In the eye of the beholder

Marketplace Staff Jan 30, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Art experts at Harvard University said this week three of 32 Jackson Pollock paintings discovered a couple of years ago might not actually be Jackson Pollock paintings. But that doesn’t mean the argument’s over. Some of Pollock’s biggest canvasses go for north of $100 million. So you can see this is a big deal. But commentator Lawrence Krauss says any stab at the valuation of artistic genius can be tricky.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Jackson Pollock’s paintings are so popular that a mere rumor is enough to conjure millions.

Just consider one Saudi art collector who recently offered a truck driver $9 million to buy what the driver claimed was an original Pollock she had bought at a thrift shop for just $5.

Now, how can you place that kind of value on works that resemble the pattern left on a housepainter’s drop cloth?

Well, there’s no accounting for taste. But some scientists claim the splotches contain unparalleled beauty that translates into mathematical terms.

Several years ago, one group published a paper in the journal Nature claiming that Pollock’s artistic genius resulted in precise drips that produced a mathematically recognizable pattern.

It’s called a fractal: A complex pattern that can be subdivided into zillions of parts.

When you look up close, each of those parts turns out to be a miniature version of the whole pattern all over again.

Now, back in 2005, the son of one of Pollock’s close friends discovered 32 drip paintings in a closet with a note claiming Pollock painted them in the 1940s.

That same group of scientists examined it. And the group said, Oops, no, the paintings didn’t possess this rare mathematical characteristic.

That altered the likely market value of the paintings by perhaps $100 million.

But just last month, yet another paper published in Nature challenged whether the claim about Pollocks and fractals was even true, much less distinctive. It stated that several childlike sketches drawn by one of the authors appeared to satisfy the criteria that had been claimed to distinguish Pollock from mere mortals.

So forget scientific determinations of genius and, therefore, of value.

The old standby, “I don’t know if its art, but I like it” is just as likely to be useful in determining whether to spend millions of dollars for drips on a canvas.

RYSSDAL: Lawrence Krauss is a physicist at Case Western Reserve University.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.