What Google Cannot Tell You About Robert Motherwell

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City — my favorite museum in the world, free, expansive, loving, full of a cool caritas that welcomes silence and frequent viewing and a civic sense of mutual ownership of the art—will put on an exhibition titled Pollock and Motherwell in July 2o17. Without reading the description of the exhibition (which I haven’t, for the purpose of this essay), one might assume it is Pollock vs Motherwell, in the Heavyweight Bout of the Recent Mid-Century. Or perhaps it’s being put up to either cast Pollock’s pop culture shadow on Motherwell or remove the latter from it.

As far as I can tell, American culture hinges on movies. American cinema canonizes the Important, and Pollock was easily canonized across the country by being played by Ed Harris two decades ago. Has a film been made about Motherwell? Not yet.

My somewhat cynical thought is that one cannot put on an exhibition of just Robert Motherwell. That would be bad for ticket sales.

But pair Motherwell with a misunderstood and beloved American icon, one who represents individualism and interior despotism in the face of capitalistic ennui, and they’ll come for the Pollock but stay for the Motherwell. Good marketing.

Motherwell challenges ideas of “what is art,” especially if his works are taken out of the contexts of “his life,” “his America,” “his aesthetic,” and/or “his ouevre.” But those of us who rely upon museums to see art are at a disadvantage: we knowledge and understanding often come from 1) seeing a single work or maybe two and 2) from the slight, received wisdom of placards, nicely typeset, succinct for 21st century attention spans, dutiful, flat. This is insufficient. Context Lite. Placards don’t really help us understand why the hell should we care about Robert Motherwell, especially when the artwork in question looks like this:

Elegy to the Spanish Republic #132 1975–85, © Dedalus Foundation, Inc/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2017

I spent an entire essay titled Human Eyes and Google Eyes on the How To Like Art website considering this question from the side, in the context of what we see and what Google sees, but that wasn’t exactly comprehensive.

I had only asked one question, but there are countless more to ask, and asking is all we can do when facing mysteries.

Enter Google, Almanac of the 21st Century

We rely on Google for information, which is to say we rely on Google for understanding. And enough understanding, we are told, will eventually lead to wisdom which, we are also told, is a state of mind in which we finally understand that we never understood in the first place. But Google can’t help us understand. Only other humans can. Or Nature. Take your pick.

This brings us to the paradox: Google can lead us to human beings who have written publicly about our single question, but Google cannot become the human being capable of experiencing the question.

This sets us curious ones up for an accidental delusion: the linear, non-hypertextual nature of Google creates a straight line from question to “answer,” but when the question asks not for information but for understanding, the risk of feeling like “Oh, okay, I get it now” is too great. We are easily satisfied by the answers proffered by one or two top ranked search results.

Google is great as a reference utility, but understanding has nothing to do with dictionaries, encyclopedias, tourist guides, how-to’s, tips from experts, or op ed pieces in the newspaper of your choice. Each of those text types offer up atoms that sometimes make molecules, but never create the organism itself. Understanding evolves as contact increases and experience accumulates. This is why it’s fun to be a curious human.

So what questions can Google not answer?

  • Why is Motherwell any good?
  • Why should I care about Robert Motherwell?
  • Is Robert Motherwell an important artist?
  • What does “important” mean?
  • What relationship does Motherwell have to Jackson Pollock?

It’s that last question that makes an exhibition of Pollock v Motherwell critical to understanding. I doubt that the curators intend to answer the question fully, because that is impossible. Only a scholar alive during the Middle Ages could truly believe it would be possible. But the exhibition will at least offer up an experience of the works of these two artists in such a way that questions can continue to be asked, all based off a new foundation carefully constructed for the expansion of the mind and the elevation of a perhaps unwilling spirit.

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