Note: I wrote this after thinking about the art incident at Logan Airport last week, little did I think that the right wing columnist Jeff Jacoby would write on the same subject. Reading his piece made me think twice about posting this, it could be said that we come to the same conclusion and I don't want to share anything with Jacoby. But that isn't the case at all. I would encourage anyone who is interested to look at his column and see where we come out. It's not remotely in the same neighborhood. I should point out that my title is taken from the Marc Blitzstein opera The Cradle Will Rock. As you can see we started out from different places too.
Just about anyone who tries to be a musician ends up doing lots of odd jobs. Back when I used to occasionally tune pianos to make a bit of extra cash, I tuned one for a woman who had been a friend of the artist Lee Krasner. It took me twice as long to tune her piano as it normally would have because she was a wonderful conversationalist. She really wanted conversation more than a tuned piano. Since I’d met her through attending political meetings, we mostly talked politics. After excoriating the political and social right, she liked to name-drop her acquaintances from back when she lived on Long Island.
I asked her if Krasner’s famous husband, Jackson Pollock was as much of a drunken, violent, misogynist, jerk as they said. She was happy to be in a position to tell me that, if anything, he was worse. She told me that Krasner was a much better artist than her mega-famous husband and a much nicer person. Not being very familiar with Krasner’s paintings but having never seen anything to Pollock, I was willing to take her word for it.
An important question someone once ask about the abstract expressionists is why would anyone care about the expression of the inner life of a bunch of self-absorbed, drunken, woman-hating jerks? Another interesting question about the abstract expressionists that comes to mind is why it is possible, perhaps likely, that someone looking unprepared at the work of Pollock or most of the abstract expressionists without gaining an insight into their “inner personality”, the basic conceit behind what they were doing. If that’s true, what does that say about the purpose and intellectual basis of their school*?
That was years before Frances Stonor Saunders’ book “Who Paid The Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War” was published. The book showed that Jackson Pollock wasn’t the rebellious genius against the established order that the entirely out-of-date romantic fairy tale requires, he was providing THE ESTABLISHMENT exactly what it wanted, art without content that could be promoted through good-old capitalist style PR into a major “intellectual movement” to counter art whose subject matter opposed the established order. The purpose of the promotion of Jackson Pollock, through the Henry Luce empire of establishment propaganda among other venues, had nothing to do with art. It was an intellectual con job, taking advantage of the fact that fads and their commercial opportunities exist within even the allegedly pure realms of artistic creation for its own sake. Pollock’s work was promoted because it was meaningless. He was made famous because his work suited the purpose of the establishment through one of its most repressive arms, the CIA.
Saunders did a pretty good job of showing how art with no meaning was promoted because art became entirely too interested in real life to suit the powers of the CIA in the first half of the twentieth century.
After reading Saunder’s book I’ve come to suspect that the promotion of “art” that is free of real content, of any connection to reality and which didn’t even have the utility of craft has led to decorative, boring, useless, purposeless, parasitic “art”*** that the greater public finds irrelevant and ignores in large numbers. It’s the equivalent of bland wall paper. I’ve wondered if the joke that much of art has become wasn’t the result of the establishment undermining the greatest artistic potential of art, it’s subversive quality.
But I'm not telling you that you shouldn't like what you do. For anyone who likes Pollock now, my advice is to go on liking him.
* What does it mean when art that was inspired by a discredited intellectual theory outlives its stated theoretical basis? The art created by the basis of various discredited psychological systems, for example. Does what is now considered discredited matter in the response to the art? I don’t have an answer except that it probably depends on the overriding quality of the art and the kind of artistic meaning that goes beyond even what the artist could have known about.
The music of the past might provide some clues. You can listen to Bach’s cantatas and other works without believing in 18th century Lutheranism and get a lot out of it, probably much of it just what Bach intended to put there. But Bach was working intentionally through a long tradition of technique to achieve an effect. Schoenberg's expressionism might be an even better example to compare, his and the German expressionist painting was certainly not similar in content to the later "expressionists". The psychological theories that underpinned expressionism are certainly discredited as science, though there are still "therapists" seeing clients and charging them for putting them into practice.
* Willem de Kooning is an exception. It’s impossible to look at his not-exactly abstract paintings and not suspect they reflect how he regarded women.
The only two artists I know anything about related to abstract expressionism that I like are Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. From what I understand, Rothko had issues, himself. The pictures I’ve seen by Motherwell are meaningful to me exactly because of their associations with reality.
*** With the prices paid for a lot of their paintings it would be pointless to claim that they didn’t have value if of a largely non-artistic type. Their status as items of commerce will ensure that Pollock’s and other’s art will retain their esteem in the world of “art”. And there are people who enjoy looking at them. I don’t begrudge their fans whatever they get out of looking at them, though I suspect what they get out of them is no more than what the viewers, themselves, supply. I’m just pointing out that they weren’t painted with the intention of having intellectual content, they had the advantage of government support excactly for the reason that they didn’t have intellectual content and they were painted out of a dubious psychological, theoretical assumptions. I guess this is my way of declaring that I’m on the side of their non-establishment rivals of the time, Jack Levine and Antonio Frasconi for example.
As for the esteem of the art market and how it is bestowed, it would be fun to know just how much of it runs as deep as the fashion clothing market. And it’s not just a matter of the failed-would-be cutting edge. I’ve got a very strong suspicion that sooner or later someone will get a PhD for writing a dissertation about the artistic virtues of Thomas Kinkade.