WOID XIV-14. He who laughs last, paints best

It's enough to make a hep-cat laugh. The scientific proof that a Jackson Pollock's a Pollock has been scientifically proven to be bullshit after all.

The raw data was provided by twenty-four paintings left in a storage locker by a couple who had been artists, and close friends of Pollock. The half-baked science came by way of a Professor Taylor who's made a profession of analyzing Pollocks for fractals, patterns that reoccur within themselves so that if you look at a whole Pollock, then a closeup, then a closeup of the closeup you are going to get consistent patterns.

Sure you will. In an article in Nature magazine, two more professors (no relation) have pointed out that the same system can be used to identify just about any scribble at all as a Pollock, "a notion that would undoubtedly amuse critics who still dismiss his work as child's play," to quote the New York Times' Randy Kennedy. I imagine there's some kind of fractal situation going on at the Times, in which what looks like a single drooling idiot turns out to be composed of lots of little drooling idiots typing away.

Anyhow. The two professors have demonstrated what every art historian knows from watching those boring lectures at the College Art Association where the drooloid at the lectern shows a closeup of Rembrandt's Polish Rider and tells you it looks like a Pollock, which is kind of puzzling since many now believe The Polish Rider isn't actually by Rembrandt. So now we know who really painted The Polish Rider: Jackson Pollock.

Actually, the second scientific experiment on fractals simply demonstrated that Jackson Pollock look-alikes are everywhere, which upends the first experiment, the one that proved the twenty-four Jackson Pollocks were not by Jackson Pollock, a result that seems statistically impossible if you accept that just about anything does look like a Jackson Pollock. But then it's well-known among Rembrandt experts that the best way to spot a Rembrandt forgery is that it doesn't look like a Rembrandt since Rembrandt was too busy being Rembrandt to pretend he was Rembrandt. So perhaps Pollock was too busy being Pollock to bother painting Pollocks: only forgers do that, especially those who imagine that a Rembrandt looks like a Pollock to begin with. Good thing so few people believe that a Pollock looks like a Rembrandt, or we'd have scientists taking close-ups of Blue Poles to see if it was made of tiny copies of The Night Watch.

Professor Taylor's problem was, he tried to prove a negative, which is supposed to be impossible in logic, and is a very bad idea in art: after all, how many collectors are going to pay good money to prove that their paintings aren't by some important artist? The nice thing about most technical examinations of art is that they're set up to detect the appropriate data and overlook the inappropriate, and it's easier for a forger to insert appropriate data than to conceal the inappropriate. If Taylor had set out to show what was Pollock-like in these paintings instead of the opposite he would undoubtedly have found it, and had far fewer complaints. The usual scientific experiment on art is the equivalent of the usual act of connoisseurship, in which the very act of describing the work, like the act of applying a high-spectroscope sphygnometer, brings the art into being.

Some mathematicians even argue that fractals cannot be used to prove anything at all, only to model, which, if I understand correctly, means you can only find the stuff that's already there. What's been asked of fractals has also been asked, again and again about the Golden Ratio: it's not very hard to find artists using the Golden Ratio's "divine" set of proportions, such that a/b =(a+b)/a, which of course happens to be a fractal system itself. The problem is knowing whether these proportions turn up in paintings because they turn up as natural phenomena or because the artist put them there.

From what I've learned of Taylor's methodology I suspect that it's actually the former. According to Francis V. O'Connor, co-editor of the Jackson Pollock Catalogue Raisonné, "Integrating fractal traces of Pollock's physiology into the process of pouring is the basis for the validity of his testing." In other terms, a good chunk of the data comes from the shoulder, elbow, wrist and finger movements of Pollock painting. But as any competent calligrapher can tell you, a) the range of these movements is quite limited, and b) the movements that can be accomplished by either shoulder, elbow, wrist or finger are not precisely interchangeable, though they come close. In other terms, when tracing a very large letter using your shoulder you can make it look pretty much like a much smaller letter made with your fingers, but in order to do so you would have to use different muscles which, under "natural" conditions would produce different results. Most likely a small Jackson Pollock looks a lot more like a small child's scribble than it looks like a large Jackson Pollock because Jackson and the kid are using identical muscles, though not necessarily in the same way, whereas the larger Pollock uses a different set of muscles. So the more refined the fractal analysis, the more it will show that Pollock's elbow movements were not the equivalent of his wrist movements. Duh. And yes, the twenty-four "Pollocks" that aren't supposed to be Pollocks happen to be very small Pollocks. Or small "Pollocks." Or Pollocks made by a very small person.

But then I'm always puzzled when people tell me, looking at a Pollock, that their kid could do that, because they make it sound as if a four-year old painting like Pollock is a bad thing, somehow. If everything looks like a Pollock it's because Pollock was concerned with making his art universal. Art historians love to tell how Pollock often feared he wasn't an artist at all, but the upside of that is that he must have also rejoiced in the fact that he wasn't any less of an artist than a tree, or a seashell, or a four-year old, or maybe even an art historian if that's not a stretch. In the utopian vision that Pollock inherited from David Alfaro Siqueiros, the oddball Marxist painter from whom Pollock learned, and who in turn inherited it from Marx, who probably picked it up from the wild utopian Charles Fourier, come the revolution everybody gets to be an artist, and everybody's painting is worth a million dollars, and the world is everybody's Mom, not everybody's accountant. Somewhere in the stars, the cat is laughing, dancing. Somewhere, baying to the moon, the Wölfflin is signing off. Aooooooo!

WOID: a journal of visual language