The Picture is the Thing

May 19, 2020

Recently, I reposted a colour photograph Pablo Picasso talking to Brigitte Bardot taken in 1956 on Facebook. The post was immediately bombarded by replies on how awful a man Picasso was and hence a bad artist whose art we should never look at again. They surmised from the photograph that he was hitting on Bardot and hoping to get laid. This surprised me, but should not have. I posted it because I thought he was a rather nice picture of two important French people in the mid 20th century.

Picasso was sitting on set of stairs several feet away from Bardot, apparently talking to her. There was no way from looking at the photograph that you could grasp the conversation, nor was there a caption telling what was going on, but this did not stop people from guessing and most vilifying Picasso in the process. I know that a picture is worth ten thousand words, but this one could have benefited from a one sentence caption to wit, Picasso: “Brigitte would you like have sex with me? The wife is away.”

When I tried to explain that I thought that Picasso was a rather important artist whose art changed the course of 20th century art, they would have none of that. I admitted that he was not a sensitive metrosexual and would not meet the high moral standards of the first quarter of the 21st century, in truth neither would I, but that was not enough. I think that the general idea is that we should dig up his bones and jump on them.

If there is one major theme that I have been writing about over the last fifty plus years is that the art work is the thing and the artist only makes it. Most viewers only have a vague idea of the character of the artist who painted a picture they admire and it gets increasing vague the older the painting is. This operates on the theory of what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you or ignorance is bliss.

Let’s look at Picasso. If he had only painted Guernica he would have earned a place in art history, but add on, La Vie, Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, his Blue Period, Rose Period, and Cubism and it is hard not to agree that he was an important and great artist despite his character faults. Who do you punish by not looking at the work of this dead artist? I am pretty sure that being dead puts Picasso out of the picture, if you will forgive the pun. There is a really long list of artists of questionable character who who have produced great art and let us not leave out Anonymous who may or may not be questionable.

Aesthetics are pretty much a dead issue into today’s art criticism not to mention art itself. It has been replaced by curators and critics, produced by university graduate programmes, who fancy themselves as social scientists. They see art as a means to push their ideas for a progressive society. There are roots for this in the writings of Arnold Hauser in his The Social History of Art* which I read in 1961 and thought had some merit. But Hauser always put the horse before the cart in that art led theory and not the other way around. There is a case to be made for art in history rather than art history and this is what Hauser did. Great art gives us a reflection of its time, but does so on its own terms and those terms are that of the artist.

Where things get fucked up is with the theories of Post Modernism and, in particular, Post Structuralism. Here the cart is before the horse. Literature is reduced to text and art works become objects to advance theory. The result is often unreadable articles and books, sometimes are even more unreadable when they are translated from an other language, like French. Post Structuralism is really a linguistic theory goes back to the ideas Ferdinand de Saussure and advances with by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Ronald Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. What any of this has to do with the visual arts is beyond me. Not that I did not try to figure it out, but a lot of fellow academics in the arts seem to have made a career where I failed as Post Structuralists and sometimes as well Neo-Marxists (not that I have anything against Marxism). But here we are with lot of bad art art made cowed artists who are worried about appropriation, gender, imagined past bad behaviour (you name it), and being called out by some nit-wit on social media or lectured to by a self righteous Social Justice Warrior. It is a wonder that anyone would want to make art these days.

What we need is a return to the day of ‘up yours’ art. Make unapologetic art and if someone, or a group of someones, do not like it, it’s their problem. Of course, there is the chance of truly offensive art that should not see the light of day, but even then care should be taken. A look at the criticism that most art movements endured, be it German Expressionism or the Group of Seven should give pause to excessive censorship. We need art that challenges us that includes art made by artists of questionable character. Let us not forget that Caravaggio was a murderer. As far as I know Picasso was not.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 18 May 2020.

* Hauser, Arnold, The Social History of Art, Vintage Books, New York, 1958 (Four Volumes paperback. Originally published in Germany in 1951.)


  1. Loved this text. I agree entirely. I was reminded of the ongoing debate about Richard Wagner, his anti-semitism, and how we perceive his work as a result. Many other examples. Richard Strauss, Carl Orff. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

  2. Virgil, I rather suspect you knew exactly what you were doing by posting that photograph, and were in effect and probably intention setting up some people (not all, as you imply) to react in the way you have suggested they did. I would also note that to my eyes there were shades of difference in the wide range of positions taken on the various matters raised by your friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in reaction to your “innocent” provocation. I also found the parts of the discussion I reviewed quite civil, although one would not sense that from your description either. All this demurring comes from a friend who, as you know, thought Miles Davis a genius and sublime artist despite his being a miserable and duplicitous character, so we are in agreement on some of the points you have raised about separating the artist from the art.

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