Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollock?

(2006)

Okay, the title they put on the box finessed the vulgarity with #$%#, which I think of as the Beetle Baileying of language. Remember the Sarge, when he was cussing out Beetle, always used those symbols? Who are we kidding, folks? “Fuck” is as deeply embedded in the language now as the verb “to be,” and almost as commonly used, and bleeping it only draws attention to it. It’s high fucking time we got off our prissy fucking horses about this word. Fuck, okay? Fuck fuck FUCK!!!! Anybody who is offended now, you’ve come to the wrong fucking website.

First, to review the fucking movie. It’s competently told, nothing special. It concerns a retired truck driver and thrift shop junkie and dumpster diver named Teri Horton who buys a painting for $5 and then learns it may be a Jackson Pollock, and “worth” about $50,000,000. (She seems to have become obsessed with this figure, as she has since turned down an offer of $9,000,000.) The art world is almost unanimously against her. She’s still fighting to prove its provenance, which is probably impossible, even though she has some very interesting evidence that tends to support her contention. The end.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the interesting stuff. How does a piece of paint-spattered canvas come to be worth 50 big ones? This is the underlying question, and to my mind, they only addressed part of the answer.

I am a believer in the free market … regulated where needed, to avoid the worst excesses of capitalism. But I firmly believe that anything, anything at all, is worth precisely this: What someone is willing to pay for it. Marx declared that the value of an object was determined by the labor that went into it. This is bullshit. You can labor for years on something, whether it’s a painting or a tractor, and if no one wants it, it’s worthless. When I write a book, my publisher puts a price on it, about $25 these days. Whether I wrote it easily in an afternoon, or sweated blood for ten years, the worth of this book is entirely a decision you make, as the buyer. Do you value a John Varley book enough to pay $25 for it? I hope you do, but it’s not my call. I could put a price of $250 on it, and have few buyers. They might go like hotcakes for $2.50. The market decides.

In the art world, like many others, such as rare coins, stamps, animation cels, antique furniture, it’s a huge conspiracy of buyer and seller. (As, in fact, is our whole system of paper money. A $1 bill has as much “labor” in it as a $100 bill, but we all agree that these scraps of paper are “worth” different amounts, have different amounts of buying power. If we lost faith in that lie, chaos would result, as it has in the past.) So a square of canvas meticulously painted over a period of months by Rembrandt can be worth $100,000,000, if enough people agree and are willing to bid it that high. The same price can be put on a square of canvas dashed off in bold strokes in a day by Van Gogh, or another square spattered by Jackson Pollock in an hour. If someone wants to pay that amount for it, that’s what it’s worth. It seems silly on the face of it, but that’s our system.

It worked pretty well, until recently. Hundreds of years ago, paintings were not nearly as valuable. They weren’t cheap, of course, you didn’t see them hanging in peasants’ shacks. But a patron would commission one, or an artist would paint one on spec, and then the artist would be paid, and it would hang in some grand palace. The criteria on which it was judged were simple: Is this any good? Does it look like what it’s supposed to be portraying, whether it be the Duke of Dubuque, or the Battle of Borodino? Nobody wanted an impression of the Duke. They wanted a likeness. And paintings were not traded like baseball cards, they were not invested in.

Then came the camera. Everything changed. The aristocracy and the rich kept commissioning portraits, of course, but now everyone could have, in a few minutes, an image as accurate as anything painted by anyone. Better, if accuracy was all you required. This changed the world of art. Impressionism was born. Van Gogh began laying on the paint with a thick brush. Lots of people didn’t like this new stuff, and the gulf between people who thought art should represent something and those who felt it could simply give an idea of it was established, and began to grow.

Over the last century, that gulf grew to unbridgeable size. Somewhere in there, the old masters began to be seen as real investments, as bankable as diamonds or gold. Collecting them moved from the province of aesthetes and national galleries seeking to preserve cultural heritage, to speculators. But there was a problem. The supply of old masters was limited, because they were all dead. Sure, the Mona Lisa was worth a ton of money, but what about this new guy, Picasso? He’s churning out stuff at an amazing rate, but it … well, anyone with a paintbox and a brush can imitate him pretty easily. Provenance was getting harder and harder to prove, too.

So the conspiracy of modern art was born. It relied, and still does, mostly on the opinions of experts, of connoisseurs. As the century progressed, it became even more difficult, with people like Andy Warhol mass-producing soup cans and lithographs colored with a broad brush. Can we seriously tout this stuff as worth many millions of dollars?

It all really came to a head with Jackson Pollock. He didn’t paint, he flung. You may have seen movies of him creating his big canvases, legs spread, can of house paint in one hand and brush in the other, slinging color more or less randomly. You can see the finished results in any major art gallery. They have no meaning, they are simply splashes of color. Tell you the truth, I like some of them I’ve seen … to the point that I’d look at them for maybe a minute, let the color wash over me, and then move on. I’d never need to see one again, though. Later he produced mostly black stuff, and I fucking hate it.

(A digression in this long article that has little to do with a short movie … Let me give you my definition of art, honed over the years. Art is: Anything that anyone points to which he or she has created and says “This is my art.” From Raphael to kindergarten finger-painting, from Beethoven to a pennywhistle solo, from a Stradivarius violin to a Shaker chair, it’s all art, if you say so. From performance art to installation art, to Christo’s outdoor lunacy, to conceptual art where nothing is actually even done, it’s simply proposed, it’s all art. Having made that concession, I reserve the absolute right to decide for myself if it’s good art or bad art or indifferent art or crap art or pretentious art or masturbation art—a lot of those last two going around in the last 50 years or so.)

But what are you going to do with someone like Pollock? He didn’t keep good records, he gave paintings away when he was drunk (which was always), and a child flinging paint at a canvas could make a damn good Pollock in about the same time the great master could. What to do?

No prob. Bring in the artistic experts, like this asshole Thomas Hoving, snoots in the air, to “authenticate” paintings. It is a wonderfully comic moment, seeing this asshole enter a room for his first look at the suspect painting. He won’t even look, at first. He goes through an arcane ritual that reminds me of a wine taster, sort of edging up on it, getting a first whiff. His hostility is so apparent from the first that his “considered opinion” is no surprise. This picture doesn’t speak to him. This mélange of spatters that could have been painted by a cow’s tail dipped in paint, just doesn’t have the spirit of Jackson. As if anyone could distinguish between one set of flings and another. I will never believe that. Case in point: Pollock at one point in his career actually threw paint into the exhaust of a jet engine and let it hit the canvas. And you’re telling me you can tell it was Pollock who threw the shit into the fanjet? Bullshit, total bullshit.

But most of the experts consulted were as sure as this asshole Hoving, either for or against. A small number said they weren’t sure. Millions of dollars hang on these opinions, because they all pretty much dismiss the forensic evidence, science being anathema to this sort of mind.

There is one last question, though. Why is it so important? Aside from the collector value, that is. I think there is something deeper going on here, and it’s the reason that authenticity is so important in the first place. The reason it’s so important is superstition. These objects have become talismans. It is now possible not only to produce, by computer, a copy of a Van Gogh that is correct in every detail not only of color and line and brush stroke, but even in the texture of the paint. It wouldn’t fool someone who examined the back of the canvas, or analyzed the paint, but set the original and the copy side by side and believe me, no human eye could tell the difference. But the original is worth $100,000,000, and the copy is worth a few thousand. And the only difference is … this object was touched by Van Gogh himself. It’s a spooky contact with the tortured painter. This is a very primitive feeling, and thus people in the art world will go to unbelievable lengths to either authenticate or debunk a canvas, when in a logical world the copy would be just as good.