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 more could usefully be written on the subject.

class="alignleft size-full wp-image-1606" title="blue-poles" src="" alt="" width="1100" height="467" srcset=" 1100w, 300w, 1024w, 129w" sizes="(max-width: 1100px) 100vw, 1100px" />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. google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; According to this received wisdom an increasingly confident nation – inspired by google_ad_height = 90; 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 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
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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To put it another way, Blue Poles could be said to represent a kind of last hurrah for an outdated and weirdly monolinear conception of the evolution of art.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, of course, ever be tested unless the work is offered for sale. At the time of 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 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. 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 google_ad_width = 970; 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 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 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 seriously unless both Hutchinson and McGrath were known to have an unusually encyclopaedic grasp of art history. This would certainly be unusual in the case of a dealer. If I had been working here at the time, I would have been keen indeed to ask Mr Hutchinson which particular artists he would have picked to fill his last two or three available slots as producers of “the five or six great works of art painted since the Renaissance”.

The task of choosing between the lifetime productions of the likes of Caravaggio, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Veronese, Tiepolo, Goya, van Gogh, Cézanne, Manet, Matisse and Picasso – to name just a handy dozen – would certainly be a daunting one even for someone thoroughly familiar with the greatest works of all twelve.

An altogether more sensible
question might be whether Blue Poles could be said to rank even in the top five or six of Pollock’s own productions. On the basis of the definitive exhibition of Pollock’s art I saw when it was google_ad_width = 970; staged by the Tate Gallery in London in 1999, I would argue that it could not. I imagine that a number of other professional commentators who are similarly familiar with Pollock’s work would agree with me.

Yet evidently most of those who gawp daily at Blue Poles on the

walls of what is now called the National Gallery of Australia cannot be expected to share this degree of familiarity with Pollock’s work. Indeed, few members of the public who have seen Blue Poles at that venue will ever come face to face with any other work by Pollock. Unavoidably, therefore, most members of the public will be largely reliant on hearsay and the fact that the work is seemingly legitimised by where it hangs in forming any conclusion at all about its merits.

In the event, the fact that anything hangs on the walls of the National Gallery of Australia or on those of the principal galleries of Australia’s states should not be looked on as any guarantee of anything, since all have proved pretty fallible at times in their buying policies.

size-full wp-image-1607" title="William Robinson Ancient Trees" src="" alt="" width="500" height="368" srcset=" 500w, 300w, 74w" sizes="(max-width: 500px) 100vw, 500px" />As recently as 1999, for instance, the National Gallery of Australia made a colossal error of judgment not just by buying David Hockney’s huge (744 centimetre) and weakly conceived A Bigger Grand Canyon google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; but by paying a grossly inflated price for it (over A$4 million). No less to the point, that same institution only months earlier had turned down the chance to acquire a truly magnificent giant landscape (810 centimetre) by a home-bred artist. This was William Robinson’s Creation Series: The Ancient Trees, which also carried a rather more realistic price tag of A$250,000. (For more about William Robinson see

What I am suggesting with regret is that the standards of judgment shown by Australia’s national and principal state galleries are frequently inept. Generally this is because judgment is skewed by predilections for fashion and temporary fame and because curators and directors have managed to persuade themselves somehow that novelty must be a virtue in itself.

The reason why the latter trait has become so firmly entrenched deserves urgent investigation. My own explanation centres on the insidious role played by

what I call “the rhetoric of radicalism” in creating current and recent artistic climates.

Rhetoric, as we know, describes language

practices in the arts – taking their cue from technology – first attracted to themselves and then virtually annexed a wholly favourable rhetorical language.

In short, to situate oneself on the side of what many claimed was “inevitable” progress – or advance, development, evolution, breakthrough or “fearless” experimentation – was to place oneself, rhetorically at least, fairly and squarely in the camp of the angels. By seizing for its own purposes the positive, propagandist language associated with claimed progress in

other fields, modernism in art ensured for itself for the foreseeable future a very unlevel playing field wherein even the most acute and perceptive criticism could be dismissed airily as conservative, reactionary or

– worst of all perhaps – as being “opposed to progress”.

Carried away by its src="//"> borrowed rhetoric, the elementary truth that modernism chose to ignore here is that there are two equally vital traditions and sources of influence in art –

as well as in all other aspects of human behaviour – the radical and the src="//"> continuous. Perhaps the most damaging legacy of modernism has thus been the part radicalist rhetoric has played in obscuring so obvious a truth from so many for so long. To cite merely one obvious example, it would be impossible to be wholly modernistic or radical in one’s ideas and at the same time be a committed Christian. Christianity antedates modernism by a little matter of 1900 years and thus is part of a continuous tradition.

