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Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Blue Boy

I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but I love to read the obituaries. In a large city like this there are some really interesting dead people. The daughter of the guy who wrote "Happy Days Are Here Again", another person who did such great things that the fact that he also invented the BIC pen was a footnote, a fellow who was arrested during Watergate by the same man who saved his life during the Battle of the Bulge.

Today it was Martha Holmes' turn. She was the first woman photgrapher for "Life" magazine. I actually didn't finish reading the story because I was stopped in my tracks by one of her pictures. It was a photograph of the artist Jackson Pollock at work, a cigarette dangling from his lips, paint drizzling from his brush. The Postal Service used the same picture when they made the Jackson Pollock commemorative stamp. They airbrushed the cigarette out so as not to influence the children or very wishy washy people.

But that's not what stopped me. In the background of the photograph is one of Pollack's works resting against the wall. As nearly as I can tell, the thing he is working on is about to look just like that thing against the wall, but with less red in it.

I have never had a satisfactory answer to why his splattered paint is art. I doubt anyone has. Not even Sister Wendy has helped.

Contrary to what you might think, I am not an old fuddy duddy who writes off as nonsense things I don't understand. If I was, I wouldn't be a Catholic, now would I? I am willing to be open minded to the idea that art is simply about illuminating the human condition. Pollock's paint splatters are no less illuminating than a painting of a bowl of fruit, really.

I was zapped back to a visit I had to the Huntington Library in Pasdena. The Huntington is the home of the famous "Blue Boy". In fact, they have a whole roomful of Gainsborough's paintings, portraits all. Before you go look at the "Blue Boy", you can watch a little educational film about it. I did that.

It ruined my day.

The art expert in the film begins with the question "why THIS painting?" Why is this one so famous, so renowned? Why is this painting a higher level of art than others, even by the same painter? Fascinating.

He goes on to explain that the painting itself is of the neighbor boy. The blue suit is a suit Ganisborough would put on YOUR child and paint him in it if you wanted to have your child's portrait painted by Gainsborough. He put the blue suit on the neighbor's kid and had a 'calling card' to showcase his work. A demo tape, a spec script, a sample.

That's it.

At the end of the film the expert asks the question again: Why this painting? And his answer?


I about blew my top. I wanted to take my head off and rest it in my lap so I didn't have to think anymore. We don't know??!!!???

Mr. Expert, that's your WHOLE JOB to know the answer to that question!!!!

Look, as a nun, I am willing to admit there's a lot we don't understand about God and Jesus and what it all means. That doesn't mean we don't have an answer! We may not understand the answer but we have one. At the very least we can explain to you that it's a "sacred mystery". "Sacred Mystery" is Catholic for, "just let it go."

I do know the answer, by the way, to the Blue Boy question. I only found out about it last month while reading the same section of the paper, this time an editorial commentary. It has nothing to do with art and everything to do with commerce. Once someone wants something and the art dealers get going on it and the price gets driven up and the rich guy wants it even more and the art dealer can keep the painting hot and keep rich people wanting the painting in their collection, we're off to the races. By the time some one's paid millions for a piece it has become famous and renowned.

It's not a mystery.


Christopher Clark said...

I think it has less to do with commerce, and more to do with the lack of original thought and the human need to feel superior to others.

A long time ago an influential guy looked at Blue Boy and told someone that he thought it was great art. That guy wanted to impress his buddy so he repeated the first guy's opinion. Eventually, over decades of the process repeating itself, the entire world knew that Blue Boy was great art.

This is why hipsters think that records sound better than CDs even though none of them can afford the audio equipment sensitive enough to make this opinion.

This is why people think that Moby Dick and The Grapes of Wrath are classic books even though one has never been read by anyone and the other has no satisfactory conclusion.

This is why people pay $8 for coffee at Starbucks when they can get the same hot, dirty water at Totally Donuts for 1/10 the price.

Christopher Clark said...

As for Jackson Pollack: The reason he is notable is because he thought of doing something that no one had ever done before, and he had the nerve to say it was Art.

Of course, the actual definition of Art is anyone’s guess. Your definition,“art is simply about illuminating the human condition,” is as good as anyone’s I guess, but it seems pretty meaningless to me. I like to think that Art is anything that anyone can see beyond. A piece of Art should have a deeper meaning than just what it is depicting. And it isn’t necessary for everyone to recognize those meanings, not even the creator of the art. And it is better if not one tries to analyze the life out of everything.

For the record, I have never seen a Jackson Pollack in person, but I understand they are much more complex and overwhelming when viewed in reality. Supposedly they have a mysterious quality which cannot be fully captured in reproductions.

P.S. Sorry I capitalized “Art” so much. I’m really not that pretentious.

Tim said...

So tell me, sister, how often do you put your head in your lap to stop thinking?

KatDee said...

I remember reading somewhere that Jackson Pollack considered the art the act of making the painting itself, not the painting that resulted. So what that means is that the painting is just what's left over after the art happens.

If Jackson Pollack is anything like the artists I know, he probably never called himself an artist. Most artists I know are artists because that's what everyone else calls them, and then they start doing it for lack of a better term. "Maker of otherwise useless things people seem to like and pay money for" is too long to say at cocktail parties.

dutch said...

Um, Starbucks coffee is way better. Their beans are higher quality than dunkin donuts's.

Dang it boy.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sr. Mary Martha,
We have a new car. Twice today my husband parked it and took up two parking spaces on purpose -- to insure against anyone opening their car doors and hitting our new car.
Twice we wondered if that is a sin.

My husband also wants to know if you are more like "Mary" or more like "Martha". We are big fans of yours.

God bless.

Candy Girl said...

christopher...grapes of wrath is a classic tale of the american struggle and what we humans are willing to do to help those who are less fortunate, and yes, i have read it.

i have also see a jackson pollack painting and i will say this, it IS overwhelming. its not so much the stroke of the brush or the drips of paint that take you in, its the feeling that someone made something so messy with a purpose. it really strikes me that each small part was as intentional as the canvas itself.

as for starbucks, i think people pay more for coffee because they like the relaxing coffee shop atmosphere, unlike the mcdonalds get em in and get em out feel of a donut stand!

Michael Bains said...

I honestly think the quality of this work for example, but any bit of art which has spawned commercial wealth, is due to intrinsic spatial and mnemonic reasons.

It's memorable for structural reasons which make it desirable to us to review the image, or even merely our recollection of the experience of seeing the image.

As different as we all are, we're still all the same basic physiology. Every human ever born and many before H. Sapiens have the same structure upon which our minds form and evolve.

As to Pollack: I know only little about the artist but am quite drawn to the art.