Selling Iowa’s Pollock

After the University of Iowa was severely damaged by floods in June, a novel way of paying for the damage was mooted: selling Mural, the great Pollock in the university’s art museum. It didn’t take long for arts blogger Tyler Green to lead the charge against the idea, calling on museum directors around the country and even Iowa’s governor to denounce the sale before it was even a realistic possibility. The governor duly did what was expected of him:

Governor Culver believes the University of Iowa’s Jackson Pollock 1943 Mural is a treasure that belongs to the people of Iowa, for the people of Iowa, and should be preserved for future generations of Iowans.

He’s right. And Jeff Fleming, the director of the Des Moines Art Center, is right too that "the citizens of Des Moines, the citizens within the state of Iowa have just as much right as citizens on the right coast or the left coast to experience the art of our time".

All the same, some paintings belong not to "the people of Iowa" so much as to the people of the world, and belong in a world-class collection. Which, frankly, the University of Iowa Museum of Art isn’t.

Remember that the idea was never to simply sell Mural off to the highest bidder; it was to sell it to another museum. And I’m pretty sure there’s more than one major US institution which could rustle up a nine-figure sum pretty much overnight if the painting were to come on the market.

One of the reasons that contemporary art goes for such huge sums at auction is that nearly all the major art of the past is now in museums and therefore can’t be bought for any sum. But there’s a corollary to that well-known fact, which is that some of the greatest paintings of all time have washed up in relative backwaters which don’t and can’t do them justice.

Remember David Galenson’s list of the greatest artworks of the 20th Century? Mural wasn’t on it; the Desmoiselles were at #1. And as Marion Maneker pointed out in the comments, part of the reason why the Picasso is so undeniably great is that "MoMA has spent nearly 70 years making it so".

Mural and the Desmoiselles are actually quite similar: both were painted by young artists who were about to break into the big time. Both are large, raw, ambitious, stunning works which revealed a vision capable of changing the course of art history. And while both lack the elegance and beauty of some of the painter’s later pieces, they more than make up for that in their sheer insistent power and determination to be heard.

All of which is to say that if Mural had ended up in MoMA rather than UIMA, it would probably at this point be generally considered to be the greatest American painting of all time. As it is, it’s described as being worth an "estimated $100 million" (which wouldn’t even get you an opening bid on such a work in today’s market) and as "one of the half-dozen greatest Pollocks". Nothing to be ashamed of there, but I do get the impression that being hidden away in Iowa has not done Mural any art-historical favors.

Indiana Jones, when he sees a priceless treasure, always says that it belongs in a museum. But not all museums are equal, and there’s surely a case to be made that the greatest of the great masterworks belong in museums which are worthy of them, rather than in small university collections.

Mural will, in fact, be arriving at MoMA in 2010, on temporary loan from Iowa. It will consort there with its peers, and take its rightful place in the art-historical pantheon. And then it will go back to the midwest, whence it came, out of sight and far off the beaten track.

This isn’t a numbers game: I don’t think that Mural should be in New York (or Washington, or Chicago, or LA) because it will be seen by more people there. This is rather about the obligation that we collectively have to preserve and honor and celebrate humanity’s greatest artistic achievements in the most condign manner.

Mural doesn’t belong to "the people of Iowa" — it belongs to nobody, or to everybody. Maybe the critics of a sale should stop thinking in terms of "forced deaccessioning" and start thinking in terms of a great donation by the people of Iowa to the people of America more generally. And as a gesture of thanks I’m sure it would be quite easy to help out the people of Iowa with a couple of hundred million dollars to put towards fixing their flood damage.

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