Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Who The Fuck Is Jackson Pollock?

I've always found the modern art world just a little inaccessible, and people — well, artists — give me shit about it. Nothing personal. But I never really believed it was nothing personal, and Harry Moses's documentary Who The Fuck Is Jackson Pollock? vindicates me. The movie is your typical slobs versus snobs story, questioning the "value" of art through the eyes of unlikely critic Teri Horton, a 73-year-old truck driver and stereotypical crotchety old lady. Horton was in a thrift store when she came across a tabletop-sized canvas, "paint all over it, no picture." Teri's reaction was, "It was ugly," but she bought it as a gag gift for a friend, negotiating the price down from eight dollars to five. Funny story: Teri's five dollar painting bears a striking resemblence to the works of Jackson Pollock, whose paintings sell for twenty to twenty-five million dollars at auction.

Teri entered the privileged universe of art dealership with a simple question, is this piece legit? The answer — not that I'm surprised — is fascinating, as the painting itself becomes less and less relevant and its authenticity, or lack of authenticity, is a product of the huge social class gap between the people who regularly sell million dollar art and the people who serendipitously find it in a thrift store. The experts Teri asked, the kind of people who'd spend thirty-thousand dollars on some guy's poop, didn't say no; they laughed her out of their galleries.

The final word on the authenticity of an artwork belongs to the International Foundation of Art Research, who issues its judgments in anonymous reports. Ever notice how people who make subjective decisions affecting others always issue those decisions anonymously? Who The Fuck Is Jackson Pollock? reminds me of Kirby Dick's investigation into the MPAA ratings board in This Film Is Not Rated. The legitimacy of their power is fragile, so they issue anonymous decrees that nobody can challenge. IFAR's position is given voice by Thomas Hoving, the former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a former editor at Connoisseur magazine, and a condescending douchebag so insufferable I have no idea how he manages to walk down the street without getting punched repeatedly in the face every ten minutes. Hoving's the kind of asshole who would edit Connoisseur magazine; he introduces himself by pointing out that the opinion of a security guard at the Met is worthless, but as the curator for eighteen years, his expertise is invaluable.

I can't believe that Hoving's imperious personality is typical of art connoisseurs — he's the guy who lets Sean Hannity rail about the liberal elite, but a sizable part of the art market belongs to old-money conservatives and evil corporations. However, his attitude seems echoed all over the place. He quickly dismisses the painting; it's "neat dash compacted, which is not good." It's pretty, superficial, and frivolous — ironic words coming out of Hoving's mouth. The clincher is his evalutation of Teri: how dare she be upset that we art experts don't believe her painting is for real? Who does she think she is? I have a degree from Princeton; she isn't even a Sarah Lawrence dropout. I live in an Upper East Side apartment; she lives in a trailer park. It's people like her — dilettantes — who are ruining this great nation!

In his defense, not that he deserves a defense, the art world has changed in the past twenty-five years or so. Art for art's sake (or status's sake) has become a big business, and the art market runs on the "provenance," tracing the piece back, owner by owner, to the artist. Hoving's expertise aside, the paper trail is objective proof of a work's authenticity (assuming it's not forged). As an art appreciator, Hoving is becoming obsolete. The thrift store where Teri found her painting had some poor record-keeping, but forensic evidence strongly suggests that the painting is Pollock's. There are fingerprints in the paint proving that the same person touched Teri's painting, a paint can in Pollock's studio, and an undisputed Pollock.

So there's three viewpoints, the philistine (Teri: "There was nothing to it. It was just all these different colors all over the canvas. To me, a painting has to have something you can look at and say, 'Oh, that looks cool, like Norman Rockwell or someone like that.'"), the investor, and the erudite art-ophile, all asking the fundamental question, "Where's the value in art?" So you see Martin Creed's The Lights Go On And Off and wonder if it's good art... Sotheby's pulls out a balance sheet and checks if it's increased in value, Hoving strokes his ego by saying if you don't get it then it's your problem, and Horton's opinion is irrelevant. Art is no longer expressive; it's just a medium for intellectual masturbation among the rich and shallow.

Art is whatever comes from the hands, or out the ass, of the art community. And the art community is an exclusive club of people (or robots or elephants or whatever) that create art. It's like the Writer's Guild or Skull and Bones. Something suggests that if an elephant's brushstrokes can be (valuable) art, then my brushstrokes should definitely be considered art. I can just imagine Hoving spitting at that idea. It really is personal when those art dealers kick Teri out of their store.

And of course there's something anti-American, certainly anti-egalitarian, about the self-defined artists' community, justifying recycling itself in its abstract, meaningless gibberish. I'm offended by the hypocrisy, or the denial, or just the disrespectful pig-headedness of modern art, conflating aesthetic value with provenance. Horton got an offer to buy her still unauthenticated painting for nine million dollars, about forty percent of its worth should it be declared legit, and turned it down. Good for her, standing on principle, even if the principle is "the value triples once it falls into important enough hands."