Jackson Pollock, Cathedral (1947), enamel and aluminum paint on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art
The border between art and decoration can be as fuzzy as a political boundary in the desert. Like political boundaries “art” and “decoration” are artificial, man-made concepts at best. At worst they are mere value judgments that signal our own preferences: That’s not art! While acknowledging the limitations of human subjectivity, I think there’s a case to be made for the difference between art and decoration. It’s roughly the same as the difference between wild and domesticated animals. Decoration has been tamed, housebroken. It’s suitable to hang above the sofa or put on the mantel above the fireplace. Art is feral, unpredictable, even dangerous. Decoration is forgettable. Art has the ability to sear itself in our brains and leave a mark . . . or a scar. Decoration and art can both be beautiful. But art doesn’t have to be beautiful at all. It can be weird, impenetrable, ugly, or offensive.
Take, for example, Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World, which confronted my wife and me when we visited the D’Orsay Museum in Paris. It’s a realistic painting of a woman’s elongated nude torso with the genitalia front and center. Who would dare display that in the living room for all to see? Art museums are safe houses where we can be voyeurs without getting arrested or even violating the conventions of polite society. It’s a highbrow alternative to going to the movies where we docilely munch on popcorn as we watch things we’d never even think of doing and if we witnessed them, we’d dial 911.
I remember visiting the Dallas Museum of Art when I was an undergraduate in Texas. After all these years I only recall one painting: Cathedral by Jackson Pollock. I lived such a sheltered life I’d never seen one of the Pollock’s big, messy canvases, thick with drips and splatters of paint. It was mesmerizing. Having grown up being taught always to color in the lines, I was shocked and drawn to this rebellious work of art. Everyone knows that to paint means to apply pigment to canvas with a brush. Oh yeah?, the painting screams, Says who?! It’s the kind of painting that makes you want to drop out of college and go backpacking through Africa. While I was still at the museum considering what I might sell for my airfare – I’ll never forget this – a professor from my college appeared out of nowhere. We exchanged greetings. He was surprised to learn that I wasn’t there because of a class assignment. I was there because that’s how I chose to spend my Saturday. He praised me for my good taste and left me feeling domesticated. Backpacking through Africa was off. I was just a nerdy college kid without a social life.
To be a great artist – or to be a great anything for that matter – you have to be willing to take risks and defy conventions. I’m not talking about being offensive for the sake of being offensive. I’m talking about doing what you know is right, even if you know others will be offended. I want my life to be art, not decoration.