Bob Ross: An Important Art Historical Legacy – by Joseph Bravo
History is a record of significant events. Likewise, art history documents significant events related to art. “Significance” can include events that were outstanding technical achievements, events that were apogees of an existing paradigm, events that fundamentally changed a paradigm for better or for worse, or it can reflect events that had a demonstrable social or cultural impact.
It is fair to say that Bob Ross did not create impressive technical masterworks. He was not an apogee of an existing paradigm like Bouguereau. It is also fair to say that he did not change the aesthetic paradigm in the manner of artists like Picasso, Duchamp or Pollock. But in a Postwar era, Ross was doing something that was culturally transgressive for its period: he was teaching representational technique while simultaneously democratizing the practice of art at a time when it had become unapologetically elitist. Unlike Andy Warhol, Bob Ross was unironically populist. In a period of ever-increasing cynicism, Ross was a paragon of sincerity.
Regardless of aesthetic, be it a voluminous arcane history of skilled figuration or a Modernist canon of ineffable creations, connoisseurship of fine art is undeniably intimidating in its esoteric complexity. For vast swaths of the American public this makes art something they believe to be beyond their capacity to comprehend and hence of little utility to their lives. In a Postwar consumer society, art had become relatively superfluous; something they neither created nor consumed.
Bob Ross set out to change that, not by teaching connoisseurship but by creating amateurs. In a Postwar industrial era of hyper-rationalism and a virtual fetishization of expertise, “amateur” had taken on a pejorative connotation that negated its denotative meaning. The definition of a “connoisseur” is “one who knows” whereas an “amateur” is “one who loves.” These things are not mutually exclusive but neither are they synonymous.
Ross was undeniably a personality who effused love; love of not only the process of creating paintings but self evidently a love for humanity as well. He did not judge people for their lack of sophistication. He did not approach them with condescension but with compassion and empathy. He sought to provide his audience with just enough knowledge to overcome their apprehension and engender a love for art. He made it attainable by approaching them where they were instead of where an elitist art subculture thought they should be. He never promised to teach people to create canonical masterworks. Instead, Ross provided them with an entrance to the world of art and made it something attainable. He empowered his viewers and encouraged them to try to do something that they previously presumed was completely outside their range of possibilities. Ross did this with not only a humble disposition but with a humility of technique. His mission wasn’t to teach people to create artwork that would impress connoisseurs but to make paintings that pleased their makers and gave the television viewer a sense of esteem at their own unanticipated capacities. In so doing, Bob Ross fostered amateurism. Once people had a love for art and perceived its relevance to their own lives then they were considerably more inclined to afford it value and to eventually seek out the knowledge that would enable their greater connoisseurship.
Bob Ross’ PBS series was watched by people of all ages, classes and social identities. It gave him access to millions of homes where he made a lasting impression on countless people. Many of those people took up painting and, in so doing, developed an interest in art that they would not otherwise have had. They also took on a hobby that provided them with joy, contentment and a certain cathartic escape from their stressful lives.
Ross’ special combination of nurturing personality and appropriate technical device was the key to his unique genius and the source of his unparalleled success. Others have tried, including on PBS, but none have even approached his level of popular appeal. Indeed, Bob Ross’ modest television production undoubtedly gained a wider viewership than all other art instructional television combined and no other art instructor ever achieved either the notoriety or the enduring affection of this idiosyncratically coiffed soul.
It is preposterous to suggest that Bob Ross’ popularity somehow represented a pernicious impact on culture. It did not prevent those who were so inclined from pursuing greater skill sets than Ross was proffering nor did it somehow debase academicism be it Classical, Modern or Postmodern. The more formal art world continued on apace largely oblivious to his activity when they weren’t stigmatizing him for his populism and his kitschy paintings. But Ross didn’t care. The alleged connoisseurs were not his audience and many of them had become so enamored with their own ostensible knowledge and pseudo-sophisticated cynicism that they no longer even aspired to genuine amateurism, since love of anything was commonly viewed as naive and synonymous with ignorance. Of course, this elitist attitude was paradoxically ignorant as it presumed that somehow knowledge of a thing precluded a sincere love for it. This syllogistic error was far more pernicious in its cultural impact than all the kitschy paintings Bob Ross and his acolytes would ever create. It was this disconnection between amateurism and connoisseurship that would contribute to a debasement of art in the academic context. A love of art and humanity would be supplanted by a love of self and a privileging of one’s own cohort at the expense of the humanity of those consigned to exclusion from membership in that more narrowly defined social group. Bob Ross’ worldview was humanistically inclusive whereas the academic worldview became ever more exclusive priding itself on condescension and self-aggrandizement.
But despite the vilification of his practice and derision of his artworks, Bob Ross still made a profound cultural impact through his efforts at democratization and populist empowerment. Indeed, it could be argued that his cultural resonance was far greater and wider reaching than the vast majority of flash-in-the-pan darlings who were ever featured on the cover of Art In America or exhibited in a Whitney Biennial during the same era. The names of these formerly officially sanctioned artists have largely been consigned to the dustbin of history. Yet, long after his death, a contemporary discussion of the relative cultural importance of the humble Bob Ross can still generate dozens of impassioned comments on any thread where his name is invoked. That alone is a testament to his enduring cultural legacy.
So, yes, Bob Ross has rightfully earned his significance in American art history, if not for his technical achievements, then for his love of humanity. His place in the art historical canon is secure because, as a humanitarian, Ross, the painter of innocuous landscapes with “fluffy little clouds”, was as virtuous as any Social Realist whoever picked up a brush with the intention of making the world a better place. Ross’ paintings may not overtly signal virtue but the genuine humility of his artistic practice was sufficient evidence of it.
One must ask oneself which is the more noble legacy, to go down in history as the most accomplished technical virtuoso or to be remembered as one who loved their fellow man?