Saturday, September 03, 2005

What's So Great About Jackson Pollack?

"I hate abstract art."

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 with 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 that it makes some sort of intellectual statement.

Though I'm not alone (and may even be pretty normal in relation to the "Average 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.

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.

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. But the real joy is the surface. The immediate way the painting slaps you in the face.

"I don't like abtract paintings because they don't 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.

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 and almost do -- but not quite.) 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.

"People who don't like a particular abstract painting probably have never saw the an original in a gallery. They probably just saw a repruction in a book and they're judging the piece based on that."

True. But why is the original better? For some mystical reason? No. The original is better for several stateable 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 is because it is bigger. Much much bigger. (Of course, I am generalizing -- some paintings are small.) 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.

"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 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.

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 don't 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.

"You're comparing art to a sandwich???"

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.

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