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

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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 google_ad_width = 970; 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 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To put it another way, Blue Poles could be said to represent a kind of last hurrah for an outdated and weirdly monolinear conception of the evolution of art.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

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than the vested and supposedly insoluble issue of artistic merit. In short, how much exactly is the damned thing

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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

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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 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

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“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, /* 9-970x90 */ 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

with the world’s great collections of art.

As I suggested earlier, ignorant idolisation of Blue Poles locks Australia into a situation of cultural backwardness which only the conscientious teaching of art history and compulsory visits to the world’s great collections of art could even begin to address.

The basic reason why I do not believe Blue Poles represents any kind of qualitative advance on the three paintings I chose above, more or less at random, from three earlier centuries, lies beyond anything in its incoherence and self-absorption. I cannot imagine for a moment that Titian, Velazquez and Goya would ever have believed that a day would come when simply dribbling or pouring paint onto a support might be looked on as a worthwhile end in itself.

The very late Titian I have chosen, painted between the artist’s eighty-fifth year and his death at ninety-one, is extraordinarily expressive and free yet also brilliantly considered in the way it organises seven figures and a dog in portraying a terrifying subject from pagan mythology. The degree of imagination shown is stupendous, as it is in the relatively early Velazquez I have cited, painted when the artist was just thirty-five.

The huge Velazquez, which chronicles an actual historical event, is no less brilliant in its organisation of multiple figures, landscape and complex sky. The clarity, painterly intelligence and graphic skill shown are similarly staggering. How can an incoherent mass of marks by Pollock, covering roughly the same surface area as the Velazquez, possibly be said to compare with it?

Regress, rather than progress, leaps to mind here, yet the great claim made by Pollock’s apologists is that he “went beyond” Velazquez’s fellow countrymen Miro and Picasso. But was the direction in which Pollock supposedly “went further” ever remotely worth travelling? In my experience this is just the sort of question which modernists avoid.

From quite an early stage Pollock’s art was rooted in the subconscious yet contributes nothing in particular to our knowledge of

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the subject. Contrast this with the intriguing,

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metaphysical google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; nature of Goya’s Fantastic Vision, which features two flying figures – or witches – who are being shot at by earthbound soldiers. One of the flying figures gestures towards a citadel on a hill. Although fantastic, the scene is hauntingly credible, like a miraculously direct delineation of a meaningful dream.

I do not wish to single out Australia as displaying anything nationally unique in the way of uninformed artistic attitudes. Without intelligent programs of education, confidently pursued, ignorant artistic attitudes are more than likely to be internationally widespread.

As some small evidence of this, the following conversation took place recently in Britain between David Lee, an art historian and

admirably forthright google_ad_height = 90; art critic, and someone who sounds like a youngish if invincibly opinionated artist. The conversation was reported in the July-August 2005 edition of The Jackdaw, a newsletter for the visual arts edited by Lee: “During a recent meeting I received a damn good ticking off from an artist. “Art can’t stand still,”
she asserted as though rote-repeating a Commandment. “We have to progress and move on.” “Move on?” I enquired, baffled. “Where to?” She believed it to be an incontrovertible truth that in order for a work of art to be taken seriously it had to “progress” beyond what had

kind of means which first seemed to legitimise and thus institutionalise such

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an idea. I quote from Herbert Read, who later received a knighthood and was a highly influential figure in promoting the basic precepts of modernism not only in Britain but internationally. The

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words are taken from Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting (1959), a

book which for decades was not merely a standard textbook but also something of a bible on art history courses. The author explains why he has excluded various highly respected artists from his book: “For a similar reason I have excluded realistic painting, by which I mean the style of painting that continues with little variation the academic traditions of the nineteenth century. I do not deny the great accomplishment and permanent value of the work of such painters as Edward Hopper, Balthus, Christian Bérard, or Stanley Spencer (to make a random list); they certainly belong to the history of art in our time. But not to the style of painting that is specifically “modern”.”

The crucial point to note here is that, of the two legitimate and commonly encountered meanings given to the word modern, Read chose style and attitude rather than period as the basis for his exclusions. Thus artists who are clearly – and unavoidably – modern in other respects, such as Hopper and Balthus, are excluded solely on the grounds

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of style, thus effectively making formal radicalism the most important index of quality whether for inclusion in Read’s own book, a “modern” collection or a “modern” museum.

Read, of course, was not solely to blame for what has subsequently happened. Yet, as a direct consequence of attitudes like Read’s, there is not a single painting by Edward Hopper in a British public collection and only one damaged example by Balthus. In short, we see how easily one of the two great traditions in art – the continuous – was effectively marginalised and banished. By contrast to the treatment of Hopper and Balthus – two 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

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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 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

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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 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 google_ad_height = 90; 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 google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; 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 as radical traditions. One certain result would be that the art on view would be much more varied and interesting – as 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 as they should be – but frequently are not – of those who flirt consciously and often for advantage with the latest fashions.

The storerooms of Australia’s state and national galleries are full to overflowing already with embarrassingly ephemeral art “bought in haste and repented //--> at leisure” by curators, committees and directors who have convinced themselves that novelty must be a virtue somehow, especially where works lack any other obvious merits. Another instant and highly beneficial effect of my suggested change of emphasis would be on art education. Artists desperate to learn time-honoured skills would no longer need to feel disadvantaged academically – as they certainly do now – or in terms of their subsequent careers by not being at the “cutting edge”. Indeed, as an absolutely typical example of the tiresomely familiar “rhetoric of radicalism”, expressions such as “cutting edge” are overdue for permanent banishment – along with the entire delusion in art of modernistic “progress” itself.

In relation to Blue Poles, imagine the relief of

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