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Bob Ross, Populist Artist
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Bob Ross, Populist Artist

A Netflix documentary and a new film about the beloved American TV painter explore a life marked by popular success and personal betrayal.

· 9 min read

The Joy of Painting—a TV series hosted by American artist Bob Ross, on which he would conjure up Alaskan landscapes in just 27 minutes of airtime—ran for 403 episodes between 1983 and 1994. Eventually syndicated to almost 300 PBS stations nationwide, it attracted over 80 million daily viewers of varying ages and backgrounds. According to research conducted by Bob Ross, Inc., only three percent of these viewers actually painted along with Ross. The rest just watched, mesmerized by the pioneer of autonomous sensory meridian response.

Ross’s hushed, melodic tones, the gentle rasp of his brush against canvas, and the scraping of his palette knife combined to send the audience into a pleasurable stupor as enchanting snowy mountains or verdant bluffs appeared before them on a double primed 18” x 24” canvas. Ross succumbed to blood cancer in 1995 at the age of 52, but on what would have been his 73rd birthday, streamed a nine-day marathon of his show to a viewership of five and a half million. This added a fresh cohort of Millennials and Zoomers to his audience, and together with over 450 million views of The Joy of Painting on YouTube cemented his iconic status in 21st-century American culture.

With all this publicity, it was hardly a surprise when,  in 2018, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled, “A Renaissance for Bob Ross: Fans want the ‘Joy of Painting’ Host to Have a Spot in Art History.” Ross’s advocates maintain that he deserves to be recognized as more than the mere educator and “television artist” he considered himself to be (at least according to the inscription on his tombstone). They see him as a canonical, prominent, and prolific landscape painter. I felt compelled to weigh in on this debate in a piece for the New Criterion, where I pointed out that, since museums now routinely celebrate artists using criteria such as preferred identity or social stance, the exclusion of Ross’s kitschy landscapes looked snobbish and disingenuous, if not outright discriminatory towards the middlebrow culture he personified.

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