Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What I Learned at the Picasso Exhibit

Last Friday, Mighty Reader and I spent a couple of hours at the Seattle Art Museum's special Picasso exhibit, 150 (I think) pieces on loan from the Picasso Museum in Paris, dating from 1901 (I think) to maybe 1970. I could look all of these facts up for you, but none of them is really that important. What really matters is that a large cross-section, a longitudinal study if you will, of Pablo Picasso's works were gathered together and displayed more-or-less in chronological order.

If you have a chance to go to an art museum, you really should. Especially if you can look at works of art you only know from books (or worse, from the internets), because seeing them in real life can really change the way you perceive the works. I can't count the number of times I've been at a museum and run into a painting or drawing I know and in real life it's been either much larger or much smaller than I thought it was. Really, size matters in this regard.

Many of the Picasso drawings I knew, for example, turn out to be not much larger than postcards, and so the level of detail seems to be compressed and somehow much greater when you see how tiny the pieces really are. And some of the paintings were very small as well, and the effect is radically different when the three women bathing are all seven inches tall when you thought they'd be three or four feet tall.

But none of that's really what I learned; I already knew those things and had a fabulous reminder last year when there was an Impressionism exhibit and I walked into a room to find myself face to face with a Titian that was six feet tall and ten feet wide and the figures were all literally larger-than-life. That was very cool. But as I say, all of this is not the point.

No, here's the thing. Picasso went through a lot of phases with his art. In the beginning he was more or less a realist, though clearly influenced by Impressionism. His "blue" period was pretty much straight portraiture and you can see Rembrandt, for instance, influencing the paintings. Then around the turn of the century Picasso started to break down the three dimensions and invent Cubism and that developed over the next several decades, but it was alongside a sort of high-graphic illustrative style that bordered on cartoon but owed a clear debt to the Renaissance artists with their interest in movement and weight of solid bodies and the animation of living things. A lot of Pablo's later stuff was just weird; I could see what he was doing but it didn't send me at all.

Mostly, I came away thinking that this was a guy who was always experimenting and looking and pushing at the forms and coming up with new solutions to problems of space and figural representation and color (though not so much as time went on with the color, I don't think) and foreground/background and visual planes and all of that. Immense variety in his output. And yet, through it all, there is Picasso in all of the work. When you see it gathered together it becomes clear what forces connect the weird bicycle seat/handlebar "bull's head" with the big bronze goat (cool!) and the stick figure "bather" sculptures and the "Guernica" painting and the "violin" sheetmetal sculpture and the cubist portraits of Dora and the sketches and paintings of children and the drawings of churches and villages and the realist portraits. You see Picasso's hand in all of it no matter the style or the medium, in a career that spanned 70 or whatever years.

Pablo Picasso (and is it just me who always automatically hears the Burning Sensations' version of Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso" whenever the artist is mentioned?) didn't have a vision, a unifying theme to his art, not if you ask me. But he had a lot of ideas and he pursued them and he never tried to do anything except in a way that pleased him, at least from what I could see. I have no idea if there were market forces at work, controlling his output, but really if you were there in the galleries with the paintings and drawings and sculptures you'd not think it possible that Pablo created anything with the audience in mind. Some of his ideas or visions or whathaveyou were just off-putting (his images of couples having sex were just awful and there was a guy, I kept thinking, who had some serious issues with women and men), but they were still individualistic and brave and seriously intentioned, I think.

I don't care what you think of Picasso's art in an aesthetic sense; this guy was the real deal and showed no fear when he made art. I should look for comments about Picasso from Ezra Pound, because Pound once claimed that "No art ever grew by looking into the eyes of the public" and I believe his claim, and I'm willing to bet that Pound would have supported Picasso even if he didn't particularly like the art.

When I was looking at the Picasso exhibit I thought about people like Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, who were also breaking down the perceptions of their art in the early 20th century (if "Malloy" wasn't influenced by "Ulysses," I'll eat my hat), and then I thought about people like Iris Murdoch and Joyce Carol Oates who also pushed against the bastion of literature to make room for their own particular visions of narrative, and I thought about how brave it is to strike out on one's own and slip into the forest of Unknown to see what's in there, to clear a field and build our own houses and sow what seeds we have newly imagined.

