The idea of bringing something to the masses, teaching everyone “the tricks,” and demystifying expertise is quintessentially American. It rises from inveterate anti-elitism, and it is based on the assumption that anyone can master anything, if only he or she would just go ahead and try it. Talent, skill, prerequisites, specialist training, and the proverbial ten thousand hours are but fictions, conspiratorially put in place by snobby and arbitrary gatekeepers. Only two things matter: trying and feeling good.
During the last century, this idea of mass accessibility was applied to, among other things, cuisine, sexual intimacy, and art-making. “How-to” manuals proliferated, their titles presenting all kinds of activities as, above all, enjoyable. The public devoured them. The Joy of Cooking has been continuously in print since 1936 and has sold over eighteen million copies and The Joy of Sex spent eleven weeks at the top of The New York Times bestseller list when it came out in 1972. And Bob Ross’s TV program The Joy of Painting, originally broadcast on PBS from 1983 to 1994, ran for over four hundred shows and was streamed by Twitch.tv to a viewership of five and a half million in 2015.
But whereas the logic of numbers supported the popularity of manuals on how to make food and how to make love, the viral spread of The Joy of Painting seems less rational. After all, unlike food and sex, painting is not a decisive factor in the survival of the human species. But perhaps joy is; and joy and the promise of happiness, apparently, can be acquired through painting the “happy clouds” and the “happy trees.” Looking back at the testimonials of the show’s fans, two intersecting factors seem to account for the baffling success of the program: Ross’s presentation style and the populist promise of swift progress in mastering one of the most demanding and time-intensive activities known to man.
The first factor had to do with the host’s spot-on branding. Bob Ross capitalized on the implied relationship with the hugely popular Joy of Sex by subtly sexualizing his on-camera behavior. The black velvet backdrop was perfect for creating a sensation of intimacy, and went well with the host’s distinctively soothing boudoir voice. Ross actually said that in teaching painting on TV he pretended to be talking to a woman in bed. Then there was the trademark perm hairdo, which, together with the scruffy beard, made Ross a doppelgänger of the male model in the first edition of The Joy of Sex. Even his beating of the “mighty brush” on the easel base might have had to do less with getting rid of excess pigment than with an unapologetic display of virility. The sexual signals throughout the show might have been subliminal, but they were unmistakable.
According to Bob Ross, joy and the promise of happiness can be acquired through painting the “happy clouds” and the “happy trees.”
The second factor was the idea of oil painting’s ostensible ease and accessibility. The opening statement of the first episode was unequivocal: “There is an artist hidden at the bottom of every single one of us. . . . We want to show how to bring this artist out, to put it on canvas.” Ross’s goal was to demonstrate, in real time, step by step, that anyone could be an artist by simply painting a landscape. Each thirty-minute episode was an on-camera presentation, and, by the end of it, Ross and those who followed his directions had a finished canvas in front of them. That made them artists.
Of course, the shows were pre-recorded, which allowed for a few sleights of hand. Ross mentally rehearsed each brushstroke the night before. And although the process as seen on television had an air of spontaneity, Ross actually prepared “reference” paintings for each show, to be used in the close-ups. These looked much more finished than those produced during the show. All this was hidden from the viewers, who were presented with a simplified set of instructions, with no details on such trifles as composition, color, or brushwork. The show made painting appear easy because it presented technique not as a cumulative buildup of knowledge and skill, but as a random collection of “tricks.” And since it was not a proper course in painting, any audience member could join at any moment, without “missing” the fundamentals.
Such oversimplification, unthinkable in a regular academic setting, was the perfect message for the medium to which it was applied. Television is not known for its concern with veracity, so the magical result of creating something out of nothing would not ruffle any feathers, as long as it was not in “real life.” And the show was light years away from real life. When it first aired in January of 1983, Artforum was focusing its attention on Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, Joel Shapiro, and Keith Haring, none of whom were doing anything remotely traditional. Against this background, Ross’s bucolic landscapes were too outmoded to even count as camp. They were pure kitsch, nearly half a century after Clement Greenberg sentenced kitsch to oblivion. Because ersatz art is extra-cultural in principle, these landscapes had no chance of gracing museum walls. Ross admitted as much to an ecstatic Phil Donahue in an interview on the eponymous, and then famous, TV show. Museums were not his goal; “trying to teach people that anybody can [paint]” was.
There is no reason to doubt Bob Ross’s sincerity. His purpose was indeed to spread the joy of painting. That is why television was the perfect medium for his message. Ross’s paintings—the artifacts produced during his televised performances, like the “reference” paintings done in advance, were never shown in galleries, or sold to collectors during his lifetime. Even to the painter himself, their “aura” counted for nothing. Ross donated them to help the fundraising efforts of the public television stations on which his program aired.
