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I don’t know art. I’m not even sure I know what I like. But the simple fact that I don’t understand it is reason enough to study the matter. This past month I had the opportunity to visit Barcelona. While I was there I went through the Picasso museum. If you’re looking for the elusive dividing line between art and supercilious nonsense Picasso is a good man to study.
This was painted by Picasso at age 14. This? This is clearly art, and good art too. A photograph tells you what a guy looks like. A portrait does that, but (if it’s executed well) it tells you something about the subject’s character. This guy has had a hard life. He’s not to impressed with anything anymore, or anyone, especially this punk kid painting his picture.
At fourteen Picasso was painting pretty much what people told him to paint. Much like a teenager with political opinions, he hasn’t latched onto that style because it’s how he wants to paint, it’s just all he knows. These next two paintings are done in the impressionist style.
Again, these are clearly art. There’s something complex about beauty going on here. On the top is Margot. She’s clearly beautiful, but I look at her and my instincts scream “DANGER!”. She’s the kind of girl who will snap your soul in half and suck out the marrow. Now look at the dwarf on the bottom. By the rouge on her cheeks she’s trying to be beautiful. By her stance and her expression she knows it’s not working. Even so, I’d rather talk with her than Margot.
Once Picasso discovered cubism he never looked back. This is a painting of his balcony. In the museum they had a photograph of that balcony; even a dullard like myself could look at it and say “I understand!”. He kept pigeons in hutches, you can see them on the left side of the picture. The view is out to the sea.
This is another painting of that scene, and another. In all there are nine of them.
He painted that balcony nine times over about a week. What can we tell from those pigeons? Start with the obvious; they look like inflated hospital gloves. Evidently he doesn’t much care to make them look realistic, just enough to say “there’s a pigeon here”. Even so, you can always tell what the pigeons are doing. If you’ve spent any time watching pigeons you recognize the motions even with the hand turkey drawing quality. The shape of the balcony doesn’t change. Look at the curve of the arch; it’s remarkably consistent considering the other elements.
I think what’s going on here — and I’d like to remind you of that statement from the start where I don’t know art — I think that Picasso is trying to convey the essense of the picture and discard the inessentials. In a sense that happens in all of art; go back to the man in the beret; his clothes (aside from the eponymous hat) are shapeless and void. The light clearly shows his expression but doesn’t tell us a thing about what he’s wearing, or the background, or anything else. I think cubist Picasso has determined the form of the pigeon to be superfluous, that the essential ‘pigeonness’ is what he needs to convey. You get that quite a bit more from the motions of the bird than the physical form; it looks much like any other bird but moves differently. Take another look at that arch; the shape of the curve is much the same, but little care is taken for where it stops and starts. The pigeon hutches are scrawled in there like variables in a computer program. Dimension roost. Set contents of roost = pigeon.
I think, what happened, Picasso went mad. I understand the psych boys don’t like the general terms for these things, but I think the human mind is far too complex to specify like they want. I think when Picasso went to cubism his brain snapped in such a way that he saw a different perspective on reality. Some things are important, other things are not. He’s depicting what he really things is important. The pigeonness of the pigeons. The ugliness inherent in cubism acts as a caustic to scrape away anything that’s not important.
So what are we to say about cubism or modern art in general? You and I, we can pass judgment on it without muttering the shibboleths about how creative these people are because we don’t know art. Art, any art, any medium, is attempting to communicate truth. In that sense I’m willing to concede that cubism is art. But modern art is bad at conveying truth precisely because it doesn’t make sense to schlubs like me. You can argue that the puzzle it inherently presents demands attention, that solving the puzzle teaches you more than just a surface meaning. It’s a very powerful strategy when it works; I found contemplating those pigeons rewarding. However, the simple truth is I don’t respect most people enough to wade through their malarkey to see if there’s a pearl of wisdom buried in there. I’ll take the time to study Picasso because I’m convinced that he’s a genius. I’ve got no reason to believe that everyone else trying this is a con artist.
And frankly, I’ve only got so much time for Picasso either. One artist isn’t the world. The classical paintings, the stuff that looks like stuff, works precisely because it is beautiful. Beautiful isn’t the right word. Accessible? Sounds too patronizing. It works because the painting is interesting to look at even before you’re sussing out the deep meanings. Maybe you never get there consciously. Maybe the conscious understanding isn’t so important. In the end I still can’t see how cubism is a patch on the classical styles.
You and I are also capitalists. Measured on that scale, when I went though the gift shop I bought a post card of the Man in the Beret, and none of the others.