I was in Grade 5. The teacher of the enrichment class for the gifted children announced that we were going to study art. We were going to learn about all of the great artists from history and then each of us would choose one upon whom to base a project. The assignment would consist of an essay about the artist and our own painting depicting something in his style.
I was sent to this class one day out of every 6-school-day cycle and over the next two of these days, she read from this large, hardcover book on the history of art. Starting from the ancient art on caves and the Greeks and Romans, through the Renaissance and Romantic periods, then impressionism, post-impressionism and on into modern abstract art. She read through the entire book, listing painter’s names and showing examples of their work, explaining why each is important.
At the end of the second day, after some no-doubt glowing descriptions of the latest phase of deconstructionist art and how it shapes reality, she closed the book and laid it on the desk. “Now it is time to choose the artist for your project!” she exclaimed.
One by one, the small, all-male class mentioned the name of one of the artists from the lessons whom they would study further. When it came to me, I asked if I could look through the book and decide. It was my way of saying that I could not remember the name of the artist I was thinking of. Recalling names is a problem that has plagued me my entire life – especially remembering a single name from a large list or group of people.
“No,” I was told. I had to choose right now.
“Well, it was the one with all the tiny dots.”
“Who do you mean?”
“Well, he used tiny dots to make pictures.”
“What kind of pictures?”
“Well there was that one at a park with all the different people.”
“I thought you said it was dots.”
“Yeah, he used dots to make them.”
“Jackson Pollock used dots. Do you mean Jackson Pollock.”
“I… I don’t think so…”
“What era was he.”
“He was an impressionist.”
“Well Jackson Pollock wasn’t impressionist.”
“I think this was impressionism.”
“Well, I don’t know what kind of dots you mean then. Was it Jackson Pollock?”
“Do you want to do Jackson Pollock?”
“Fine. That’s wonderful.”
The artist I was thinking of was the French Impressionist, George-Pierre Seurat, and the painting I remembered was A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the one later featured prominently in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I distinctly remember her explaining his technique of using tiny dots of paint of various colours to make his paintings. Apparently, she couldn’t remember saying that, but, I was expected to remember the name. By “all the different people” I was attempting to explain her reference to the subjects of the painting who represented each class of society in France at the time.
I had no idea who Jackson Pollock was. I was only relieved that I had the name of an artist I could study and the humiliation of not remembering the name was over. She did seem rather tickled that one of her students had chosen such a progressive artist. All I had to do was remember the name.
Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock.
The next week, I opened the book and found the section on Jackson Pollock and started reading about him. I was amazed and dumbfounded to see the scribbling messes that made him famous. Why were these considered art, much less, important art. A classmate walked over to look and said he was doing Jackson Pollock too.
“He’s good, isn’t he?” he said.
I nodded in agreement, still trying to work out what I was supposed to see that was good in these messes of paint. I asked the teacher if we were allowed to do the same guy.
“No. Cully is doing Jackson Pollock. J____, you’ll have to choose someone else.
I felt confused, threatened, relieved and disappointed at the same time. Disappointed that I was not going to get a chance to find out who the original artist I wanted was. Confused that the other student had somehow managed to change his selection from the previous class and threatened that he had somehow figured out who Jackson Pollock was all on his own. The relief was due to the idea that had begun to form in my mind the moment I gazed at one of the works by the esteemed Jackson Pollock. It was the one thing, besides the intimidation from the woman in charge of the class, that held me back from saying “Hold on, J____ can take this hack Pollock. I’ll do someone else.”
These paintings required no artistic skill.
See, this project had been a huge source of anxiety from the very start. I was no artist. I couldn’t even write neatly. Art was the one subject which held me back from getting straight A’s on many occasions. Math, language, music, history had been consistent A’s or B+’s every year for me. Art always garnered a B or even C (with D’s to come in later grades). In my 5 years of schooling, I had achieved a single A on a mid-term report in Art. For some reason, I couldn’t put paint, crayon or pencil to paper impressively enough to coax an A from the art teacher. So, to discover that I could splatter and squiggle paint like a Jackson Pollock painting and get a good grade was like finding the answer sheet stuck to the back of your copy of a test you hadn’t studied for. I can make something like that and call it art? Trying to explain why it was art would still be a challenge, but, creative writing was my greatest strength and most pleasurable activity.
So, I watched J____ go off to find another painter to research while I tried to figure out why Jackson Pollock was worth looking at. All I could find was that some art critic had discovered him in an apartment filled with paintings in New York. He was featured in some galleries and became the talk of the art world. I couldn’t decipher any meaning about the work or what it was supposed to mean other than the canvases were vast and moving and blah-dee blah-dee blah, something about nature and space. He died in a fiery crash with 2 women on board. Turns out my teacher had steered me toward a depressive, womanizing drunk.