Perhaps the most apt parallel one might find for modernism is Marxism, since

both, in a sense, attempted to rewrite history by subverting and stamping out existing ideas and practices. Although both ideologies had their roots in nineteenth-century thinking, neither came to full flower before the first and second decades of the twentieth century. Both also held out explicit or implicit promises of the future triumphs which would attend their causes: the final victory of the google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; proletariat and a kind of artistic apotheosis which would mark the culmination of the oddly one-track model of artistic evolution which modernists favoured.

There is little doubt that it was this kind of crowning achievement which the modernist faithful believed they discerned in the subconsciously-driven “action” paintings of Jackson Pollock. It is this apotheosis, rather than a fairly incoherent mass of paint which attempts to redeem itself through the use of unusual vertical bars, which all of us are supposed to see when gazing at Blue Poles.

Yet I doubt whether even one in a hundred visitors to the National Gallery of Australia has the least inkling of this. Indeed, I am reminded of a comment made when Blue Poles was first revealed to an expectant Australian public: “I had rather hoped it would be bluer.”

When Australia managed to “beat down” Ben Heller in 1973 from an asking price of US$3 million to a “bargain” price of $2 million, both figures were plucked strictly from fantasy-land. As expatriate Australian art critic Robert Hughes remarked somewhat sourly when delivering the Harold Rosenberg Lecture at the University of Chicago in 1984:

“My fellow countrymen were rather proud of beating Ben Heller’s creative asking price down from $3 million. Nobody had even thought of asking so much for
a Pollock; but of course the market gratefully rallied behind this heroic example and every Pollock in

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the world quintupled in price overnight, thus enabling the National Gallery of Australia to announce that Blue Poles was really cheap …”

Clearly the National Gallery of Australia has a vested interest in maintaining its self-created myth of prescience and inspired financial acumen in the matter of Blue Poles. But surely the time has come now to put the merits or otherwise of the painting itself into some more credible perspective.

What is basically wrong with the Pollock is also what is wrong with the arguments for modernism themselves: to wit, to suggest that the narrative of Western art should be read as a kind of art-historical relay race which culminates in the death of painting simply because there are no more apparent avenues of novelty left to explore is both spurious and infantile. If a map of modernism is largely a chart of cul-de-sacs then the time has come to admit this.

Jackson Pollock, despite his long history of alcoholism and failed attempts at remedial therapy, had a much more cogent appreciation of the dangers of artistic dead ends than that shown subsequently by his apologists. Blue Poles belongs to a period of his work of which the artist himself had grown weary. In fact, the type of “all-over” abstract painting to which Blue Poles broadly belongs occupied only a relatively brief interlude even within the parameters of Pollock’s truncated /* xin2 */ career. Ample evidence exists that if he had lived longer he would have worked very differently. Before and after Blue Poles and the short era of other poured and dripped paintings, Pollock’s work featured a variety of clearly recognisable imagery drawn –  or perhaps wrestled – from his troubled subconscious.

Pollock taught himself to pour and drip paint with a singular, highly developed and concentrated skill and in so doing successfully sidestepped the relative clumsiness of his more directly manual mark-making. As Robert Hughes remarked in 1982, Pollock “was by no means a natural draftsman and his best paintings of the early forties … are set down with earnestness by no graphic facility”.

No one with any knowledge of the subject would deny that there is a validity of a kind in abstract painting and that attempts to resolve wholly abstract works seem to bring into play processes of “pure” intuition which can be extraordinarily exhilarating for the artist involved. At times the artist’s hand seems to be a direct conduit for unknown forces; out of the blue, the receptive artist suddenly feels a “need” for a small, bright yellow, triangular shape near the top right hand corner of his canvas google_ad_height = 90; …

But the question remains as to whether such a process can genuinely be said to mark the culmination of all the centuries of much more deliberate-seeming and humanistically relevant painting which had gone before. Then, too, there is the matter of the belief that modernists hold that the history of art should be read largely in the light of the supposed contributions earlier artists made to a process which culminated in “total” abstraction.


artists as various as Whistler and Turner are regularly recruited posthumously – and thus involuntarily – to this cause.

As someone who sees the history of art as seamless, I would argue strenuously against both of these propositions. Let us

​ imagine for a moment that I am stood simultaneously in front of Blue Poles, Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas (1570–76), The Surrender of Breda (1634-35) by Velazquez, and Goya’s Fantastic Vision (1819–23) – to cite merely three points of comparison from thousands available – could I put my hand on my heart and say I see Pollock’s painting as an “advance” on the other three? The simple answer is I could not, and

suspect that many others who are familiar with all four works would agree with me.

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The big problem here from the point of view of the Australian public is that any such exercise becomes harder to imagine because of the relative inaccessibility of major works by earlier generations of European artists. Two of the four paintings I have

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cited can normally be seen only in Madrid while a third, by Titian, is more inaccessible still.

It seems to me the

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whole notion of modernism and modernistic “progress” can survive only in a kind