So that's what--to bring this long and rambling post to a conclusion--I learned at the Picasso Exhibit: to be an artist is to be brave. To be an artist is to have an idea or two and to pursue those ideas and to not be frightened by the possibility that people will think you're an idiot. God knows that Picasso, Joyce, Beckett, Murdoch, Oates, Burroughs, Coatzee, Eliot, Lawrence, Naipul, Woolf, Faulkner, Porter, Stein, et alia have all been subject to ridicule but produced what they produced despite the criticism. So be brave, that's all. Look inside for your inspiration, not at the bookshelves. Be brave and mighty enough to be yourself. That's what I learned from Pablo Picasso.

Also! We ran into Ben Thompson, author of the fabulous epic nonfiction book Badass. Ben was at the museum with his lovely wife. He still hasn't signed my copy of Badass. I try not to be bitter.


  1. I sometimes think an element of bravery is the difference between decent writing and really good writing. That's not to say that every writer needs to find something that they think people will hate and write that, just to be brave. Rather, that I believe it really shows when I writer has grappled with something and decided to let their private voice play in public for a little while.

  2. I love this post! My MA is in Art History, and I've studied Picasso enough to agree with you completely. He wasn't making art for God or country, he wasn't making art for an audience. He created for himself, whether it was to satisfy his artistic urges, or to entertain himself (or get someone into bed).

    As a writer, I sometimes forget that I need to stay true to my own story. But unlike Picasso, I try to create with an audience in mind. ;)

    Great post, Scott!

  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences at the Picasso exhibit. THe thing about visual art is that you can take it in and see the journey in one session. To do that with writing would take much longer. Of course, there is much at the detail level that takes time to digest, but you know what I mean.

    When I think of Picasso, I often think of the picture of him in his striped shirt sitting on the floor. He's so much like a child; an extraordinarily gifted one who doesn't have to worry about the basics but can just follow whatever his desire or interests take him. If I may indulge in this version of Pablo a bit longer, I'd say he was very much like a willful child who couldn't care less what other people thought of his art. And like a child, he was captivated by many styles, possibilities at once.

    Many years ago, I went to an exhibit at MoMa on Picasso and Braque on their work as they explored cubism. One of the most memorable events during my time at the East Coast. Wish I could see this one.

  4. Scott, when I first "met" you, I was living about three blocks away from the Picasso museum, so it's pretty exciting for me to think that we have looked at the same exhibit but in different places. Picasso is definitely one of the artists I keep in mind when I try to stay courageous in my writing. Right now, I think I can keep that mindsight for longer stretches of time, but it breaks down for me whenever I think about publishing...which is something I need to get over. Michelle and I were talking about writing in protective bubbles last night, which I hope she'll post on. For me, my best writing comes when I'm working in that bubble.

  5. I need to get that Badass book, hehehe.

    Scott, I LOVE THIS POST. It is getting to the essence of what voice is, what an artist is, what drives us to create, and you've said it beautifully here, thank you.

    I think Davin has hit on something here - since you put up this wonderful post that leads right to the subject for me - about writing in our bubbles. I think I'll post about this on Thursday. It has to do with bravery and looking into ourselves, not the shelves, as you say.

  6. Nevets: I think it's just about finding and creating art that we like for ourselves, and letting our private voice be our public voice.

    Tere: I went to art school way back when but I have forgotten most of the terminology. It was hard writing about visual art. Anyway, yes: create for ourselves. I have a complicated relationship with the idea of an audience. I try to amuse myself and Mighty Reader, mostly.

    Yat-Yee: "he was very much like a willful child who couldn't care less what other people thought of his art. And like a child, he was captivated by many styles, possibilities at once." I agree entirely. Even when his vision and level of craft were at their most sophisticated, there was a directness and a simplicity about the work, a childlike wonderment maybe. I was also struck by how much he concentrated on figurative art. He did very few landscapes or still lives, at least that I know of. Unlike, say, Braque who did a lot of really cool still lives.