When it came time to do the painting, I set the large sheet of paper on the floor and stared at it. Sometime later, the teacher came by and encouraged me to actually put some paint on the paper. I had my cans all ready with brushes dipped upside-down in the yellow and black and red paint. I finally chose which colour to start with and began a flurry of dripping and dabbing until the paper was mostly covered with dots and squiggles. Oops, I spilled yellow from the can as I leaned over to the top of the page. No problem, just make the splash part of it. The actual painting was probably done in about 10 minutes. It was fun and actually looked like something – what, I had no idea.
So, when I was done splattering, spilling and squiggling, I set the painting to dry. At the next class, the teacher presented our works with construction paper frames she had made herself and asked us for the names for the bottom plate.
“Cully, do you have a name for your work?” Names, she explained were extremely important for abstract art to give them reference. My mind squirmed with this idea trying to reconcile it with the actual names of Pollock’s works like Number 1, 1950 and No. 5, 1948. Could I call it Composition? Work 1? Nothing came forth from my churning mind. Silence resulted. The heart-wrenching classroom silence that an unanswerable question from the teacher produces.
“Don’t you have a name?”
I looked at the confusing mess and my mind drew a blank.
“What does it remind you of?”
“Come on. Use your imagination.”
“OK, what is something that you find confusing?”
I reached into the shallow recesses of childish memories and thought of the family gatherings where adults filled the room with incomprehensible chatter. “A room full of people talking.” I muttered.
Eventually, she steered me to a more articulate-sounding word for “people talking” and my page of scribbles and splashes was named Conversations. Exasperated, but, glad to be unburdened of the task, I slunk back in my chair. Something felt empty. The work was a joke, but, looking at the works of the rest of the class, mine was the only one that didn’t look like a joke. The others all had to make attempts at painting people and none were remarkable. Still, I respected them more for their failure than for my success. The teacher might have been a passable art history teacher, but, she was definitely not an art teacher. Confusion, embarrassment mixed with a mysterious feeling of unearned pride made for a strange mix of emotions.
My mother looked at the painting and beamed. “Wonderful!” she proclaimed. She made room on the wall beside the dining room table and mounted it prominently in the room. We ate dinner every night with the painting hung prominently on the wall. On the opposite side of the table was a formal dinette set filled with fine Royal Daulton figurines and bone china decorative plates my mom collected. I regarded it with bouts of admiration, resentment and apathy. Trying to shrug off the most overwrought compliments but unable to fend off the inevitable vanity that comes with too much praise. Underlying the sugary compliments, I knew that if I had tried to paint what I really wanted, something difficult and challenging, it would not have elicited any admiration nor would it have hung on such a wall. It would have been displayed on the fridge for a few months and then dropped in a drawer somewhere, forgotten.
“My son, the artist.” my mother would say. I had to admit that there was a certain aesthetic quality to the work, but, I had only copied the style of a charlatan. There was less artistic merit to this than there was to wall paper.
The class for gifted children was supposed to help us grow. I grew a conceit and pomposity for having experienced modern art. I could “see” it. When people looked at a circle and a dot on a blank canvas and proclaimed that it wasn’t art, I claimed to know better. My mind had been opened to seeing what wasn’t there. I could pretend to comprehend and appreciate modern art. The main thing that grew was a kind of rot. I had learned to lie.
True to its name, the painting did spawn many actual conversations. Every time a guest at the house looked at it and told me how much they loved it. I attempted humility but internalized hubris. They looked at lines and made interpretations of what was happening in the “conversation”. The big splash of yellow was an argument. The black against red was oppression. The name that had been coaxed and dug out of my mind like a painful tooth imposed a false subtext on the random scratches and splashes on the paper. Except there was nothing wrong with the tooth to begin with. The confusion I felt as a child was normal. It was meant to be there inside me at that stage of growth like a baby tooth hiding its adult replacement. Instead of gradually loosening and falling away to make room for the larger more robust adult version, it was plied out prematurely and displayed for all to see. It left a hole into which the adulation poured and festered as shame and narcissism, rotting the growing adult before it could emerge.
I learned something about abstract art. But, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned what that lesson actually was. The falsehood that consumed my inner artist was real. Even if I didn’t define it, the effects of living a false persona were felt deeply. My life was lived with this false vanity and pretense. I walked around art galleries and pretended I was enjoying it and actually believed myself. I tried to live that inner life but it was rotting with lies. I didn’t find out that Pollock’s art was funded by the CIA in any of my research. Perhaps my pompous teacher would never have heard of Pollock were it not for the cold war. I didn’t realize that his life was empty and he tried to fill it with alcohol and sex. Still, that same emptiness was poured into my being and I was corrupted. The vanity and group-think that makes people stare blankly at a senseless painting and fool themselves into believing that it moves them corrupts everything now. When we applaud children who make mundane proclamations and call it insight, we corrupt the soul of the world and the decay spreads further.
I finally saw it in myself and have done my best to purge the rot. We all need to recognize it now and make the same attempt.