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.

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

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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

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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 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To put it another way, Blue Poles could be said to represent a kind of last hurrah for an outdated and weirdly monolinear conception of the evolution of art.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 /* xin2 */ 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 for $6,000. But shortly after Pollock managed to kill himself and one other by driving when unfit to do google_ad_width = 970; 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,

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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

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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 google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; 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 google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; 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

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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 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

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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

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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
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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.

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srcset="http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/William-Robinson-Ancient-Trees.jpg 500w, http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/William-Robinson-Ancient-Trees-300x220.jpg 300w, http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/William-Robinson-Ancient-Trees-74x55.jpg 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

area of life, since all change
can always just as easily be for the worse as for the better.

Such a 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

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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

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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 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

“total” abstraction in art will continue to appear as very small blips on a very large screen. For the rest, a serious attempt to get the history of art into some kind of focus represents an ideal starting point for showing genuine concern for the future of art in this, or any other country.

This article first appeared in Quadrant, a literary and cultural journal published in Australia (10 issues a year): https://quadrant.org.au/

Giles Auty

The Jackdaw March-April 2015

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