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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.

Sincerely,

Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic



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Topics: Art Commentary | Creativity and Inspiration | Robert Genn 

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 8 Comments

Katherine S. Harris
via web
I agree with your desire to express your "unvarnished" opinion. I usually think I'm just unable to appreciate the art if I don't like it. Someone must have seen something I didn't, I think
to myself. High prices are more often the result of luck and/or a very focussed, motivated, hard-working plus talented artist, as I see it. You also need to be in a location where the market is used to high prices.The artist who kept moving and raising his price wouldn't have had a happy ending if he hadn't found a town where that kind of money was circulating.

Gobind Boyes
via web
Pricing has been an issue for me as the artist. I feel that the paintings I have right now on my web site are a bargain, but that is because I am an unknown artist at this point.
I have had different experiences and observations with shows. My first show I had the most expensive piece in the show. And to say the least I think it was remembered for the sticker shock. Another show I priced my painting very low,it sold after the expensive paintings were sold and I was told by several people that I could have put more money on it. Then the next show I priced it in the higher range of the show. I saw people looking at my painting and then buy the smaller one next to it by a well known artist. I think if you are well known your paintings are considered worth more. Even if you have excellent skills and your work is beautiful. So I have to say that maybe it is not the price or the skill level, but how well you are known that determines if your work sells well.

Donna Sheppard
via web
More often than not, the 'big money' made by artist's is a result of two important events:
1) Death. Vincent Van Gough is still turning over in his grave at the prices his paintings demand and Vincent is only one example among thousands of artists who died embracing rags rather than riches.
2) Corporate interest. Once your painting is hung in a high profile office because someone in that office takes a liking to your work, it is almost automatically assumed that you are in 'important' artist and you are on your way to huge profits, if indeeed you're looking for huge profits.

I judge a true artist by their passion and unique interpretation of their subject matter. I liken it to singing a Frank Sinatra song . . . millions of people cover his songs but only one in a million can bring their own unique interpretation to the melody . . . you not only have to believe passionately in your vision; you have to reach beyond it and dare to tread where no man has gone before. In my humble opnion, too many people are afraid to step out of their comfort zone and squeeze the life out of their own unique originality.

Vince Ornato
via web
Clint, Your comments here made an excellent point. I've thought a lot about "context" and "venue" and "presentation" lately.
However, I MUST comment that, apparently, you do not think much of Jackson Pollack. You are viewing his work through 21st Century eyes. In order to understand why Pollack, and the other original abstract expressionists were vital, important and good artists, you must understand that what they did HAD NOT BEEN INVENTED YET. Like the early jazz musicians, they went way behind the melody that was on the surface. They were interested in everything in traditional painting such as texture, composition, composition and so on, but asked the question, "What would happen if we remove the subject?" This led to enormous visual breakthroughs the influenced the next 50 years of art. Further, do not make the mistake that the amounts of money these works sell for mean anything at all. That is completely irrelevant. That is like saying that grown men being paid millions to play a game (baseball, golf, football, pick any one) is logical. Or that an a famous actor with a hit movie being paid millions is also logical. Kids are starving in Africa and all of that. Looking at it from the viewpoint of money provides entry into the theater of the absurd for many things. I am merely talking about the creative process here. It is very difficult, 50 years after the fact, to see the importance of certain art movements whose influence was well in gear by the time the viewer was born, but that is the only true way to appreciate it. One would never ask, "Why would they make such a big deal about sound coming into movies, " would they?

Best.

Vince Ornato

Ellen Gaube
via web
What a delicious Pandora's box you've opened. The best of art makes us think and feel as it pulls gently or pushes us violently "out of the box." Context is almost everything. The subject, or its lack, both within a painting and as its participating venue should produce a tension that is both intellectual and physical. Insipid art never lays claim to provocation. It is "safe" by virtue of its lack of technical and conceptional challenge.
I do agree strongly that art should be considered before being dismissed, regardless of its venue. The very fact that we are unsettled, appalled, lulled or humored is a healthy interaction that the viewer should conciously extend. The lack of a formal art education should never deny an absolute appreciation of line, form and color. And what inspired mental gymnastics we can enjoy when imagining a piece of art in other contexts. Is it still art? The museum as a place of reverence and, by extension, spiritual inviolability depends on confirmation bias to educate the public on articles of artistic faith. Indeed, would a Pollack play in my local Walmart, or a Francis Bacon in the Town Hall? Think about location but also consider intent and its overt and covert socio-political commentary.

Jo Allebach
via clintwatson.net
I couldn't agree more with you clint. When I am in Phoenix my art brings one price and if I take it up the road to Scottsdale it is another.

Gwen Ontiveros
via fineartviews.com
Your comments and opinions generate my respect for both.

Regina
via canvoo.com
You present several apparently interesting examples of context, but in every one you mistake correlation for causation.
1. In the case of subway car graffiti and violet crime: the zero tolerance policy was enacted as NYC was exiting a recession and entering an economic boom (always correlated with a drop in violent crime) and there was also a change in the demographics - fewer youths - which correlates to drops in violent crimes.
2. In the case of the violinist, the location also caused differences in sound quality (correlated to a lack of appreciation from passersby), and was in a location where people are specifically on the move - rushing to catch trains. There was no attempt to provide a low-end context where people were less mobile (an inexpensive coffeeshop? a plaza?) and driven to move by quickly. There was also zero attempt made in that highly flawed "experiment" to account for the different contextual ways people appreciate performances. Does a dollar on a subway platform equal a standing ovation in a concert hall? The statistical makeup of the populations were also completely uncontrolled. Willingness and ability to pay for concert tickets may correlate more strongly to "appreciation" than willingness and need to use public transit. This was an example of a news organ trying to create the news.

3. Pollock - agree completely with Vince Ornato. Regarding your comparison to Rembrandt - there are many many living talented representational painters creating skilled and beautiful works. I can't think of any who would command the same value as Rembrandt for a beautifully skilled painting "in the style of" Rembrandt. Rembrandt, Monet, DaVinci, Rodin - so many of the historic masters we so admire were also highly inventive rule-breakers. Just like DeKooning, Pollock, Chicago and so many others that take a little work to approach.












 

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