When photographer Hans Namuth visited Jackson Pollock’s studio to document his painting process, he arrived to find Pollock standing over a massive wet canvas lying across the floor. At the time, Pollock was a leading artist in the abstract expressionist movement, a post-World War II style in which artists often used non-representational forms to convey emotional intensity. Pollock had promised to start a new painting for the photo session but had finished before Namuth arrived. As they were standing there, however, Pollock suddenly picked up his brush again, as if sensing the painting was still incomplete. For the next half an hour, Namuth watched through the lens of his camera as Pollock threw, flung, and dripped paint in a rhythmic trance before pronouncing the painting done. Awed, Namuth later reflected upon the significance of Pollock’s work, noting how he had “managed to free line not only from its function of representing objects in the world, but also from its task of describing or bounding shapes or figures, whether abstract or representational” (Karmel 132). Art critic Harold Rosenberg agreed with Namuth, describing the style as a “gesture of liberation from value—political, aesthetic, moral” (Rosenberg 22).
But what does the viewer contemplating One: Number 31, 1950 at the Museum of Modern Art see? Standing in front of a canvas that is nearly nine by eighteen feet, covered with a splattering of different colored paints any three year old could do, does he see the same meaning, the same significance? And why has Pollock’s work, or the work of the abstract expressionists in general, been so successful when it is simultaneously so simplistic and so indefinable? One set of possible answers to these questions can be found in the realm of science. The recognition Pollock’s paintings have achieved can be explained by the theory of memes proposed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. The field of memetics, an application of the evolutionary concepts behind genetics, studies the transfer of ideas from person to person and what makes a meme, or a particular idea, successful (Dawkins 192). As compared to a conversation between two people, in which ideas are normally conveyed clearly and directly, a painting is an indirect form of communication that requires more interpretation to understand. Dawkins’ theory allows for a new level of understanding of abstract impressionists like Pollock.
Abstract expressionists employ a means of communication where the idea expressed is not always abundantly clear and the merit of the technical skill demonstrated is debatable. Even so, the style achieved a high status in accordance with the characteristics defined by Dawkins as crucial to a meme’s success (and, not coincidentally, to a gene’s success). The first quality is longevity: the ability to persist through time (Dawkins 194). Just like Dawkins’ example of a certain tune surviving in written form and in peoples’ minds, so too are the works of Pollock ensured longevity (Dawkins 194). In addition to his actual paintings hanging in art museums around the world, the number of people who have at least a basic concept of Pollock’s work greatly exceeds the number of people who have actually seen one of his paintings in real life. The most novice art student has at least an elementary knowledge of Pollock’s style, and many members of non-artistic circles are familiar with his paintings due to their cultural presence. The physical and conceptual persistence of Pollock’s work, even decades after the artist’s death, proves the unlikelihood of its “dying out” as long as art continues to hold its traditional level of importance in the individual and cultural realms.
In addition to longevity, Dawkins proposes fecundity, or the ability to propagate and spread, as critical to a meme’s survival; drawing a parallel to genes, memes are described as replication machines whose level of success is determined by how well they can reproduce themselves (Dawkins 194). An extremely literal interpretation of this principle can be applied to the work of Pollock, since countless replications of his paintings exist. The sense of the evolutionary impulse present in much of Dawkins’ case studies comes across here since the spread of a meme is directly related to its sense of worth or value for those receiving it. For example, Dawkins proposes that for a scientific meme, “its spread will depend on how acceptable it is to the population of individual scientists” (Dawkins 194). Taking this into consideration, the far-reaching presence of Pollock’s work in both artistic and non-artistic circles serves as direct testimony to a positive reception of his paintings. The doubting critic, perhaps a fan of classical art, must recognize that Pollock’s work has at least a certain degree of success solely based on the popularity his work has achieved.
Longevity and fecundity aside, the most interesting application of memetics to abstract expressionism lies in the final quality of a successful meme: copying-fidelity (Dawkins 194). On this point, Dawkins himself is rather ambiguous, stretching his definition of the term in order to make it work. In the field of genetics, copying-fidelity is the ability of a gene to replicate itself accurately, thus ensuring its own perpetuation instead of any variation (Dawkins 17). In the field of memetics, this idea does not seem to translate, since the transfer of an idea from person to person alters its definition based on each individual perception and interpretation. Dawkins eventually reconciles this with the assertion that “differences in the ways that people represent [the meme] are then, by definition, not part of the meme” (Dawkins 196). This explanation, however, does not seem fully sufficient. In order to explore the validity of copying-fidelity to memes, it is necessary to temporarily ignore a strict adherence to the gene-meme analogy. While similarities abound, genes and memes do in fact differ greatly in their natures. Genes are essentially assigned and limited to the individual; memes, on the other hand, have a greater element of choice and by definition concern the interaction between people. Allowing for this difference, a reflection on the success of abstract expressionism offers a new alternative to the quality of copying-fidelity: adaptability.
