Thursday, January 14, 2010

Film Review: Who the [Blank] is Jackson Pollock? (2007)

Thinking this was a documentary about Jackson Pollock, I borrowed it from a local library. It turns out to be more of a real-life mystery than a study of Pollock, the man or his work. But along the way, one learns quite a bit about this strange and intriguing figure and his abstract painting (if that is the proper label). The plot-line of this documentary is simple: an uneducated and plucky female truck driver, named Teri Horton, buys a large, odd painting for a friend from a thrift shop for $5. She is later told that it looks like a Jackson Pollock original. She eventually learns who he was (she had no idea, and thought the the painting was essentially junk, since it was nonrepresentational), the tremendous worth of his painting (a new original work would fetch fifty million dollars), and approaches the art world in the hope that it will be authenticated as a genuine Pollock.

The film is about how we know things (epistemology)--in this case, how do we know whether a painting is painted by a particular painter. That is, how to we come to a justified and true belief about this painting? Was it painted by Pollock or not? To answer this, one must consider criteria for authenticity. We find (at least) two cultures in conflict. The culture of the experts in the art world and the culture of forensics. Those in the art world largely rejected the painting as inauthentic. Some rejected it forcefully, others more hesitantly, but no recognized art expert certified the painting as a Pollock for the following reasons. (1) It is unsigned. (2) It has no provenance. Provenance concerns the documented genealogy of the painting, its causal ancestry or pedigree. Mrs. Horton bought it as a thrift shop and was not able to gather information beyond that. That is, it simply appears as a painting without a history. (3) It does not look enough like a Pollock work to the trained eye.

However, there is another angle to pursue--forensic evidence. Mrs. Horton hires a forensic expert who has authenticated several anonymous paintings as legitimate works by well-known artists. He finds a fingerprint on the back of the painting that matches one found in Pollock's studio. He also finds paint like that used by Pollock. The art world cares nothing for this: forensics is not art criticism. They are two different worlds, with two different sets of criteria.

This epistemological debate is what I found fascinating about the film. I did not warm to the crusty, seventy-three-year old who discovered the painting. One may pity her hard life and appreciate her tenacity, but she strikes me as crass and pointlessly stubborn--refusing to sell a painting of at least questionable pedigree for nine million dollars. She says her unwillingness to sell for anything less than the full worth of a Pollock is a matter of "principle." But what principle might that be? Apparently, she is convinced it is a Pollock, and hired a professional art dealer to sell it as such (a rather slick and slimy character, to be sure). But is any moral principle violated if one sells a painting for nine million dollars when, in fact, it may be worth fifty million; however? There is, after all, still good reason to question its authenticity.

What criteria are normative for identifying a work of art? When the experts evaluate the work, they size it up rather intuitively, based on previous knowledge of Pollock's style. But they do not all agree. Moreover, artists do vary their style to some degree. The other side has to do with trying find in the extant painting some forensic (not aesthetic) quality that identifies it as having been painted by Pollack. This involves photography, chemistry, and some speculative history (since documented provenance cannot be established). One large question is whether one can establish a plausible scenario in which Pollack, an established if eccentric painter, somehow lets one of his works lose such that it ends up in a thrift shop in California, as opposed to having it displayed in a New York art museum or as part of an art collector's collection.

It is difficult to come to a conclusion about the identity of this painting. But working through the questions is fascinating and rewarding. To make a more accurate assessment, one would need much more than simply a film on which to base a judgment.

This is not a film that directly addresses the aesthetic value of Jackson Pollock's paintings or the worldview behind his work. (At some point, Pollock set up mechanical means by which to make paintings which attempted to leave out his own personality and rely on chance. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) assesses this philosophically in his book and film series, How Shall We Then Live?) However, the film stimulates significant thought about the art of knowing. Who is a reliable witness? What are the proper criteria for truth assessment. For those reasons, I delighted in the film and may use it for teaching on these subject.


Jim Pemberton said...

Interesting. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks about works of fiction in this manner. Perhaps the only frustrating thing about reading Tolkien is that he was explicitly disdainful of metaphor or allegory in fiction (particularly his own, after which many subsequently debate the meanings of his fictional accounts). For this movie, perhaps its author had no intention of conducting an inductive discourse on epistemology. All the better, for perhaps we can glean by example of the main character how not to assume a truth value on any claim that has so little evidence. Or rather we should understand that so many people actually weigh their perceptions of the world so haphazardly. But I suppose there's a sense in which the induced epistemology of this movie resonates with our own experiences for we all know people who adhere steadfastly and passionately to the unlikely.

Doug Groothuis said...


I guess I was unclear. It is a documentary, but not primarily about Pollock, but about the mysterious painting and the woman who believes it is authentic. I'll go back and fix the review.

Chris Tenny said...

The epistemological debate in this movie reminds me of the one recounted by the popular writer Malcom Gladwell in his book "Blink". Where he told the story of art experts who reliably declared an sculpture to be a fake in contrast to forensic evidence that declared it to be authentic. Are you familiar with the book? He attempted to articulate intuitive knowledge, al beit apart from philosophy. It was interesting to ponder nonetheless. Such stories highlight the strengths and weaknesses of these two sources of knowledge.