Seeing Jackson Pollock’s November 11, 1952 (aka Blue Poles) for the first time, I leaned in so close that I broke the invisible laser. The alarm heralded some polite but purposeful security officers who invited me to back off, and I obeyed. I can’t say exactly what I liked so much about the painting, why I needed to get so near, or what I thought I’d find. Fortunately, good art invites its viewer to sit in this ignorance, to feel it out. This is the opposite of politics.
Last week, the newly installed youngest-ever Liberal senator James Paterson – whose earnest demeanour resembles that of a banker repossessing your house while explaining that this is actually a good thing – decided to grow his media profile by floating the idea of selling Blue Poles (controversially purchased by Gough Whitlam in 1973 for $1.3 million, now worth $350 million) to put a minor dent in the government deficit. It is unlikely that Senator Paterson expected his initiative to be adopted but, with consequent appearances on 3AW (‘I’m all for selling it,’ said Neil Mitchell), Sky News, and The Project, it proved an effective exercise in amplifying his personal brand.
The proposal and ensuing conversation show how the languages of government and art are incompatible. They are incompatible because art cannot be described in the vocabulary of the state without invoking purpose and commerce. Moreover, ministerial jargon does not admit moral ambiguity: those who govern traffic only in moral conviction. Embedded in any political polemic is the aspirational and patronising assertion that ‘We can all agree on x’, where x is to do with hospitals, education, terrorism etc. How could you disagree with this obvious good? Do you hate children? Do you love bombs?
Even those who disagreed with the Blue Poles sale responded in financial terms. Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman rejected the idea based on the painting continuing to bring ‘the gallery and the ACT a considerable economic return’. Australia’s resident Gold Logie-winning TV intellectual, Waleed Aly, argued against Paterson’s point by citing the painting’s status as a profitable investment, drawing visitors to the National Gallery. (Although, credit should be given to Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Brendan O’Connor for labelling James Paterson a philistine.)
Considering art-as-commerce is not an aberration. The natural posture of a gallery visitor is one of evaluation; a reformulation of the question ‘What does it mean?’ is ‘How should I measure it?’ A simple metric of evaluation is money, and money is a metaphor for whatever it can buy. This is not about compensating an artist for his or her imagination, effort, time, and skill (which is, of course, entirely advisable): works like Blue Poles have transcended into the mad realm of the secondary market, where artworks are considered investments. So, if we think about an artwork in terms of its monetary value we’re thinking in terms of what it could replace, or what could replace it. This is how senators think.
On 3AW, Senator Paterson explained that
The Tullamarine [road] widening project costs about 250 million dollars. That will have a more dramatic impact on most people’s lives than a Jackson Pollock painting sitting in the National Gallery ever could, because it will cut their commute time.
Paterson and Mitchell agreed that, given the national deficit, 2016 is not a time for ‘luxuries’.
A politician’s rhetoric presumes a sort of moral philosophy in which each initiative brings us closer to a utopia where the distribution of wealth is perfectly matched to the distribution of virtue; art cannot be described in the language of the state because it fails to fit this rubric (sports may be the only equivalently incompatible field, which is why Senator Paterson also suggested cutting its funding). The state’s primary function is to convince its citizens that it offers certainty, while the quality of art is contingent on its ambiguity.
‘Length of commute’ is a telling ‘obvious good’, crystallising as it does the neoliberal obsession with optimising every possible behaviour in order to clear the way for commerce. Yes, a government must make decisions, but implicit in the comparison of commute times with a painting is that they share a grammar or currency of quality-of-life. A commute costs however long it takes. What is five, ten, twenty minutes staring at Blue Poles worth? In exchange for my time, money, and attention, what am I getting? Art is worthwhile because it eludes – even refuses – these measures.
Abstract art in particular asks unanswerable questions about metaphor and representation. Art critic Clement Greenberg championed Jackson Pollock because the artist’s dizzying, drippy work is manifestly self-referential, knocking up against the limits of the medium, gesturing towards that which cannot be done. Greenberg described Pollock’s best paintings as attaining
a classical kind of lucidity in which there is not only identification of form and feeling, but an acceptance and exploitation of the very circumstances of the medium which limit that identification.
Abstraction of this kind is premised on a mode of expression that lives outside meaning, description and paraphrase. If we ask ‘What is it for?’ or ‘What is it worth?’ then we are not speaking its language.
To be fair, Senator Paterson suggested that some of the money from a Blue Poles sale be reinvested in Australian artists and art. However, an artist applying for funding via, for example, The Australia Council, will be assessed based on amorphous factors such as ‘artistic rationale and process’, ‘the significance of the work’, ‘the level of experimentation and risk’, ‘relevance and timeliness’, and ‘the skills and artistic ability of the people involved’. To enter the system at any stage, art must prove its value as an asset. ‘The worse your art is,’ poet John Ashbery told The Paris Review, ‘the easier it is to talk about.’ This would not fly with The Australia Council.
After his proposal was roundly scorned, Senator Paterson told Fairfax Media that he was simply making a ‘general philosophical point’. This is true. It is a philosophy with no place for the irreducible and ambiguous. It is a philosophy in which morality is intrinsically tied to money.
This is not new. In 1930, economist J M Keynes wrote:
When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles that have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.
Nearly a century later, this prediction seems quaint. Art, as a signifier of social importance, seems irretrievably shackled to wealth.
Art has never been ‘pure’. Its success has always, in part, depended on religion or wealth or politics. Yet it retains the power to subvert these ideologies. Pushing back against the instinct to determine value, particularly that dictated by the latest Sotheby’s catalogue, seems to be the best thing art can offer us.
A laser guards Blue Poles not because it is beautiful or interesting or strange, but because it is expensive. Perhaps that is inevitable. It is also a shame.
Image: close-up of Blue Poles.