    Domey: I kept thinking of you when we were at the exhibit, wondering if you'd been to the Musee. I'll say that while I enjoyed the show, I'm not a huge Picasso fan but I did come away with a new respect for him. He knew his craft and he did with it what he wanted to do.

    Michelle: I'm sort of with Domey when it comes to waffling at the intersection of writing for publication and writing for myself. Do please write about your protective bubble!

    Badass is a fun book. There's a sequel coming, too!

  7. It does seem to me, thinking about artists I know more than writers I know, that it's possible for one person to have distinct approaches to two streams of work: one that focuses exclusively on that private voice and one that does seek to make that private voice public friendly.

    I think about friends of mine who do graphic illustration to support their painting or who sell mass-market pottery at art fairs to support their experimental pieces or who do wedding photography to pay for their 3-D mixed media pieces.

    My own approach to my writing, or what I strive to make my approach at least, is something like that. At the novel level, I'm working to write as bravely as I can and as much for myself as I can, but I cannot bring myself to entirely ignore audience. Instead, I try to take my inner thing and make it intelligible. (I know that several of you have counselled me against this approach, but if I were to not think about audience, I would not be able to write at anything of any length.)

    At the same time, I have my short stories. Now that I no longer think of those as platform-building, like I did when I was a teenager, I treat those like my free art. I just write them however I want. They're short, so I don't suffocate without thinking of audience like I would in a longer piece.

    And while I have not mastered any aspect of writing, least of all this aspect, I think it is an a balanced approach that suits my personality and my aims.

    It is, I think, never possible to write quality stuff that ignores that private voice altogether and pitches purely to market.

  8. Nevets, so which of your works do you personally like more? Is it the short stories? In my own experience, I just feel like the ones that I write for myself are the only ones I end up caring about. It is usually the other ones that get published and gain a small amount of popularity, but that matters less to me.

  9. Domey, let me answer your question in two parts.

    First, I think the things that I think are my strongest and that I care the most about tend to me my short fiction, and among those the more experimental, abstruse, and brave pieces are closer to the top of my personal list.

    But, second, I do still care about the others, because I'm not muting my private voice, but translating it. I know Scott and Tara have both cringed when I've said that, and I 100% understand why. But there is nothing more important to me that communication. Literally, what I live for is taking what's inside me that makes no sense to other people as it stands, and presenting it to them in a way they can walk away saying, "I think I'm starting to understand that guy a little bit."

    To me, that's higher praise than, "What a good book," or, "Beautiful literary crafting."

    What I write with an audience in mind I try to write in a way that I can engage them in an experiential encounter from which they can walk away understanding something about me, my ideas, the things I care about.

    I don't say, "Oh, I can't write that way because people won't like it." What I may ponder is, "Oh, how can I write that so people will actually understand it?"

    And then, when my inner voice needs unfiltered release, I have my short fiction.

  10. Nevets: I'm just going to say it. I think that when you try to tailor your writing to some imagined reader, you're running a fool's errand. I don't believe you can actually experience art from a point of view different from your own; I don't think you can successfully pretend to be this other reader and read your writing from their perspective. You are wasting time with this exercise, sir. I don't buy into the whole "inductive/deductive" reader thing. A book is either well written or it's not. That is all. Write well and forget all this ideal audience stuff. If you yourself are not part of that ideal audience then you're just pretending to know what you're doing anyway. It's like me telling myself I know how my cat experiences reality: it's not true at all. You're just adding in complications that are not going to move you one step closer to publication. Seriously. Don't make me come down there. You worry too much, dude. Knock it the fuck off and write. My diagnosis is that you're hiding behind all of these layers of abstraction while pretending to use them for your own ends.

  11. haha I knew I was poking the bear, Scott, and I definitely understand where you're coming from, but I don't approach writing purely as art. It is also about communication, and if I don't include an audience that equation, I suffocate. It's like navel-gazing and talking to myself, neither of which interest me.

