In The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’ alter ego, translates Aquinas, saying that, “Three things are needed for beauty[:] wholeness, harmony, and radiance.”[i] In Renaissance Italy and the Protestant Netherlands, these three elements were clearly present in the art. There is wholeness in the figures and forms, and harmony in the skill and attention to detail. It also has radiance, which is the most difficult element to master. It’s what Stephen Dedalus called “the enchantment of the heart.”[ii] Because it is something that is felt so strongly rather than articulated, should an observer see the masterpieces of Caravaggio or van Gogh and fail to be moved, critics would never question the productions of the masters but instead the sanity of the observer.
However, it’s difficult to say that any of these qualities are present in Pollock’s work, or the work of his contemporaries. An Italian critic named Bruno Alfieri wrote an article on Pollock’s work, describing the difficulties in critiquing such a school. “Jackson Pollock’s paintings represent absolutely nothing: no facts, no ideas, no geometrical forms….No picture is more thoroughly abstract than a picture by Pollock: abstract from everything…no picture is more automatic, involuntary, surrealistic, introverted and pure.” His painting is marked by: “chaos; absolute lack of harmony; complete lack of structural organization; total absence of technique.” Ultimately, Alfieri praised Pollock’s work, not for the representation in the paint, but for the painter himself.[iii] In a radio interview, Pollock stated, “Modern art to me is nothing more than the expression of contemporary aims of the age that we’re living in.” He then commented on the Freudian idea of how there is no such thing as an accident, describing how modern art is linked to the subconscious, and how in modern art there is no accident.[iv] In the short film titled Jackson Pollock ’51, the artist is filmed in the process of creating his abstractions. As the narrator, he talks about how is art is an expression more than an illustration, mentioning how art has no beginning and no end.
Unfortunately for Jackson, his productivity did have an end. When Jackson began to fall from the limelight, one critic named Alexander Eliot was sure to have the final word on Pollock’s career. He commented on Pollock’s contribution to the “shlosh-and-splatter school of postwar art.” The comment was bad timing for the insecure and ever egoistical Jackson as he was stumbling towards a new low. Finally, Elliot gave Pollock a name that would cause great pangs to the artist’s ego. Elliot called Jackson Pollock “Jack the Dripper.”[v] Pollock’s career as an artist during his own lifetime ended on the same note where it began, echoing the statement of one of the earliest observers, who is noted for saying, “It’s not art; it’s perversity.”[vi] Nevertheless, Pollock’s works continue to sell at well above the seven-figure range through auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
Since Jackson and his contemporaries, masses of self-professed artists have joined the marketing game of the art world. Artists such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol, the latter being perhaps the biggest Philistine of them all, did not extend the traditions of the masters. Instead, they showed the world that anybody can be an artist. When Warhol was once questioned by a journalist on whether his art was original, Warhol agreed that his art was just a copy of a common item. When then asked why he would not create something new but continue making copies of images from commercial labels, he simply replied, “Because it’s easier to do.”
So long as people are willing to participate in this scheme, Monet pieces, such as L’lle aux Orties, will be valued at lesser prices than Basquiat pieces, such as Dustheads. That’s because, today, only two things are needed for beauty: marketing and delusional people. Art is now a business, and the museums are accomplices in the sham. Few are willing to stand against the crowd of Philistines. Most are complacently following the postmodern trends. Hilton Kramer writes that “something other than critical intelligence is also at work in this refusal to embrace the latest inanities of the far-out fringe of modernism—something virulent and reactionary that looks dangerously close at times to an assault on the mind itself.”[vii] The culture has approved the art of the Atheists. The majority no longer says, “It’s not art; it’s perversity” because the culture has no way of knowing what perversity is.
[i] James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 188 (Barnes & Noble Classics) (2004).
[ii] Id. at 189.
[iii] Pollock: An American Saga at 605-6.
[iv] Id. at 661-2.
[v] Id. at 753.
[vi] Id. at 409.
[vii] Revenge of the Philistines at 295.