Amid the press of daily demands, most of us think we don't have time for enjoying the fine arts. A recent visit to a Picasso exhibit reminded me why Christians especially should make time for it.
If Horace's adage is correct, that good art both "teaches and delights" (a description that certainly applies to the works of the Creator), then Pablo Picasso has rightly earned his reputation as one of the great artists of the modern age.
"Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris," an exhibit touring worldwide during renovation of its permanent home in Paris, proved Picasso's ability to delight even before gaining admission to the show. On the day I attended, traffic was gridlocked, the parking garage was full, and those like me with pre-paid reservations for an appointed time found out our tickets granted a place in line with hundreds of other ticket holders. And no wonder: During its three-month run at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (one of only three U.S. stops), a whopping 229,729 people made time for Picasso.
Of course, just because something is popular doesn't mean it's good. But Picasso really is good. Known for his place in the avant-garde as one of the originators of cubism, Picasso also produced works in the schools of naturalism and classicism. This exhibit of 176 pieces from among those Picasso selected himself for his personal collection featured a breathtaking array of mediums, styles, genres, and techniques: chalk drawings, classical portraits, sculptures, collages, bronze busts, and photographs.
To dismiss Picasso's more abstract paintings as mere child's play, as some do, is a great error. This was a serious artist. To prepare for the creation of his greatest masterpiece, Les Desmoiselles d 'Avignon (1907), Picasso produced 1,000 sketches and studies. Although the eleven-room exhibit represented a fraction of the works produced over a lifetime (Picasso began painting as a teenager and didn't stop until his death in 1973, at age 92) from it, a worldview clearly emerges. So, too, does the reminder that Christians who wish to have significant influence in the culture ignore the arts at their peril.
In How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer explains, "In great art the technique fits the worldview being presented." On this test alone, Picasso passes with flying colors. Les Desmoiselles d 'Avignon was shocking both for its content (nude prostitutes) and its form (human figures reduced to geometric angles representing multiple perspectives).
Literature professor Gene Edward Veith describes how Picasso's efforts to depict reality "as it is" resulted, ironically, in an extreme version of classical formalism that turns in on itself. In the "attempt to pin down objective form," Picasso "reduces human beings to objects," mere "grotesque caricatures or mathematical patterns." Picasso's work marked a watershed in art history, Veith says, ushering in a kind of art that's "cut off from ordinary perception and dependent upon theory. The work of art no longer can stand alone; it needs an explanation."
The worldview expressed by Les Desmoiselles d 'Avignon and the body of Picasso's works is one in which the "real" or "nature" exists underneath the surfaces; reality cannot be singularly or finally captured or represented, so is analyzed and dissected beyond recognition. With Les Desmoiselles d 'Avignon,Schaeffer claims, came the age of modern art, a period characterized by the same experimentation, subjectivity, and rejection of tradition that defines the modern worldview.
Take just one issue, one at the center of the culture wars and the focus of Picassos' masterpiece: sex. The experimentation, subjectivity, and rejection of tradition that define modern art also describe Picasso's approach to sex in both his life and his art.
Picasso was married twice and had numerous affairs, mistresses, and girlfriends. He depicted many of these women in his paintings. The various styles, colors, moods, and techniques of these works reveal the fragmentation of his relationships and his skewed perspective on sexual relationships. His depictions of women range from classical to naturalistic to cubist. His most characteristic feature—uneven faces in which one eye is higher than the other—reflects a disjointed worldview based on two ways of seeing the world: the way of nature (the lower) and the way of grace (the higher). Schaeffer describes these realms of grace and nature as those dealing with the things of God, universals, and meaning (grace), and the created order of humanity, particularities, and individual experience (nature). Both realms are evident in the body of Picasso's works, but are rarely in harmony, tending instead to reflect a dichotomized view of nature and grace at war with one another.
Thus Picasso's portrayals of sexual liaisons frequently resort to abstraction: discombobulated human figures intertwine, limbs arranged helter-skelter, recognizable as isolated parts but not as organic wholes. One mother who brought her young daughter to the exhibit stood before the surrealist painting Figures at the Seashore (1931), explaining to her child, "See? Here are arms … boobs … and legs." When nature and grace are dissevered, so too is everything else. Schaeffer says that in the early modern age when nature was separated from God, nature began to "eat up" grace. One can see this phenomenon at work in Picasso's paintings and personal life.
One of Picasso's mistresses, Marie-Thfamp;copy;rèse Walter, was only 17 when the then-married 45-year-old first seduced her. She later bore him a daughter but eventually found herself replaced by a new mistress. A few years after Picasso's death, Marie-Thfamp;copy;rèse hanged herself.
Just as Christians can and should critique the worldviews expressed by the world's great artists, so too is our worldview displayed through our creative works. What worldview does the world see in the artistry of Christians today?