Modernism and the novelty trap

Giles Auty considers the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in 1973 and what such an acquisition signifies.

A few months back, a rash of articles appeared in the press which commemorated the dismissal of the Whitlam government thirty years ago and commented on the continuing sense of grievance felt by his supporters. At the time, I wondered how much google_ad_width = 970; more could usefully be written on the subject.

By contrast, an event of almost equal notoriety if not importance had taken place in Australia some two years before the dismissal which has never been explored or explained satisfactorily. I refer to the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in August 1973 by what was then called the Australian National Gallery.

In the ten years that I have lived in Australia so far, I have often heard the view expressed – in leftist circles especially – that the buying of Blue Poles provided a catalyst for Australia’s cultural coming-of-age. According to this received wisdom an increasingly confident nation – inspired by the leadership of Gough Whitlam – not only bought itself a wonderful work of art but an outstanding bargain at the same time.

Many might feel disappointed if neither of these facts proved true. Indeed, until the significance or otherwise of the painting itself and the circumstances surrounding its purchase are dragged belatedly into sharper focus, Blue Poles may /* xin2 */ yet prove to have been a hindrance to the attainment of national cultural maturity rather than the reverse.

Perhaps the first part of the myth to dispel is that Australia plucked an outstanding bargain from under the noses of older and more established museums overseas. What Australia really seems to have done is buy itself a monument to a formerly fashionable but highly questionable notion of artistic progress. Indeed, no sooner had the painting arrived here than this notion found itself the subject of increasingly vocal international critical attack.

To put it another way, Blue Poles could be said to represent a kind of last hurrah for an outdated and weirdly monolinear conception of the evolution of art. Indeed, by the time Pollock had painted it, he and his friends were openly declaring that painting had “nowhere left to go” and could be followed henceforward only by “performance” art.

I will return to this issue of evolution a little later. For the present, I should begin perhaps with a subject which seems to grab public attention much more readily than the vested and supposedly insoluble issue of artistic merit. In short, how much exactly is the damned thing worth?

Guesses – and that is all any of them are – about the current market value of Blue Poles range from US$20 million to a highly improbable US$100 million but the accuracy or otherwise of these guesses cannot,

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of course, ever be tested unless the work is offered for sale. At the time of

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its purchase in 1973, the price paid – US$2 million – represented only A$1.3 million.

So if we take US$20 million as a realistic google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; starting point for the current market value of Blue Poles, it becomes apparent that it has increased in value by at least ten times during the thirty-three years Australia has owned it. src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> However, this by no means represents the greatest recorded acceleration in its market value. In 1953, three years before Jackson Pollock’s untimely demise, the American dealer Sidney Janis sold Blue Poles to Dr Fred Olsen for $6,000. But shortly after Pollock managed to kill himself and one other by driving when unfit to do so, Ben Heller – another American dealer – was prepared to pay $32,000 for the work.

In art, nothing can compare with death as a means of jacking up market prices.

But if we take 1953 as our starting point, the next twenty years, culminating with the purchase of Blue Poles for the Australian nation, saw

its price rise by a giddy 166 times. Even in the sixteen years after Heller bought it its market price rose thirty times. In other words, the last thirty-three years have witnessed a sharp slowing down of the rate of increase of its supposed market worth.

I am tempted to suggest that if the Australian National Gallery had forked out US$2 million in 1973 on purchasing housing in the Canberra area – in preference to Blue Poles – the gross return on its investment might well have been greater. Yet the

notion that Australia made a uniquely inspired purchase in monetary terms is /* 9-970x90 */ only part of a greater myth which continues to surround Blue Poles. Surely no less to the point is whether Blue Poles really is an google_ad_width = 970; outstanding work of art.

