One of my favorite moments in a movie was a scene where a woman turned to a man as they were exiting a theater and said, “What do you think the significance of the Rolls Royce was?” The man, nodding thoughtfully, replied, “I think that represented his car.”
I think of that scene sometimes when I overhear people discussing movies or art and the conversations descend into pseudo-intellectual blatherskite. One such conversation in particular comes to mind. I remember I had ducked into the Smithsonian’s Museum of Modern Art to avoid a sudden rainstorm. I know almost nothing about modern art, but I figured I could at least enjoy being dry while not knowing anything about modern art. So I loitered. And, though my knowledge was limited, I did loiter past some names I recognized. There were a few Picassos…everyone knows Picasso…and I spotted at least one Miro. The Miro was a painting of a circus horse and I stared at it for ten minutes before I gave up trying to find anything resembling a circus or a horse. Then I saw a wall full of lips by Warhol. There were many lips. I’m pretty sure he liked lips. A little further, I happed upon some bronzes by Matisse and Henry Moore and remember thinking the ones by Matisse needed better skin care…some exfoliation and toner, perhaps. And, finally, I saw the painting that is the star of this recollection. It was a painting by Jackson Pollock.
I’m sure you know who Pollock was and how he worked his magic. He would lay a canvas flat on the floor and then drip, slop, sling, and sprinkle paint down on it…sometimes detritus from his cigarette would also sprinkle into the composition…and the result truly was magic because the art world responded. I have a theory that the magic worked something like this: one or more art experts, people who drop their jaws and speak without moving their tongues, decided that Pollock’s struggles with his inner demons of alcoholism and depression qualified him as a troubled genius, and that Pollock’s technique was just novel enough that it could only be inspired by eccentric genius. They, thus, proclaimed him and his work, well, genius. That they didn’t appreciate or understand the genius made no matter; they would pretend to appreciate and understand it. And because they liked it, so did the rest of the art world. Magic! Jackson Pollack was a hit.
When I first saw the painting, it was at the far end of a long, narrow room that looked to me more like a wide hallway. It sat on an easel to the right of the far exit, and as it was the only painting not hanging on the wall, it became the focal point of the room. The name of the painting was “The Tiger,” and I spent less time looking at it than I did the Miro to decide there wasn’t anything remotely resembling a tiger in it. Here, see for yourself…
Okay, maybe if I had taken a hit of acid and squinted my eyes till they bled, I could have spotted a tiger lurking in its depths, but I was drug free and sane enough to see it as nothing I or anyone else couldn’t do dripping, slopping, slinging, and sprinkling paint on a canvas. Let me prove my point. Look closely at the painting and ask yourself this question: Is it right side up?
You could sit that canvas on any of its four sides and it wouldn’t make an iota’s difference, am I right? Why? Well, because there isn’t any subject…there isn’t any tiger, not crouching nor lying nor standing on its pink little nose. Perhaps, and this is just my opinion, the painting is more aptly called “The Tiger Camouflaged by an Impenetrable Eyesore of Dripped, Slopped, Slung, and Sprinkled Paint.” But, as with beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder, and I stood there and eavesdropped as many a beholder walked up to praise The Tiger. What was fascinating to me was that none of them liked the painting until they’d approached close enough that they could read the plaque that told them it was a Jackson Pollock. Then they loved it. For thirty minutes, I stood there and listened to an endless litany of adjectives like powerful, awesome, stunning, deep, moving, and, yes, genius.
I was looking for something sharp to stab myself with when things started to look up. A middle-aged couple appeared in the far doorway, and they looked like they were packing loads of entertainment value. I got the feeling the husband would have much preferred to be gawking at the Air and Space exhibits. He sulked with disinterest by his wife’s side. She, on the other hand, was in her element. She was the only person who recognized the Pollock from the far end of the room and she made sure everyone within shouting distance knew it. I watched her drag her unimpressed husband up to the painting and tried my damndest to keep a straight face.
She began instructing her husband as to why it was such a great work of art; she was a fount of theories about how the painting channeled the spirit and form of a tiger. She pontificated with such melodramatic passion and grandiloquence that I half expected her to switch to French at any moment. It was torture. I had the overwhelming urge to snatch the canvas from its easel and beat her with it. Then I heard her ask her husband a question that stopped me cold. She said, “What do you think the green symbolizes?”
The scene from the movie flashed into my mind. I held my breath in anticipation. I silently rooted him on. Say it! Say it, damn you, say it! And I was so surprised I could have pissed myself when he actually did! He nodded thoughtfully and replied, “To me, dear, it just looks like green paint.”
Yes! I stifled a laugh…or I tried to, anyway. A loud snort escaped through my nose. Let me put it this way, it packed enough force that I needed a handkerchief. I willed myself invisible and slunk toward the exit. As I was leaving, the woman was leaning back and examining her husband as if she’d just discovered she was standing next to a huge pile of turds. He shrugged. At that moment, he was my hero. It wasn’t that the green couldn’t have represented something. Sure it could…it could represent purple if you want it to. The thing is it could just as validly represent something completely different to the next person. It’s the reason a song will mean different things to different people. Anyway, I think we can safely say that, in this case, the brave husband was right: the green in the Pollack painting represented nothing more than the color green. Her attempt to make that inscrutable muddle a tiger and the green mean something other than green was just mental masturbation.
I reached the street to find the sun shining and a rainbow arcing across the sky. The rain had cleansed the air and everything seemed in perfect focus. I looked around and took in all I could see. Every color Mr. Pollock had strewn across his canvas was there in that incredible scene and I wondered why I was the only one stopping to admire it. It certainly had more transcendental capacity to induce orgasmic ranting than the Pollock painting. Besides, there was even one cloud hovering overhead — a magnificent, towering cloud — that looked remarkably like a tiger.
[Just for fun: Can you name the movie where the scene described in paragraph one occurred?]