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Selling Pollock painting would cause more harm than good

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 15, 2011 7:20 AM

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Jackson Pollock, one of the most influential artists in our country’s history, has lately been inspiring more political debate than artistic imagination.

A bill proposed Feb. 9 would force the University of Iowa to sell Pollock’s groundbreaking Mural (currently housed in Davenport after the 2008 flood) for $140 million. The bill’s rationale? Selling the painting would increase budget resources.

But treating artworks as financial assets undermines the integrity of any collection of art and compromises the trust of art contributors. If the UI sells Mural for the highest price in art history under the pretense of alleviating fiscal trouble, it would be devastating to the university’s artistic reputation. While other institutions, including Brandeis University and Randolph College, have sold off some of their art collections in recent years, none have pawned such high-profile works. It’s up to the Iowa Legislature to stand strong against this unsettling trend.

If sold for the reported price, Mural would be tied for the highest price ever paid for a painting — more than artwork of Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, or anyone else. In fact, the only painting to sell for more than $135 million was, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of Pollock’s. No.5 (1948) sold in 2006 for the same price currently proposed for Mural, making it the highest price ever paid for a work of art.

Pollock is widely regarded as one of the foremost leaders in Abstract Expressionism. He introduced the radical concept of “drip painting” to the world. His work is largely an expression of the subconscious, and the innovative structuring that serves as the foundation of his work distinguishes him as one of the most renowned artists in American history. Mural is no exception; in fact, it exemplifies his avant-garde compositional system.

In 2009, art historian Henry Adams documented some of his speculation on Pollock’s Mural in Smithsonian Magazine: “Pollock organized the painting around his name according to a compositional system — vertical markings that serve as the loci of rhythmic spirals — borrowed directly from his mentor, [Thomas Hart] Benton.” Adams believes that Pollock was declaring an assertive presence in the art world and attempting to replace Benton, a man he once described as “the foremost American painter today.”

In other words, Pollock is a national treasure, and so are his works. Public art museums exist to give ordinary citizens access to these works, which could otherwise languish unseen in private collections; art, the idea goes, is an inspirational public good. Accordingly, the mercenary sale of artistic masterpieces only becomes tenable when art is considered a generic state asset.

“It’s contrary to the long-standing ethical practices of the entire museum field,” Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums, told the Daily Iowan Editorial Board. “The association code of ethics states that proceeds for such sales are to be used for either the acquisition of new works to be added to the collection or for the care of an existing collection.”

Neither of these are included in the proposal, which would instead channel the proceeds into a scholarship fund. While scholarships are important (particularly given the UI’s perpetually increasing tuition), selling cultural artifacts for these temporary benefits is virtually Faustian.

This measure would damage an institution and community that has long prided itself on its artistic standing. U.S. News & World Report ranked numerous UI art programs among the top 10 in the nation in 2010, including the Master of Fine Arts program in art and design and Fine Arts Specialty-Painting/Drawing. UI art Professor Wallace Tomasini recently told the DI that the Pollock painting “gives prestige to the museum and has helped make the UI museum one of the best in the country”. The sale of Mural for financial flexibility runs the risk of damaging these programs.

Aspiring artists are in continual search for inspiration, guidelines, and influential mentors.

“Paintings such as the Mural in a college setting do a great deal to ensure a well-rounded educational experience for students,” Blanton said.

Fortunately, the bill has little chance of actual implementation; it has been up for debate in the past and was rightly voted down.

The UI art community can only hope that the recent controversy surrounding the painting will not materialize as a loss of “a 20th-century masterpiece” but rather garner the awareness needed for the Mural to make its long-awaited return to Iowa City.


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