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NPR thinks Jackson Pollock is a controversial artist

January 30, 2012 | 12:30 pm
Christopher Knight wonders why NPR thinks Jackson Pollock is a controversial artist

It's 1949 over at National Public Radio, which this weekend aired an astounding segment on its popular program, "All Things Considered," claiming that Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist painter universally regarded as among the 20th century's great artists, is deeply controversial. Pollock died in 1956. The broadcast was in recognition of the centennial of his birth, which fell on Saturday.

"Even a century since his birth, American 'splatter artist' Jackson Pollock still provokes heated debate about the very definition of art," says NPR's Web version of the story. "Was a man who placed a canvas on the floor and dripped paint straight from the can actually creating a work of art?" (You can listen to the broadcast and read the Web story here; a transcript of the broadcast segment, which claims "his work is as derided as it is desired," is here.)

Um, huh? What's a "splatter artist"? Who is having a "heated debate"? What century are we living in?

The Pollock shtick reminds me of deniers of the Holocaust or global climate change. Virtually no one in the field doubts Pollock's achievement and significance for the history of Modern art, but one can always find some crank willing to abjure. What is this, National Booboisie Radio?

Wait, it gets worse. The really remarkable feature of the NPR story is that no one in it does renounce Pollock. No one.

Nobody, either in the Web story or in the broadcast, is quoted as expressing any doubt about Pollock's standing. Nobody takes the negative side in the supposedly raging debate.

Apparently, it's NPR that's aghast. Controversy is just asserted -- I'm guessing because conflict is supposed to make good radio. The reporter simply worked from a presumption that Pollock's reputation is in serious doubt, silently recycling the wheezing cliche that Modern art is a hoax, and he asked a curator from the august National Gallery of Art to explain just why this long-dead painter matters.

Speaking of august, the Aug. 8, 1949, issue of Life magazine ran a profusely illustrated, now-famous article that inquired, "Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" Sure, one could debate the superlative adjective. Sixty years on, however, there's no serious argument to be had about the hugely influential art.

It's 2012. Is it too much to ask our national radio service to pay attention?


More art reviews from the Los Angeles Times 

A near-perfect room of art at the Huntington library

Racist image of Michelle Obama based on Versailles painting

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Jackson Pollock's "No. 1, 1949" Credit: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles