Two Paintings George Will Must Hate

Blue Poles - Jackson Pollock

More than I should, I mention that I’m not fond of Abstract Expressionism. That isn’t to say that I don’t like any of it — far from it. But on the whole, it doesn’t really work for me. This is a statement about me and not about the art. But as someone who is not that excited about the movement, I write about it a lot. I think it is a cry for help, “Open my eyes to this movement!” Of course, my eyes are hardly close. I think I’m a decent judge of what is good and what is not — even when I don’t like particular works.

One thing that really annoys me is when people claim that any kind of painting is easy. Personally, I think abstract painting is the hardest kind to do. At least if you are painting a representation of a duck, you have the duck to go by. I haven’t much of a clue as to why particular things do and don’t work in an abstract piece. Often I can note some design elements, but that’s usually a small part of what makes a piece good. Normally what really strikes me is the blending of the colors, but I don’t know why. For me, art appreciation is intuitive.

Decades ago, I read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. It is basically just an attack on modern art — Abstract Expressionism in particular. When I read it, I was very impressed. But since then, I’ve learned a lot more about art history. And now I think that Wolfe embarrassed himself in that book. He is dismissive of the idea of philosophical considerations dictating art. But what was the difference between the High Renaissance and Mannerism? It was highly theoretical. I suspect that the vast majority of people walking through an art museum see not apparent difference between those movements. You can certainly make the argument that artists and art critics are a bunch of idiots making a big deal of little things. But you can’t argue that the 20th century was any worse in this regard — other than that there were a lot more movements.

This came up earlier when I was reading Henry Fairlie’s three decades old hilarious and brutal take-down of the pretentious George Will. Will, of course, doesn’t know anything about modern art, but he knows what he hates:

Again, it is not a quibble, but an essential criticism of Will’s attitude toward contemporary culture, to point out that when he roundly condemns Jackson Pollock (in 1978, and again in 1985), he says not a word about any Pollock painting, not to mention the whole body of his work, except the old-hat criticism that they are “canvases covered with drips.” On both occasions he bases his criticism on the same silly tribute to Pollock by an unidentified art critic. Blue Poles, to take but one Pollock painting, cannot be described as a canvas “covered with drips,” and only an eye uneducated not only in modern painting, but in all painting, could say so. In fact, one doubts whether he knows what paint is, or for that matter what Raphael did with his “revolutionary” use of color.

Back a few months, while discussing Fernand Leduc, I briefly mentioned Pollock, “Anyone can flick paint on a canvus. But you’ve got to know what colors to flick where and most of all when to stop.” Even that greatly underestimates what he did. But there is this thing with many people (especially pretentious conservatives) where they think that they can judge Pollock’s work based upon how he applied paint. Implicit in this is that there is a right technique for applying paint to a brush. I imagine that if George Will had lived a century earlier, he would have dismissed Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I mean all it is just a canvas covered in dots.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - Georges Seurat

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