything, he would have been ignored and forgotten like so many other talented artists. But he fortunately understood that he occupied a curious niche in the world of art: he was that rare individual who lacked any artistic ability whatsoever, but was able to spell his own name. The world was his oyster.
Modern art criticism is remarkable for the disappearance of a word that used to dominate the discussion of art: skill. It was more or less taken for granted that an artist needed the elementary skill to draw a catlike cat. If he could draw a naked woman, so much the better.
Pollock got into the art business at a time of radical change, when even nudity was out of fashion. In the age of photography, Rubens would be unemployed, not to mention Cezanne. Innovative artists had to come up with something fresher than such tired themes as unclad women and bowls of ripe fruit.
Pollock came up with a hot one: action painting. The artist no longer had to sit down and copy something with approximate accuracy; no models were necessary. He could still meet girls and achieve celebrity, but painting ceased to be a sedentary activity. All you needed was enough vigor to splash paint on the canvas. Theoretically, even a blind man could do it.
In an important sense, then, Pollock was an artist for the era of equal opportunity. Anyone could sneer, My kindergartner can do better than that! But considering Pollocks success, a more thoughtful response to his work would be, Im in the wrong business!
Pollocks work is a standing rebuke to any fool who has finished college, acquired useful skills, gotten a job, and shown up for work day after day, year after year, in constant dread of displeasing the boss and getting fired. An action painter needs far less ability than, say, a house painter. Ive never heard of a struggling young house painter in a garret, but even the most successful house painters dont win international fame, enjoy posthumous glory, and have movies made about them.
To the naked eye, an action painting, in contrast to a painting of a naked woman, may not appear self-explanatory. This perhaps is why Pollock seems to have put more thought into the titles of his works than into the works themselves. As we honor his achievements today, we can be grateful that he didnt title any of his paintings Mohammed.
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