    And if there are no layers of abstraction, then there's no point, but that's another whole direction of conversation.

  12. Cool. Scott, I like it when you're passionate.

    Nevets, I can see where you're coming from. I get that feeling of needing to translate, and I personally see a little bit of validity to it. BUT, I'd considering an alternative approach/view. I don't think it's a matter of communicating to your audience so much as it is a matter of getting your best work, untranslated, to the audience that will most appreciate it. I bring up this example a lot. I love the movie Gosford Park, but I hate the ending completely. I hate that something actually happens that suddenly propels the plot forward and makes all the lovely, subtle interactions in the rest of the movie suddenly relevant. I watch the first 3/4 of Gosford Park and then stop it, just as I do with Winnie the Pooh and The Company and Totoro and more movies than I can think of right now. What I have realized for myself is that the writing and stories I love most are the ones that stay small, that don't necessarily have an ending. That's my own thing. And, sometimes I try to "translate" my stories so that there is an ending because I think that's what everyone else expects. But then, I say, "But what if there are other people like me?" So, I go back to my bubble.

  13. Domey: "what if there are other people like me?" is exactly it. Exactly. If people don't get my writing--don't get me at all--that's fine; I'm just talking to the wrong people. I have no urge whatever to become more easily understood or more palatable or whatever.

    Nevets: It's like you're saying "I'm going to be unlike me so that people will understand the real me." It's self-defeating.

  14. Well, Nevets, you know I agree with Scott. On the other hand, I was just thinking about this (I wrote about it for the Backspace blog, but I'm not sure if the link works unless you're a member? does anyone know?), and I reflected on four stages I've gone through on trying to chase the market.

    It really does make a difference when fans start mailing you, asking questions about the direction of your writing and what not. You realize that whether you like or not, your story IS a conversation.

    And btw, I think Picasso damn well did have a keen awareness of his market, his audience. I'm not negating anything you said, Scott, about his courage as an artist. But he was definitely cognizant of others, he wasn't painting alone in a cave for fifty years. His audience may not have been the mass market, but he was in conversation with other artists, dead and alive, and indeed, could not have had the drive to create something radically different if he had not been.

  15. @Scott - That's not really what I'm saying. I do the same thing when I teach, and I've been told I'm very good at it. I'm not abandoning myself; I'm communicating myself. I do understand what you're saying, but this is something I think I'm failing to communicate correctly. I'm not doing exactly what you think I should do, but I'm also not really doing what you think I'm doing. Someday I'll figure out how to get across what it is I'm doing.

    @Domey - I can definitely see where you're coming from, but for me that's what my short stories are for. The things I write with an audience in mind would be pointless for me to write to people like me, because people like me already get it. There's no point. The idea to help people unlike me start to get people like me.

    Which I am clearly failing at in terms of describing my writing approach. lol

    Oh well.

  16. Tara: The bksp blog is open to the public; it's just the forums that are private.

    Nevets: Some day you'll have to let me read a piece you wrote for yourself and a piece you wrote for a wider audience so that maybe I'll know what you mean. In the meanwhile, I'll stop hectoring you.

  17. Scott, that may be the simplest solution. I'll let that jostle around in the back my mind and see what happens.

    And I don't mind the hectoring.

    You're passionate and you know from where you speak, and you are trying to give me guidance and counsel. I'll always appreciate that!

    Same for you, Tara -- I do know why you and Scott give me the advice you do. Perhaps the difference for me is that the communication is the number one reason I write those things.

  18. Tara: I couldn't read that article you said you wrote. You said it was in a newsletter? The link just took me to Backspace and not to anything that had to do with you. Sad. I would love to read it.

