The Emperor's new drop cloth ...

Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions

The Emperor's new drop cloth ...

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005

David Melancon wrote:
I am writing in response to your page on “bad art” and “non art” as you call it. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion on what “bad” art is, but I must strongly disagree with the artists you have chosen. Namely, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Yes, I’m sure a Pollock splatter painting may look quite simple to you, but I would challenge you to even coming close to reproducing his style. His compositions were brilliant in their use of color.

Have you not seen films made of Pollock at work? There's no organization or plan in the way he is splattering the paint. What exactly is so brilliant about them? If I say that a Sargent or Dicksee composition is brilliant I can explain to you what particular things I am talking about. Can you do the same? Or is this just some feeling you have that you can't express?

His style was revolutionary and has not been matched since.

Revolutionary? Sure. Claiming that a drop cloth is a work of art was at last a novelty at the time I suppose, but that's no achievement.

And Rothko, well all I have to say is that I guess you’ve never stood in front of an original Rothko. Printed reproductions do not do his paintings justice at all since his style consisted of ever so subtle differences in shades of the same color.

I have stood in front of several Rothkos. In fact, my old boss (an art collector) put a Rothko just down the hall from my office so I had to see it every day for years. What's the point of random "subtle" color changes? You might as well be looking at cloud patterns on a rainy day.

Have you ever been to the Rothko chapel in Houston, TX? It’s a religious experience to say the least.

Nope, and I don't plan to. Why should I? There's no art there and I'm not a religious guy, so why should I bother?

I respect your opinion, but you should really open your eyes to all the “different” kinds of art that are out there. Art is meant to be pleasing, for the most part. A Pollock or a Rothko on my living room wall would be very pleasing to me, and quite a few million other people as well I’m sure.

I think that most of them claim to like that stuff for no more reason than that people claimed to see the Emperor's new clothes in that children's fable. But even if I'm wrong about that, the fact that someone is "pleased" by something, that doesn't make it art. I like steaks, chocolate chip cookies, and sunsets. Does that make those things art too?

But personally, I don’t care what the millions of others think, it’s pleasing to me. I think these artists scare you because they do what you are incapable of – thinking outside the box, daring to be different, and using their own minds to create rather than drawing upon what came before them.

Do you seriously think that artists like Bouguereau, Leighton, and Maxfield Parrish ever saw anything that looked exactly like their paintings? I think that you are the one not thinking things through here.

You claim that Pollock and Rothko "scare" me. That's nonsense. They disgust me exactly the same way that a quack doctor who convinces gullible sick people to throw away their pills in favor of snake oil.

You claim that I'm incapable of "thinking outside the box" despite the fact that I'm bucking the dogma that I was taught for years in school and what I hear from museum docents, etc. Who here is being original here and who is just following along with the pack?

You claim that novelty is in itself good. On what do you base that conclusion? The fact that something has not been done before is hardly sufficient justification for judging it as good. If you think otherwise then you should have no problem explaining why. I'm not saying that new things are always or even generally bad, just that newness by itself has no moral character. Criminals for example invent new ways of trying to pull off crimes all the time, but that doesn't make their conduct admirable.

You claim that Pollock and Rothko were using their own minds but that's exactly the opposite of the truth. What was unique about their work (at the time) was that it was devoid of thinking. A real artist has to think about his subject, the design of his painting, his theme, the sensory, emotional, historical, social, technical, and psychological factors in the understanding of the impact of his work. Pollock and Rothko did nothing of the kind. They didn't bother developing the skills necessary to express themselves and it comes as no surprise that they didn't manage to. Looking at the range of their work, it is obvious that there's an incredibly narrow range in what they did. Pollock painted drop cloths with little or not actual visual content. Rothko painted big dark rectangles. Big deal. How does that demonstrate any ongoing thinking and development?

Your implication is that somehow learning from the past is a bad idea. Why is that? In every other aspect of life we can learn how to do things by studying what others have done in the past, learning their methods, learning the pros and cons of their work, and applying this learning in their own work. Why do you think that art is different in this respect? As you probably read in my FAQ, I am not at all a traditionalist, but I do think that we have a lot to learn from the many centuries of artists who have come before us. Why don't you?

They were modern day Howard Roarks. Bruce Lee best summed it up when he said: “Having no way as the way. Having no limitation as your limitation." Free your mind brother!

They were nothing like [Ayn Rand's character] Howard Roark. Roark spent years learning the skills and training under the best architect he could find, and he learned his craft very well. Pollock and Rothko knew little about painting and demonstrated it even less in their work. Originality and creativity are one thing. Ignorance, incompetence, and charlatanry are another. Why do you conflate them so?