Bob Ross was not the first person to teach oil painting on television. While he was still in the military in Alaska in the mid-1970s, he saw a German-born painter, Bill Alexander, demonstrate the alla prima (or as Alexander called it “wet-on-wet”) technique in his Magic of Oil Painting show, which broadcast on California PBS stations from 1972 to 1982. Bob Ross befriended Alexander, and his own subsequent appearance on television was partly a result of the niche opening in the market after the older painter’s retirement. But Alexander lacked Ross’s performance skills (and sex appeal). His presentation was simply about teaching the “tricks,” whereas his protégé offered viewers more than just painting. Bob Ross the man became Bob Ross the brand—so much so that long after he tired of his chemically-enhanced coiffure, Ross continued to sacrifice his true appearance to his image, subjugating himself to the “symbolic code.”
Ross’s purpose was indeed to spread the joy of painting. That is why television was the perfect medium for his message.
And now there is a call to reexamine the art historical significance of Ross’s oeuvre. A recent Wall Street Journal article declared “a renaissance for Bob Ross,” announcing that his “fans want the Joy of Painting host to have a spot in art history.” This demand is not a joke, an effete conceptual gesture, or a contrarian statement. It is an earnest attempt to expand the criteria for admission to the canon to include what is essentially documentation of performances. Except that the advocates of including Ross’s painting in the annals of art history do not see him as the performer and educator that he was; they see him as a genuine landscape artist whose work merits recognition on its own terms. This revisionism is a way to adjust the art historical canon to the new reality, in which middlebrow status is no longer an automatic disqualifier. The argument cites the inclusion of such formerly dismissed genres as video and graffiti art. And the logic behind it is not altogether flawed: after all, why should kitsch be excluded as “bad art” when even respectable art institutions use all manner of supra-aesthetic criteria, ranging from identity to social acuity, in their choice of artists to curate? When meritocratic judgment has been replaced with such peripheral considerations, are there any valid reasons to keep Bob Ross from being written into art history as a renowned late-twentieth-century American landscape painter?
I think there are. When, in the 1930s, Clement Greenberg bemoaned the encroachment of kitsch, his concern was with the danger to the very survival of culture. He believed the avant-garde, which he opposed to kitsch, was the only living culture of the time, and he worried about the loss of connection between the avant-garde and its rich and cultivated audiences. He recognized that despite its aspirations to independence, the “living culture” of his day was still attached to the elite “by an umbilical cord of gold.” He saw their mutual dependence as a real paradox. Television had reconfigured the relationship between artists and audiences. The pursuit of exclusivity and refinement gave way to producing cultural commodities with the widest possible appeal, enlisting along the way everything that could intensify that appeal: sexualized and formulaic presentation, “relatable” subjects, and the promise of quick success in a rarified activity.
Television had reconfigured the relationship between artists and audiences.
Within a year of Ross’s show premiering on PBS, the New York University Professor of Media Ecology Neil Postman addressed this very phenomenon of television’s corrupting influence on culture in his monograph Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), a scathing analysis of trends involving new media. His overarching argument had to do with the insidious effects that passive entertainment through television (as opposed to reading or debating) had on American society. He predicted nothing less than “culture-death,” and he believed that happy mindlessness, rather than totalitarian control, would deliver the fatal blow to culture in the United States—which, only two centuries previously, had been the most literate country in the world. Postman’s nightmare was not Orwellian surveillance dystopia, but a Huxleyan entertainment utopia in which people were controlled by the pleasure they were forever seeking:
When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people becomes an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.
It is impossible to know for sure what Postman’s take on The Joy of Painting would have been. When he wrote his book, the show was only running on Virginia and Indiana PBS stations. Most likely he was not even aware of it. But based on Postman’s criticism of talk shows for discouraging reflection, of news programs for inculcating emotional passivity (a necessary trait for processing interspersed imagery of cruelty and cuteness), of evangelical sermons for their celebrations of affluence and exuberance, and of political debates for dumbing down discourse in favor of snappy one-liners, I would surmise that he would have been distinctly wary of Bob Ross’s privileging of joy over painting.
Bob Ross’s sharp instinct led him to use television as the vehicle for disseminating his gospel of joy. He recognized television’s potential for allowing a single person (or parson) to grant the wishes of a multitude while maintaining an illusion of one-on-one interaction, making everyone feel like the special person in the room. All they had to do was watch and listen (according to research conducted by Bob Ross Inc., only 3 percent of viewers painted along, while the vast majority merely watched, enchanted by the host’s voice and the fantasy of his landscapes). It worked, because Ross chose the perfect format for the perfect moment, when the passive consumption of culture intersected with still relatively long attention span of his audience. Looking back today, with plentiful evidence of our waning culture, it is hard not to see the connection between Bob Ross’s once-harmless “happy trees” and the happy mindlessness of the “Happy Medium” Neil Postman warned us about.