This week, we welcome Princess Kate to the staff as the resident art expert.  I am subject of her realm – on more than one occasion, I have dropped to my knees awaiting her command.  (OK, maybe I was actually just running cables to her computer).  Without futher ado, Princess Kate …

As a child of the eighties who spent a sizable amount of my formative years watching television with my grandmother, I have vivid memories of Bob Ross’s PBS program The Joy of Painting. It must be said that my grandmother only got three channels on her 1970s-era set, so it was either Bob Ross or local news. However, I was always quickly entranced by the dulcet tones of the “happy trees” artist (his rockin’ white-man ‘fro was mesmerizing in its own way). Not an artist myself, his natural way with brush and paint was impressive, and the resulting paintings, to my five-year old eyes, were masterworks.

Twenty-odd years later, I gained both a BA and MA in art history, traveled to Italy, France, Germany, and Turkey during the course of my research, and saw many of what are considered to be the greatest artworks in the world. In the course of all the newly-acquired “high art” knowledge, I forgot all about dear Bob Ross and his “happy trees” until a friend jokingly asked about the topic of my MA thesis. “Bob Ross, right? The ‘happy clouds’ guy?” Although my first response was derisive laughter, his sass-pot suggestion did get me thinking about where artists like Bob Ross fell in the accepted artistic canon.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the art world knows that Bob Ross paintings aren’t considered “high art,” or even “art.” They don’t hang next to Renoir’s in world-renown museums and don’t come up for auction at Christie’s for record-setting amounts. Bob Ross himself once said:

I’ve never claimed that this is investment art. When we first started out, all the art colleges and universities across the country would sort of badmouth what we were doing.

I was initially attracted to art history because of my fascination with man’s drive to create. As soon as our ancestors became recognizably human, they began to make pictures – scratched on the walls of caves, carved into rocks, traced in the mud. Even today, the meaning of these images can only be guessed at – magical images meant to ensure a successful hunt, symbols pertaining to fertility or a prodigious harvest – any number of options. What is known is that humans are alone in their urge to create art – to paint, to draw, to sculpt. The drive to create aesthetic objects that operate as conduits for emotion is one of the surprisingly few characteristics that are specific to man. Leo Tolstoy (author of such light reads as Anna Karenina and War and Peace) once wrote that, “If the spectators or audience are infected by the feelings that the author felt, it is art.” Although this view if not what is taught in most classical art history programs, it has always stuck with me as my personal belief about what art really is.

To me, then, there is no line drawn between high and low art, because, if the work translates the artist’s feelings and intention, then it is ART. So Bob Ross paintings and those done by his followers, while not generally seen as being on par with Raphael’s Vatican Stanze or Monet’s views of Rouen Cathedral, still communicate emotion to their viewer. Bob Ross’s programs were so full of happiness that they were one rainbow cupcake away from being a Care Bears special, and I dare you to look at one of his paintings (or a homemade copy thereof), and not feel the pure joy of existence that they communicate. Even if a homemade copy is blurred and features an abnormally large, oddly phallic-looking tree (anyone familiar with Bob Ross will remember that he was a committed advocate of “the big tree”), there is emotion there – whether the infectious happiness of Bob Ross or something more subtle, like hope or wistfulness.

My main point, which, blessedly, allowed me to reference two of my favorite things (white man afros and Tolstoy) is that I want this column to consider all human creations equally, regardless of where they fall in the accepted artistic canon.

And so it begins.

 

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Princess Kate writes a monthly column about the art word.

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