Disumbrationism: A Beautifully Executed Hoax
Living in Dunedin is more than playing up to, or retreating from, the classic student stereotype. Personally, I’d advocate for the latter; the former is a rather simplistic way of categorising an eclectic majority by the actions of a minority. We are part of a vibrant city with a great sense of community. We’ve got city status without getting too lost amongst it all, and infiltrating this diverse community is a bubbling art scene.
Whether it’s a miserable, grey morning, or a bright, beaming afternoon, I’m a big fan of wandering along to our lovely Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG) and having a nosy around. You’re probably wondering what this has to do with one of the most hilarious art hoaxes of the twentieth century. Fear not; I’m getting there. Whilst happily meandering around the DPAG, shoes clicking on the wood floor and eyes darting haphazardly from painting to photo to installation, I sometimes can’t help wondering: am I doing this right?
Maybe that’s a naive question. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that, doesn’t the same go for art? Isn’t art as giving, meaningful and aesthetically striking as the viewer believes? Or perhaps the artist has imparted meaning to their work in the very act of creating it – by selecting one means of expression over another and by arranging elements in a particular way.
So, can anything be art? Can you cover sheep droppings in glitter and call it art? (Can you?) Is my naive wonderment as I stroll through the DPAG any less meaningful than that of an esteemed art critic, or contemporary art aficionado, or impressionist lover, simply because I don’t have the comprehensive historical and contextual appreciation to attach to whatever is hanging on the walls, emerging from the floorboards, or taking hold of the space? I’d like to think it isn’t. I’d like to think that I can enjoy the offerings of any art gallery or great building or living room wall despite all of this. In fact, I know I do. And no one can take that away from me. But I am also acutely aware that if the disumbrationist movement was to occur today, I’d probably fall for it. The funny thing is that this great twentieth century hoax did not just fool the likes of me. It fooled the art world.
Born in Virginia in October 1885, Paul Jordan-Smith jaunted around the US from Chicago to Berkeley, becoming a writer and editor and also acting as a literary critic for The Times. In the early 1900s he developed a distaste for modern art. Some suggest that this was initially sparked by his viewing of a modern art exhibition organised by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors in 1913. Originating in New York, the large-scale exhibition was held at various locations, including the Art Institute of Chicago.
Something didn’t sit well with Jordan-Smith, however. Later, adding to his grievances, his wife’s still-life paintings failed to gain the recognition he felt they deserved. Rather than simply voicing his unimpressed views, he decided to one-up the art world and produce a few contentious works of his own.
Giving himself the exotic pseudonym Pavel Jerdanowitch, a playful twist on his real name, this disgruntled yet proactive man began painting pictures for his self-created disumbrationist movement. From 1924 onwards Jordan-Smith produced a series of works, going for a deliberately sloppy aesthetic that was loosely postimpressionist. His first attempt, “Exaltation,” won praise from the very art exhibition judges who had turned their noses up at his wife’s still-life portraits.
This crudely painted work of a Pacific Island woman holding a splaying banana peel was only the beginning. What followed was a series of works with evocative yet increasingly repetitive titles, such as “Illumination,” “Aspiration,” “Gination” and “Adoration.” In terms of quality, it doesn’t take much to appreciate that the brushstrokes are sloppy and the human depictions garish. From a purely visual perspective, it’s a straightforward judgement. But as an artistic movement that was essentially an elaborately planned, tongue-in-cheek act of protest, perhaps we should give the fictitious Jerdanowitch some credit.
In 1927 he gave up the game – perhaps he was becoming attached to his wild creations – and spilled the beans to an LA Times reporter. The article that broke the news of the hoax is a joy in itself, and the stories didn’t stop. Though told exclusively in the LA Times (a fact the publication, as proud protectors of the art world and all its pretense, boasts loudly of), spin-off stories soon appeared in New York and Boston papers.
The later reports are equally hilarious, one terming Jordan-Smith’s elaborate retaliation an act of “whimsical revenge.” It’s a spot-on description, and a cheekily appealing one too. Think about a time that someone criticised a piece of work in which you had invested time or intellect or passion. (As an aside, I’m all for criticism – I think it’s essential for self-improvement and for the cultivation of competing ideas. But I digress.) Then imagine that instead of simply adapting the work (or choosing a response from the alternative end of the scale and working yourself into a great huff), you turn it all around on whoever advanced the criticism. Imagine hearing that person say that your work is shoddy, or sloppy, or uninspiring, or lacking a deep connection with whatever wankery it’s tied to. Then, with a sassy pirouette, they turn and shower “someone else’s” work with praise, adoration and everything candy and rainbows and happy feelings. Damn, that must feel good, or at least be incredibly amusing, especially considering Jordan-Smiths’ concerted efforts to make the latter as crude as possible. I sure couldn’t do it and keep a straight face. Our dear friend “Mr Jerdanowitch” managed it for three years.