Where might we turn for informed opinions? What about starting with the artist himself? In Florence Rubenfeld’s biography of the American art critic Clement Greenberg (Clement Greenberg: A Life, 1997) we have Greenberg’s word that Pollock himself considered Blue Poles “a failure”. But Greenberg, who was probably Pollock’s most consistent

supporter, was even more dismissive, declaring unequivocally that Blue Poles was “an absolute failure and a ridiculous thing to buy”. This comment is reported in Patricia Anderson’s biography of the late Elwyn Lynn, Elwyn Lynn’s Art World (2001). Lynn was my predecessor as art critic for the Australian.

But Blue Poles did not lack professional supporters at the time of its purchase. Indeed yet another former art critic for the Australian, whose tenure there (1972–84) comfortably exceeded my own, certainly did not share any of Pollock’s or Greenberg’s misgivings about Blue Poles. Writing in the Weekend Australian of August 25th, 1973, Sandra McGrath evidently preferred the enthusiasm shown by New York-based Australian art dealer Max Hutchinson – who personally brokered the sale of Blue Poles to the Australian National Gallery – to the reservations expressed by Pollock himself and Greenberg.

Dipping deep into her handbag of superlatives, McGrath proclaimed that “the purchase of Blue Poles is the most momentous event in the cultural history of Australia” and “Jackson Pollock is … the artist whose work made it impossible for painting ever to look quite the same again”. Max Hutchinson proposed that “Blue Poles, along with Picasso’s Guernica and Monet’s waterlilies, is one of the five or six great works of art painted since the Renaissance”. Perhaps embarrassed by the enormity of her colleague’s claim, McGrath nevertheless chipped in with “it is certainly one of the five or six great paintings of the twentieth century”.

These are certainly extravagant claims which cannot begin to be taken

of the great figurative artists of the twentieth century – by British public galleries, even the most inconsequential and third-rate artists from overseas have been collected avidly and in depth for British public collections provided only that they met with Read’s canon of style.

A further, contributing factor to a profoundly unsatisfactory state of affairs is that it has been widely believed by the unthinking that endless formal novelty was inexorably dragging art onward and upward to some unspecified apotheosis. Indeed, that is what the “rhetoric of radicalism” has been consistently promising all of us but which has, of course, never been fulfilled.

The meaning we attach to the word modern is vital to the future of art; in short, contrary to google_ad_height = 90; what modernists believe, novelty of style and attitude is not and never can be a virtue in itself in art or in any other area of life, since all change can always just as easily be for the worse as for the better.

Such a

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point ought to be self-evident philosophically and – if you are tempted to doubt me – ask yourself whether you believe that radical moral behaviour is automatically superior to established moral codes.

Sadly for the health of our culture, the fallacy inherent in what I describe as the “novelty trap” has been welcomed and endorsed by almost any cultural body you can think of and most notably, of course, by our Western “modern” museum culture itself.

What is wrong with such culture boils down, as I have suggested already, to a harmfully erroneous idea of what modern ought to be held to mean in relation to the arts. In fact, the meaning we attach to the word needs to be entirely neutral – that is, favouring neither radicalism nor continuity in art over each other. In order for this to happen, the meaning we give to the word modern in such a context has to relate solely to period and //--> nothing else.

I sense that such a fundamental change of emphasis would be favoured not only by most interested members of the public but also by a majority of working artists of all kinds. In short, it is in the interests of only a small – if extremely vocal – minority to try to sell novelty in any of the arts as an automatic virtue.

Imagine for a moment what might have happened if all the publicly funded art galleries google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; in the world which have collected the art of the past 100 years had been obliged by their charters to deal even-handedly in their collecting policies between art which reflected the best of the continuous as well as radical traditions. One certain result would be that the art on view would be much more varied and interesting – as google_ad_height = 90; well as less inaccessible and irritating, on the whole – to those who are obliged, whether they like it or not, to fund

such institutions through their taxes. I am not advocating anything which could be described as a greater degree of populism here. Proper standards of achievement should be demanded of those who work in more traditional and continuous ways just
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