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Masterpiece in the Subway, Trash in the Museum

by Clint Watson on 7/3/2007 10:09:37 AM

It's funny how life seems to bring ideas to us in themes. 

This past weekend, I read a book called The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell.  I'll get in to the specifics of the book at a future time, but one of Gladwell's observations is that humans act differently in different situations.  In other words, context matters.  For example, a person who is generally considered "honest" will turn into a liar in the right situation.  He goes on to outline how the New York transportation department cleaned up violent crimes on the subway by targeting graffiti.  The idea was that if the cars are covered in graffiti and looked like crime-ridden places, then they would become crime-ridden places.  And, indeed, the theory was correct.  Once New York took a zero-tolerance stance on graffiti, violent crimes dropped exponentially.

Then, today, I received a letter from Robert Genn regarding a world-class violinist, Joshua Bell, who, fresh from a performance at the Library of Congress with the Boston Symphony, panhandled for free during the morning rush at a Washington Metro station. Of the thousand-odd passersby, only a few stopped, or even paused, to listen. 

Watch a video of Bell's fascinating performance:

OK, so then a little later this morning, I received an email from a client, CP, who writes, "Thanks for everything you do. I have only found one thing I thought was unbecoming to your professional status as webmaster of an art site. That is your embarrassing stand on Jackson Pollock in one of your blogs. It should be removed as it speaks poorly of your insight. My thoughts for what they are worth."

Now, I respect CP's opinion and I certainly don't want to give the impression of being disrespectful, because I don't mean to be.  This is why I have these forums for discussion.  To discuss art matters.  I promise that I will always be willing to take a stand and discuss serious matters and will not shy away from "controversial" topics and become some sort of bland, corporate blog.  That means, from time to time, that people will disagree with me -- that's OK.

OK, so here's my thought: We can take one of the world's finest musicians, who normally makes over $1,000 per minute and put him in the context of a subway panhandler and what happens?  The masses simply see him as a panhandler.  They don't recognize the gift that he gives the world.

Regarding Pollock:  If we take Pollock's "art" - take it out of the garage and put it in the worlds finest museums and galleries, let the critics rave about it, what will the masses do?  They'll see Pollock as a "master."  But it's only because of the context.

What I'm trying to do is to get people to move beyond context and see art and it's value intrinsically

Remember last year, someone found a bunch of suspected Pollock's in a garage and experts spent weeks subjecting the canvases to all kinds of scrutiny to determine if they were real Pollock's as opposed to being copies or simply some house painter's drop cloth?  The entire value of those paintings depended upon those experts:  If they were authenticated Pollocks - they were worth millions.  If they were not Pollocks - they were worthless trash .  Context.

What if the guy had found a stash of suspected Rembrandts in his garage?  If they were good enough to be mistaken for Rembrandt, then they would have been great, regardless of who painted them.  You see the difference?

So next time you see a panhandler, listen carefully - picture him playing with a symphony.  And next time you see the latest "masterpiece" in a museum - picture it hanging in your garage...or even imagine that YOU had painted it.  Ask yourself, would you be happy letting it out of your studio? Take it OUT of context for a moment and judge on the merits of the work itself.


Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic


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Topics: Art Commentary | Creativity and Inspiration 

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