This does present an issue though, or at least something to consider. Jordan-Smith was clearly disgruntled at the lack of praise for his wife’s still-life work, and he presented something he knew to be a spoof in order to teach those pesky, know-it-all art critics a lesson. He essentially had them state that he was a genius whilst simultaneously being a nobody – in the art world at least. Aside from the humourous paradox, this does suggest that he wanted to humiliate the reviewers by getting them to contradict themselves. A pseudonym gave Jordan-Smith the ability to be judged as someone else entirey.
This makes you think about how much value (not merely in a financial sense) accrues to a work as a result of its creator’s status (or lack thereof). Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – knowledge of an artist’s life experiences might give critics reason to attach a certain kind of importance or meaning to what is presented. Artists who make a serious effort to engage with the natural landscape or pursue environmental causes in conjunction with their art might be perceived as more valuable contributors to the art world simply because they seek to challenge the human tendency to prioritise market growth over the preservation of natural resources.
When Dunedin’s not-so-faraway cousin, Aramoana, was threatened with the introduction of an aluminium smelter in the late 1970s, a campaign was launched to save the small, quietly picturesque town, renowned for its surf and long sandspit. Based nearby, the late Ralph Hotere participated in the debate with a series of paintings entitled Aramoana. For clarity, I’m not drawing a link between Hotere and disumbrationism (although they do share one similarity: they got people talking – for different reasons, of course). My point is that Hotere’s connection with the land and the issues at hand made him a valuable contributor to this debate, and the work he produced reflected this connection.
The oddly amusing legacy of Jordan-Smith lives on, in the most poetic way possible. Each year, on the very appropriate date of 1 April, online entries close for the “International Pavel Jerdanowitch Painting Contest.” At the beginning of September, a winner is announced, rated between 0 and 1 on the “badness” scale. The 2013 winner was what appears to be a Microsoft Paint-created bear spitting out rainbow saliva and hurtling into oblivion on a concrete block, with a dijion mustard-hued background. Named “Childhood is already not what it was,” it is a delicious pile of confusion that I had to love for its unashamed ugliness.
Other recent entries bear disturbingly pretentious titles such as “The solitude of transcendental consciousness.” This particular work echoes one of those screensavers that are showered with a rainbow of colours and feature endless tubes moving furiously but in no particular direction. Then there is the incredibly un-inspiring “Woman-butterfly,” which was a drab disappointment despite the promise of its title; “Dance” – an offence to crayon lovers worldwide; “A Cat in a Necklace,” which is self-explanatory, really; and “A perfect math at the end of a short rope,” which is as unintelligble in meaning as its name suggests.
Perhaps one of the greatest elements of the competition is the criteria for disqualification – namely, the demonstration of any “glimmerings of actual ability” in an entry. (That said, some entries have still scraped through, despite such glimmerings, because they are just that terrible.) Those who come out on “top” are awarded titles such as Loser, Underloser or Vice Loser.
Whilst the computer-generated entries find it easy demonstrate a total lack of skill, some of the oil paintings, pastels and pencil sketches consistently display a shadow of potential. I knew once I started to question whether these heinously executed pictures were truly lacking 100 per cent in artistic merit that I had to close my web browser – not because I doubted my grip on reality (though you’d be wise not to ask me to judge any art-related contest), but because I deliriously thought that I could beat these people at their own game. My artistic ability is one completely devoid of any technical skill, and in terms of content, I tend to doodle cats and plates of spaghetti.
This supposed logic, however, is fundamentally flawed. You don’t have to be a talented novelist to appreciate literary greats, or be able to seamlessly strum a guitar to have a love of music. I love books and music, but I’m no novelist and my singing even sounds abysmal in the shower.
Though talent may well translate into an ability to appreciate, it’s not a prerequisite. And an ability to appreciate something that explores not just the black and white of the world but the shades of grey in between is always going to be clouded by preconceived notions of what “art” or “literature” or “music” is, and normative judgments of what it should be. This brings us back to Jordan-Smith’s tale of “whimsical revenge.” The art critics saw little value in his wife’s portraits, yet applauded that which was trying to be anything but artistic.
But for all of its crudeness and obvious digs at the art world, the disumbrationist movement got people talking. It started a discourse, it slyly made fun of pretentious reviewers and it is still remembered today. It may not be high culture, but it is part of the conversation. Often what something “is” is in part defined by what it is “not.” Disumbrationism is the “not.”
Art builds upon ideas. It draws influence. Art can ask questions and provoke debate. But it also has a special quality about it; an aesthetic quality, though perhaps that’s even too narrow a definition. Disumbrationism might not fit our idea of what art is, or should be. But by goodness, it’s damn funny. I’ll settle for that, and continue to drift around the DPAG, without an air of pretension and without a clue, and just enjoy the art.