Is the provenance of the film as important as the provenance
Bryan Byrd | Earth | 04/30/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)
"On the surface of it, 'Who The #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?' is the struggle of 73-year-old Teri Horton, a retired long-haul truck driver, to authenticate her five dollar flea market find as a genuine Jackson Pollock painting. As the film progresses though, the emphasis subtly shifts from recording Teri's authentication efforts to highlighting how the established art world dismissed her claim based solely on her outsider status. From their perspective, she's a kook, one who's wasting their time with a pipe dream of having found a fifty million dollar painting in a thrift store. To her, their refusal even to return her phone calls when she began her quest was tantamount to a declaration of war. So she enlists the help of Peter Paul Biro, a forensic specialist, and Tod Volpe, a former art dealer to Hollywood film stars - who had also served two years in prison for defrauding those same celebrities.
As I watched this film, and as the filmmakers documented the evidence to support Horton's claim, I began to feel amazed at the colossal dunderheads who were refusing to consider seriously the authenticity of Horton's painting. The smug egoism of Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was especially infuriating, and the sheep-like mentality of the rest of the establishment, who marched in lock-step with Hoving's - and others - verdict that her painting was not genuine, imparted at least some of the frustration that Teri must have felt during her years-long battle. However, after reflection, and some slight internet research, I have fewer convictions now than I had at the film's conclusion.
A Google search of Thomas Hoving Teri Horton will produce an article from Artnews, written by Hoving, that presents alternatives to the proof offered in the film - but to my mind, the authenticity of Ms. Horton's painting is secondary to determining the objective of the filmmakers. The fact that Tod Volpe is credited as Art Consultant for the film, and Peter Paul Biro as Science Consultant (both of whom were enlisted for their experience and knowledge to ultimately assist in the sale of the painting), raised red flags for me. These potential conflicts of interest don't signify anything by themselves, but after reading the Artnews article, I started to re-examine my initial feelings about the film and took a closer look at the way it was constructed, and then I began to wonder, despite the patina of neutrality, if the slant toward Ms. Horton was orchestrated.
If Thomas Hoving's antics and outlandish statements regarding his expertise were removed from the film, the other representatives from the art world would sound reasonable and measured - a point that couldn't have escaped the filmmakers' attention. Without him, Ms. Horton's story would still be interesting, but there would be no face to represent the gated community of the art world - no bad guy - and much of the sympathy for Teri Horton's quest would be sucked right out of the film. At the same time, Hoving's reputation and résumé made him a legitimate source, regardless of his behavior, and so the choice to include his comments is certainly justifiable. But with his presence, the argument is principles, not necessarily authenticity, with Ms. Horton winning easily. Although all the facts of the case would remain the same, we would essentially see two different films based on whether he appears in the film or not. As it stands, as a disinterested viewer, I want Teri's painting validated simply because Thomas Hoving comes across as a big jerk.
The question then is no longer about the authenticity of the painting, or even about the class prejudice Teri Horton ran into during her efforts. It is a matter of whether the filmmakers deliberately constructed the film as an appeal to spite to bolster other evidence. If so, then it's more agitprop than documentary. If not, and I assume no one twisted Thomas Hoving's arm to make him act as he does, then the filmmakers simply found an excellent example to reflect the conditions that exist between the Teri Hortons of the world and the restricted environment of art connoisseurship.
Although I understand that this is only a review of the film, I do think it is appropriate to bring up these questions about the film's objectivity, especially since its emotional appeal is so effective. While it would be impossible to say definitively that the filmmakers had ulterior motives, I obviously have some muted suspicions, which in turn influences how I perceive the other issues. Still, the film was informative, and I would recommend it with severe qualifications, but lingering questions about the filmmaker's intent prevents me from giving it a full four stars. Three and a half, rounded down."
A fascinating exploration of the art world
Robert Moore | Chicago, IL USA | 11/13/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is a splendid documentary that reveals a great deal about the art world, about its exclusivity, its disdain for outsiders, and its inherent irrationality. The story starts when truck driver Teri Horton buys a painting in a thrift shop for $5. Later, when trying to sell it at a carport sale an art teacher suggests that it might be a Jackson Pollock. What ensues is a story of Teri being constantly rejected by the art world in her attempts to get her painting validated as a Pollock. A string of art experts deny its authenticity and many whom she attempts to contact will not even respond to her. Eventually, however, forensic experts become involved, turning up apparently incontrovertible proof that the painting was indeed painted by Pollock, showing that the paint is completely consistent with that which Pollock used, but more importantly that a fingerprint found on the painting was identical to fingerprints found in Pollock's studio. (In the closing credits a note tell us that an identical print to the one on the back of Teri's painting was found on an authenticated Pollock painting.) As a forensic expert says, responding to art experts who want to deny the painting's authenticity despite the powerful and apparently conclusive proof, "What is the difference between a finger print on a painting and a finger print on a murder weapon?" His point is that a fingerprint is sufficient proof to convict someone of murder, but the art world rejects such powerful proof in this instance.
What we see, in the end, is a clash of cultures. Teri is working class; in fact, poor working class. She is low brow, unsophisticated, and earthy (though quite likable). The ultimate contrast in the film is between Teri and an art expert who is a former head of MOMA, whose disdain and sense of superiority are utterly repulsive. Others in the film also reject the validity of the painting, but none are quite such horrid specimens of humanity (this individual proves that there is absolutely no connection between a deep understanding of the humanities and being a good person). The film reminded me a great deal of some of the writings of Columbia University professor Arthur Danto (with whom I was able to take a graduate seminar with as a guest professor at Yale), where he talks about the art world, which is many ways is an artificial construction. The art world dubs one painting an authentic Pollock by one set of criteria, but rejects Teri's painting as an authentic Pollock, refusing to acknowledge a competing set of criteria that is objectively convincing in a way that the subjective criteria employed by these particular critics. The art establishment is revealed as an artifact in no less way than a painting is.
My own feeling looking at the painting is that it is not a very good Jackson Pollock. It isn't as compelling as his other paintings. But I don't see how it is possible to deny its authenticity given the fingerprint. That is the sort of evidence that ought to end discussion. Creating a scenario under which someone both created a pretty convincing Pollock, including adding a finger print, seems close to impossible. In the end, what this documentary does is explain less about Pollock than it does about the world of art. Anyone interested in the art industry needs to see this film."