Jackson Pollock's lesson for content marketers

Dubbed one of the 20th century’s most controversial artists, Jackson Pollock rose to prominence with his seemingly random ‘drip’ paintings. But just how random were they, and did 'Jack the Dripper' have anything to teach content marketers?

When Jackson Pollock burst onto the modern art scene of the 1940s, America knew it had someone unique on its hands. A pioneer of the ‘drip’ technique, Pollock was famed for his strewing of vast canvases with industrial paints, cigarette butts and other such detritus via apparently random means: dripping, pouring, flicking, even syringing. Some of his works involved the use of a rudimentary cradle from which he would hang a punctured tin of paint, swung in pendulum-like fashion.

Nobody had seen anything like it before. ‘Jack the Dripper’, TIME magazine referred to the painter, with more than a nod to his eventual notoriety. “My splatter board is more impressive,” quoted a contemporary. “Mere unorganized explosions of random energy,” said one critic. “A mop of tangled hair I have the irresistible urge to comb out.”

If Pollock’s techniques were deemed controversial, he had a lifestyle to match. A rampant alcoholic, his life was cut short at the age of 44, drunk behind the wheel of his convertible Oldsmobile. And it’s with drink that this story begins.

A number of years before his death, a group of artists and composers visited Pollock at his Long Island home. Sitting in his barn (converted into a studio to accommodate his floor canvases), they started talking of ‘chance operations’ within his paintings. Pollock, drunk, didn’t like this.

“Don’t give me any of your ‘chance operations’,” he said in a fit of rage. “You see that doorknob?” And he gestured towards the door some 50 feet away through which his visitors had entered. Staggering, he scooped up a glob of paint on the end of a brush and in one movement hurled it, striking the doorknob spot on. “It’s the way out.”

The event changed minds. Mathematicians, art theoreticians and logicians got working on Pollock’s paintings, tantalised by the prospect that there was some deeper meaning within his work. ‘Mere unorganized explosions of random energy’ became manifestations of a new artistic dimension, of some sort of abiding logic. Indeed, only last decade a physicist named Richard Taylor announced his alleged discovery of ‘fractals’ within Pollock’s paintings, a geometrical phenomenon related, rather fittingly, to chaos theory.

I don’t buy it. I’d never pretend that Pollock was a mathematical genius, even if I do find his paintings endlessly fascinating. But at the very least I would vouch for his visual understanding of rhythm. Certainly, Pollock himself was convinced of a method in his madness; his continued renown as an artist largely rests on the dichotomy. And should the anecdote of the doorknob be true, it was either blind luck or proof of unexpectedly good dexterity and accuracy on behalf of the painter.

He probably would have shown me the proverbial door for saying so, but I reckon Pollock had something to teach us marketers. Web designers have already taken heed, seamlessly combining utility, convention and science (i.e. Pollock’s application of rhythm) with beauty, expression and artistry (i.e. his abstract aesthetic). But how can marketing collateral be likewise multi-faceted?

Fortunately, it doesn’t involve industrial paints, cigarette butts or studio detritus. A considerable amount of content marketing – particularly that which is visually led – goes too far down the creative rabbit hole. By the same token, marketers should resist falling in line with the flock when producing content, fearing any form of departure from the perceived, conservative norm.

There is in fact a middle ground to be struck – and by way of example, it looks something like this:

A marketing automation platform, MailChimp has built up a reputation for its amicably-toned content, created in such a way as to directly help its existing customers in the most approachable ways possible. It utilises an array of formats, including email (naturally), blog posts, reports and guides – or in this case, field guides.

Inspired by classic educational publications, MailChimp’s Email Marketing Field Guide is, on the surface, comic, naïve even – but open it up and you’re given concise, practical information on how best to run email marketing campaigns. It contains both utility and convention with beauty and comedy; it appeals to the left brain and the right brain in equal measure. It is, in short, satisfying content with real purpose – a far cry from run-of the-mill guides to email marketing.

Granted, this sort of content isn’t art in the sense that we’d consider Pollock’s paintings art – but that’s not the point. The point is that Pollock, while going against convention, maintained a commitment to combining utility and aesthetic. It wasn’t what people expected, and they remembered it for the fact.

Content shouldn’t be entirely abstract, but it should always have more than just one facet. Customers and audiences should be surprised, their expectations exceeded. Only then will the content they consume stand a chance of being remembered.