It is necessary for abstract expressionism to have an element of adaptability. Standing in front of One: Number 31, 1950, it is difficult to know precisely what Pollock had in mind when he was painting—what idea he was trying to express. As the painting represents nothing distinguishable, it leaves itself open to any interpretation. Within it, some people see the “nervous intensity of the modern city” while others perceive the “primal rhythms of nature” (“One: Number 31, 1950”). With this artist-viewer interaction in mind, it is reasonable to ask if a painting is successful if the viewer has a different interpretation than the one intended by the artist. The answer in the affirmative provides adaptability as a key to success. For Pollock, the act of creation was sufficient unto itself. As an action painter, he was concerned with the actual process of painting, the play between what he could control and what he could not, and the relationship that unfolded between the artist and what he built upon the canvas (Rosenberg 22). As such, the intrinsic meaning of the painting essentially lies in its interpretation—what the viewer can get out of it on a personal level. With this logic, the greater potential a painting has for multiple interpretations, the greater potential it has for meaning.
Bringing this concept back to the field of memetics, the quality of copying-fidelity is no longer appropriate as an attribute of success. In the world of art, copying-fidelity would be comparable to a single interpretation of a painting. This form of accuracy would thus limit the painting’s accessibility to viewers, as there is practically no concept to which everyone can relate. Alternatively, a certain degree of adaptability leaves the opportunity for everyone to find something they like. A meme need no longer be only a replication machine; now, it should serve the dual purpose of being an adaptation machine. Accuracy becomes secondary to flexibility, perfection secondary to reflection. A meme able to adapt to a wide variety of people and mindsets holds a higher chance of survival. This new tool additionally reflects back on the original quality of longevity: adaptation ensures the capacity for evolutionary modernization, thus preventing a meme from becoming antiquated. As long as a meme offers multiple interpretations, each generation can find a new and appropriate understanding of it, ensuring its longevity. While adaptations in genetics are detrimental to an individual gene’s survival, adaptations in memetics appear to be a tool much more useful than copying-fidelity. In this way, Dawkins’ theory can be modified based on the success associated with the idea of adaptability in the world of abstract expressionism.
For the most skeptical of critics, the application of Dawkins’ quality for a successful meme to the artist-viewer relationship may not be enough to explain to him why abstract expressionism has garnered its level of popularity and acclaim. What may enlighten him, however, is a secondary level of memetics that extends to the interaction among artist, viewer, and society. When considering the success of the abstract expressionist movement, it is important to ask not only why Pollock was successful, but why he was successful beyond other abstract expressionists. In an extremely subjective style, why does the unassuming viewer find Pollock’s work superior to the work of any similar, lesser-known artist? It is perhaps because a sense of its worth or value is conveyed on a memetic level beyond the communication of the painting itself.
Once again, consider the man standing in front of One: Number 31, 1950. Not only is he forming his own interpretation of the piece, but he is subconsciously processing the external opinion that the painting has merit. He knows well-versed art critics have viewed the work before him and pronounced it valid and meaningful; the mere fact that the painting is hanging in a world-renowned museum must mean it has significance. In this manner, the collective of “society” propagates the meme that the painting is good, which in turn influences how the viewer receives the meme communication from the artist and the painting itself. The result is a highly interactive and complex system in which memetics function. A new importance arises for the memes of memes, the societal concepts inextricably attached to any given idea or theory. Such a development reintroduces the evolutionary practice of competition that underlies Dawkins’ studies. In order for one meme to rise above another, it is beneficial for it to have, in additional to its own merit, an external sense of worth, just as Pollock’s art has attained its level of fame as much from the societal sense that it is high-quality art as from its actual artistic value. In the world of art as in the world of memes, communication is not a two-way interaction but rather a perpetual exchange between various sources expressing and modifying each other.
The subject of great dispute, abstract expressionism has secured a place in art history despite heavy criticism. Often, viewers feel alienated by the seemingly random and meaningless images lying before them, and, walking through a modern art museum, one can often hear, “I could have done that,” quietly muttered. Be that as it may, abstract expressionists like Pollock have achieved great levels of success, sometimes to the bewilderment of non-artists and artists alike. Applying Dawkins’ theory of memetics to the style, however, offers a rational and practical examination of what aspects caused abstract expressionism to flourish and why it functions as a thriving artistic movement. While art will always evoke varying opinions of merit, approaching abstract expressionism from the scientific perspective of memetics can provide an understanding if not an appreciation of the presence of artists like Pollock in the unfolding history of artistic expression.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1976: 17, 192,194, 196.
Karmel, Pepe, ed. Jackson Pollock: Key Interviews, Articles, and Reviews. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999: 132.
“One: Number 31, 1950.” MoMA.org / The Collection / Jackson Pollock. 2007. The Museum of Modern Art. http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=78386(accessed 23 September 2007)
Rosenberg, Harold. “The American Action Painters.” Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952: 22.