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Stamping Out a Cultural Icon

Elaine Y. Wan

Jackson Pollock, the famed representative of abstract expressionism, will be featured on the new 33-cent stamp to be unveiled on February 18 by the United States Postal Service. Dressed in paint-stained denim, Pollock is pictured in the process of dripping the final touches to his work. But fifty years after his picture was taken, Pollock's idiosyncratic lip-hanging cigarette has been removed digitally for the stamp.

In its elaborate campaign to discourage smoking, the federal government has banned images of "Joe Camel" with cigarettes, smoking in airplanes and buildings, and now it has omitted from stamps the smoking habits of famous artists like Pollock. The image and history of artisans and musicians have been altered by the government in order to produce role models that suit society's expectations.

The image of Jackson Pollock taken from a 1949 Life magazine photograph was chosen to honor Pollock's contribution to abstract expressionism as part of the Postal Service's "Celebrate the Century" stamp series, a recognition of famous people, historical and cultural events, and invention in particular decades. The image was modified to produce a non-smoking and no longer bald-headed Pollock. This was done to honor Pollock and inspire fledgling artists while holding ground on discouraging cigarette smoke. But how can we motivate aspiring artists when we don't tell them the truth about their role models?

The truth is that Pollock, like many geniuses and famous people, was not perfect. Pollock was a chain smoker, bald-headed, and once hospitalized for mental instability. To strip Pollock of his cigarette would be like taking away the character-defining cigar from Sigmund Freud. Would you replace Freud's cigar with a fat pencil? If paint-dripped denim became a symbol of stigmatism and uncleanliness fifty years later, would we replace Pollock's attire with a shirt, slacks and a tie? The distorted new image of Pollock is hardly noticeable on the corner of a letter envelope but it demonstrates our society's expectations of famous people.

The media, or in this case, the government has shaped celebrities and geniuses to be perfect cherubs molded from a successful career, a happy nuclear family, and a directed childhood. Movie stars are born from super models and superstars. Prodigies are the result of gene inheritance from parents who are college professors and doctors. Unfortunately, this is never the case. Great people, like Newton and Monet, were no different from the rest of us until their exceptional talents were discovered by talented predecessors within their field. Most people recognize that Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and Hemingway were great contributors to the arts. However, few people are aware that they were plagued by mental disorders which may have fueled their creativity. Pollock is no exception.

Pollock was known by his friends as a "wild man" and a great artist. He was unique because he conquered social pressure and the pseudo-cultural dogma of his time to experiment and create art conjured from cans of enamel, tubes of color, aluminum and paint drippings that were swirled together by his quick wrist movements to weave lines across the canvas. His art has been reviewed as full of life and at times violent. While contemporary artists were trying to commercialize their works on middle class values and the viewing public inspected paintings with magnifying glasses, Pollock rampaged on his own style. He realized that the point of art, the real reason for painting, was to search for truth within individual expression and not to conform to standards.

Fans of Pollock's works of art admire him as an artist of genius and creativity, not as a smoker. When we view a picture of Pollock smoking and painting, our focus is not on his cigarette but on his paintbrush. However, we do acknowledge that the ash-shedding cigarette was a crucial part of his image and his the shaping of his character.

People who are beginning to learn of Pollock's contribution will also realize that it is his talent and not his smoking which makes his works captivating. To change the public's image of Pollock by tampering with his picture would be disrespectful and demeaning to his fans and dishonest to those would like to know Pollock as a person.

Elaine Y. Wan's column appears each Tuesday.