Blue Poles and Mediocrity

I hate Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. I don’t mean that it is ugly or lacks artistic integrity. In fact, I think it is a seminal piece of art. I hate it because of how it is used to justify mediocrity in the art world.

In the last two exhibition openings I’ve been to, I’ve seen the unveiling of an artist’s name in italic letters, and an invitation to play dot-to-dots. Added to that, when I travel around town, I see ugly and conceptually barren public art that owes its existence to government commissions. Often when I have criticised the art, I’ve been told that because art is subjective, it is not possible to judge good from bad. I’ve then been reminded of the story of Gough Whitlam’s investment in Blue Poles, which attracted criticism at the time but is now hailed as one of the art world’s greatest investments. The implied meaning is that the artist’s name in italic letters or the invitation to play dot-to-dots might one day be spoken of in the same breath. In other words, we can’t criticise rubbish art because it might become the next Blue Poles

At the risk of being out of step with contemporary norms of art appreciation, I do think that art, like architecture or fine wine, is subjective and it is the shared subjective nature that allows it to be assessed as good or bad.

Take the Opera House. It is an innovative building that has become the symbol of Sydney around the world. When people look at it, some people see shells while others see sails, but almost everyone sees a design that resonates with the Sydney environment. It is a great building not because it is unique, but because a wide variety of people feel it represents what Sydney means to them. When designing it, Jorn Utzon was not only trying to be different. He was also trying to understand Sydney so that he could design a building that resonated with it. He succeeded not by being alien to public sentiments, but by being in synergy with them.

At the other extreme is the National Museum of Australia, a dog’s breakfast of a building. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating recently referred to it as a lemon and although some people might hold out hope that it will one day be spoken in the same breath as the Opera House, I predict that fifty years from now it will still be regarded as a lemon.

The problem with the museum is its egocentrism. It doesn’t show any sign that the architects considered the world around them when designing it. People don’t feel it is in keeping with Canberra’s architectural style or natural environment and they don’t feel it represents Australian history. In fact, it seems the architects didn’t consider the site itself, as the prime waterfront views were reserved for parked cars. Most of all, it is just plain ugly. It lacks symmetry, subtle colour integration and judicious use of line. The only defence I’ve ever heard of it is that it is unique, which is a concession that it has no other good points. 

I think art can be thought of in the same way. It is really quite easy for an egocentric artist to ignore the world and create a painting that is unlike anything that has ever been seen before. For example, eating a collection of non-toxic paints and then vomiting onto a canvas would create a unique design, utilise a new process and could be justified with a unique artist statement. While there may be some value in uniqueness itself, it would be far more challenging to create a unique painting that resonates with a wide body of people, and vomited paint would not do that.

Those artists who achieve resonance usually do so by taking a social focus. Instead of ignoring the world, they look at it, draw from it and work with it. They acquire skills from past masters, and refine them further. It is this social focus that allows their work to resonate with their audiences, instead of being alienated from them.

Just as architecture provides some pointers for the appreciation of art, so does winemaking. An ignorant person like me would find it easy to mix different varieties of grape juice to create wines that were bold, innovative and different. Although such wines would be unique, they would taste like garbage. The far more difficult challenge would be to apply a refined palate, knowledge of the soil and microclimate where the grapes grew, understanding of the chemical processes of fermentation and finally, understanding of the target market to create something that is different, but is still well liked. I couldn’t do this, but a select few winemakers can. For this reason, complex and balanced wines are respected in the way that completely original wines are not.

We can see the value of skill and style with Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most celebrated wine. Grange was created when winemaker Max Shubert was inspired by a French style. When other winemakers likewise tried to learn from the style, they further enhanced the reputation of Penfolds Grange, the shiraz grape and the concept of a long-lived wine from Australia. Individual winemakers, as well as the quality of Australian wine, all benefited from winemakers giving up some of their individualism to adopt a cultural focus.

Admittedly, wine lovers of the world are a diverse bunch and not everyone likes Grange or even the shiraz grape. However, almost all fans of long-lived Australian red wines appreciate Grange and see it as one of the finest examples of the style. The price they are prepared to pay further demonstrates how much it means to the connoisseur of the style. In that regard, you can say that Grange is a great wine.

I think a painting is similar. Just as there are few famous wines that are unpleasant to taste, there are few famous paintings that are ugly to look at. Ease on the eye is the first criterion of a good painting. As the indigenous art of the Western Desert shows, the ability to create something that is beautiful is greatly enhanced by technical skills, a social focus and a common style to learn from. In other words, individual artists are more capable of producing a work of quality when they work in a culture that learns from previous generations, and when they consider their peers and the social world around them. 

Once the first criterion of attractiveness is satisfied, a painting can be assessed on complexity, intellectual base, or timelessness. In the case of Blue Poles, although it was innovative, it was a product of a particular art movement and was within the boundaries of the prevailing art aesthetics of its time. Pollock was not alien to a style—he was a refined exponent of one. He didn’t ignore the art market or other artists. To the contrary, he worked with them, and it was that social focus that allowed him to create a work that resonated broadly. Admittedly, many art critics would still argue that Blue Poles is garbage, but many others see it as one of the finest expressions of a shared approach to art. While it may not be universally loved, Blue Poles is almost universally loved by people who admire abstract expressionism. In that regard, it is a great piece of art in the same way that Penfolds Grange is a great wine.

For me, the lesson that can be learnt from Blue Poles is not only the need to assert individuality, but an even greater need to look at the social world and work with it in a way that could be defined as culture. Furthermore, art can be judged as good or bad on the basis of whether it resonates with a body of people across time and place. If a unique piece of art is almost universally judged to be garbage, there is probably a good reason. Furthermore, if a unique piece of art comes from nothing and never inspires anyone else to copy its style, then it has probably been ignored for a good reason.

For the sake of the arts, governments should not commission work that is broadly disliked or work that is alien to tradition or to the landscape where it will be located. Likewise, teachers should not encourage students to pursue individuality at the expense of skills, culture and the aesthetic desires of their potential customers. At the very least, because they are in positions of responsibility, teachers and politicians should make decisions with the aesthetics of a community in mind, not just their own. They need to bear in mind that just because something is different does not mean it is any good.

Now, if only this was the moral that was synonymous with the Blue Poles story, then instead of being used to justify mediocrity, Blue Poles could be used to justify excellence, and I could finally give it the respect it deserves.

Chad Swanson is a Canberra artist.

Leave a Reply