08 May 2010

Picasso, Politics, Art, Dichotomies & Misunderstanding

"Because Picasso holds the position he does, every
misinterpretation of his work can only increase
contemporary misunderstanding of art in general."
~ John Berger

The Charnel House. Pablo Picasso 1944-1945. (Oil and charcoal on
canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York).

I came across this review in The Guardian this evening of an exhibition of Picasso's work that places his politics front and center. The review and the exhibition seem to lend credence to Berger's assessment. But it seems that Picasso himself invites the misunderstandings. Here is a passage written, according to The Guardian reviewer, at about the time Picasso was making the painting I've lifted above.
"What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he's a painter, ears if he's a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he's a poet – or even, if he's a boxer, only some muscles? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How is it possible to be uninterested in other men and by virtue of what cold nonchalance can you detach yourself from the life that they supply so copiously? No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It's an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy."
Here Picasso reiterates the dualisms - on the one hand, art as harmless decoration, the product of the raw talent or instinct or sheer insight and inspiration of the artist, on the other hand art as more or less purely instrumental, as propaganda, as a weapon in partisan conflict - that frame too much discussion of how art and politics interpenetrate. Clinging to such dichotomies misleads. It misleads us into thinking that art and politics do not interpenetrate, that they stand apart and that any effort to navigate the subtleties of these overlapping practices violates (in some ill-defined sense) the structure of the universe.

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