Thursday, November 09, 2006

Was Pablo Picasso an asshole?

If you're at all like me, you spend a good portion of your life looking for jolts and formulas that bring clarity and command to the chaos and confusion of life on earth. Art and cinema work well for this, and are very attractive as concentrated curations of large and small issues. But art and movies are dangerously alluring and well able to conceal their intrinsic limits and traps. I was reminded of this again yesterday while on jury duty. During the voir dire one lawyer put this question to the room of assembled citizens: What person in history do you most admire?

The responses yielded plenty of Abe Lincolns, Ronald Rayguns, George Washingtons, Martin Luther Kings, Jesus Christs, Jonas Salks, Charles Darwins, and one (slightly uncomfortable) Malcom X. In short, people who did big things to improve the lives for masses of people. They matter most. To bring up an artist, as I was tempted to do, in this context would have seemed damned frivolous. Yes, art can lift one's spirits or bolster an aesthetic outlook, but what the hell does my aesthetic enlightenment mean to the person sitting next to me? To the health and functionality of society? To the homeless? To the children of Iraq? To the outcast, the downtrodden, the marginalized many? Don't get me wrong, I can make a very good argument as to how art is an essential ingredient of any healthy culture. But in that argument you must eventually concede that art can not settle a complex dispute, lead a people, stop a war, feed a famine, or right a civil wrong no matter how much it would like to. These are practical matters for visionary people - artists who paint with belief, action, sweat, debate, politics, laws, and difficult decisions.

If you were to put Martin Luther King side by side with Pablo Picasso, which one, in the cold light of day, would you be more inclined to say was a talented, selfish prick hiding behind his inner child?

(photo by Cornell Capa)


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