    Nevets: Since I talk to you all the time, I think I get what you're saying. You're saying that while you're creating art, you're also trying to get across certain themes and ideas - and you're AWARE of it. See, for me, I know there are certain themes and ideas in my writing, but I'm not so very aware of them as I'm actually writing. I just let them happen. You seem to be shaping yours more than I would ever attempt to do. For me, a large part of my art happens subconsciously (which is shaped with a lot of work and practice, mind you), and I agree with Scott in that I just have to write and not worry so much about how everyone and their dog will perceive what I'm doing.

  19. Hector, I loved your blueberry pancakes the other night. It was odd to have breakfast for dinner at first, but then, as the night went on--and as we had more glasses of wine--everything felt more natural, comfortable. I have not felt this good since before Margot died, so I thank you and I hope we can do it again sometime.

  20. Fortunately, I have yet to extend my target audience to dogs. Getting cats to understand was hard enough. Or at least, getting them to admit they understood.

    You're right, though, and that may in some ways be key to the conversation. Everything I write is about a theme or a wisp of an idea first and foremost. That's the thing from which my narrative flows, dragging along with it the characters and plot and settings and all those other bits and pieces.

    That's not to say that I think theme is the most important part of a story, or even necessarily of my own stories, but it's invariably the genesis of any writing project I have.

    And so the rest of it, in the things I don't write purely for myself, gets crafted in a such a way as that theme or that wisp of an idea can be communicated.

    I know I'm not a proper artist, but I don't think I'm a dime store hack either. lol

  21. Nevets: Dogs are the best audience in the world, but they don't do reviews. Sad.

    I'm glad I got what you were saying. I knew I knew you well. :)

  22. I appreciate the help translating myself. :)

    The toughest audience to communicate something to (for me at least) is an audience that's full of people who are already doing their own version of what it is you're talking about.

    I need to figure out how to do that more reliably. It's an important skill.

  23. Okay, I want to visit an art museum... right now.

    Anyway, inspiring post! I think fear is something that's been holding me back in some areas. Fear people won't like what I have to say and how I say it. Fear of rejection. Yep.

    I need to write for me first.


  24. Dogs are the best audience in the world, but they don't do reviews. Sad.

    I know, right? Sad.

  25. Nevets: Michelle said, "while you're creating art, you're also trying to get across certain themes and ideas - and you're AWARE of it" and you appear to agree. Which is, well, huh. I'm like Michelle in that I try to avoid any overt analysis of theme while I'm writing. In my case, the danger is that I'll write a moralistic essay instead of a story. Once I decide that I'm writing a story "about" something in particular, it all goes to hell and I can no longer stumble into things accidentally; I start searching for stuff to reinforce my theme and the story itself--the dramatic narrative and the intersection of voice and plot that we call "character"--becomes too mechanical and wooden for me. So I don't know. It's just so foreign to how I think about writing. I worry when you compare writing to teaching, too. I know I sound like I'm attacking you today, and I don't mean to be. I'm just confused and likely we're talking at cross-purposes.

  26. Tara: It's totally sad. Sniff.

    Scott: I'm the same way. Wooden is a good term for it. Thirds was pushing it for me in the awareness category of writing since it is based on a fairy tale which already has obvious themes. I tried to push it all out of my head and just write a story. I think it turned out pretty well. :)

  27. Scott, I don't feel attacked, promise.

    Teaching-wise, all I'm talking about is the act of understanding my audience in order to communicate effectively to them, even without them really explaining themselves. It's difficult to explain, but perhaps I'll explore that in a story sometime.

    As for morality pieces, I understand why you want to avoid those. Me, too.

    If it helps you understand that that's not what I'm talking about, both my stories in Genre Wars, the story I sent it to get into Notes from Underground, and the piece I submitted to the anthology itself are all pieces that began with a theme.

    They were not particularly written for audiences, so they don't exemplify that part much, but they do (hopefully) demonstrate that when I start with a theme or wisp of an idea, the story does not become a prop for a sermon.

  28. Yeah! When I went to college (I studied art, got a BA) I was surprised to learn/see that Picasso actually could draw and paint. LOL He'd simply reached the point of "yes, I can draw" and felt the need to move on and explore other things. May we all do the same with our writing, and not get stuck in a rut!


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