Art in Textbooks

David Galenson has a list of the greatest works of art of the 20th Century. The Demoiselles are in top place, which is reasonable enough. But the list gets rather screwy after that: Tatlin’s model of his unbuilt Monument to the Third International is at number two, and at number four is Richard Hamilton, of all people, with his collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?. Meanwhile, there’s no Johns flag, no Pollock splatter painting, no Warhol anything.

There are two big reasons for the screwy results, both related to Galenson’s methodology: he simply lists the works most illustrated in textbooks.

As a result, he’s overweight "one-hit wonders". If you want to represent a Johns flag or a Warhol Marilyn, you have a few to choose from, so no one painting is likely to make the Galenson list. On the other hand, if you want to represent Tatlin, you’re basically forced to go with that model: there’s nothing else.

Even that’s not enough to explain the presence of the Hamilton in fourth place, however. Yes, it can be seen as early Pop — but it can just as easily be seen as late and derivative Surrealism. I’ve actually seen it, and it’s decidedly underwhelming in real life. But it’s developed a life of its own as an illustration: it looks great in textbooks. You can’t see how small it is; you can’t see the amateurish cut-and-pasting, or the pieces of old magazines peeling away. Instead, you see a much more coherent and perfect artwork: almost as if Hamilton was anticipating Photoshop.

If I were putting together a collection of great Pop art, I would never include this piece. But if I were putting together a book of great Pop art, I’d include it in a heartbeat. It’s become an instantly-recognizable icon, to the point at which the Modern Review, a cultural-studies journal founded by Toby Young and Julie Burchill, decided to remix it for their inaugural cover in 1991. But that doesn’t make it great.

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