The Artist as Critic

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 23 2001 3:00 AM

The Artist as Critic

Will Pollock help you understand the artist's drip paintings?

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Ed Harris'Pollock, the art biopic nominated for two Oscars, has received a mildly favorable reception by the critics. Except for two, that is. The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert awarded it four stars, his highest rating, and called it a "confident, insightful" narrative about an artist's life. And while the New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann acknowledges the film as "creditable" and "generally intelligent," he pronounces the entire genre of art biopics worthless. "Pollock," he says, "for all its dedication, is just—yes, just—one more film about that perennially obdurate subject, an artist."

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What Ebert and Kauffmann are disputing is the very possibility of dramatizing the creative process. Ebert, who sees the artist as an everyman, takes that possibility for granted; in fact, the art is only interesting as it relates to the life of the artist who creates it. "A man is miserable but he is given a gift," he writes, "[which] creates space he can hide in." The art is an emotional outlet, and he describes Pollock's angst in clinical terms: "He was an alcoholic and manic-depressive."

To Kauffmann, art transcends life. "To become firstclass artists," Kauffmann writes, "people needed moral courage beyond our own needs or possibilities." An artist "follows other lights, obeys other signals, responds to other hungers than most of us do." These differences between the artist and the rest of us "are only superficially dramatizable, and the real point of it all—the art itself—can only be glossed." Pollock's tantrums, he writes, weren't caused by a "swollen ego," but by "a fierce solipsistic impatience with the mortal conditions that most of us accept." To Kauffmann, art is a sublime expression of an almost spiritual vision, and the film—indeed, film itself—is insufficient to the task of interpreting that vision for the viewer.

It's no wonder, then, that Ebert and Kauffmann disagree on the merits of the film's key moment of artistic inspiration: Pollock's discovery of the drip technique. As Kauffmann describes it:

One day, while [Pollock] is preparing paints for a canvas, he accidentally drips a little on the floor. He stares at it. This is the worst moment in the film. … I almost saw a comic-strip lightbulb go off over Pollock's head. It was the epitome of what film can not do about an artist.

To Ebert, of course, Pollock's "accidental" discovery of drip is a "virtuoso scene" precisely because it shows the artist lost in his own creative process (a "space he can hide in"). "This is not a movie about art but about work," he concludes. "It is about the physical labor of making paintings, and about the additional labor of everyday life, which is a burden for Pollock because of his tortured mind and hung-over body."

Ultimately, Pollock is no more about painting than Raging Bull is about boxing. The boxing scenes in Raging Bull are stylized, but they are merely an extension of Jake LaMotta's brutish life, not the subject of the film. The same holds true for the paintings in Pollock—they represent the painter's chaotic inner life; their visionary meaning is almost beside the point. These are the terms on which Ed Harris made his film, and these are the terms that Stanley Kauffmann refuses to accept. 

Michael Brus, a former Slate assistant editor, is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City. He is on the clinical faculty of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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