How easy is it to attack a venerated artistic figure? This easy:
This Fourth of July, let’s celebrate courage. It took courage to split from England, courage to risk democracy and still more courage to dream up a constitution to preserve it.
Courage has been the signature virtue of almost every great American: Emily Dickinson was brave to warp grammar, Louis Armstrong was brave to blow jazz and Norman Rockwell was brave to paint the images that helped the nation weather the Depression and World War II.
While not an American himself, Pablo Picasso is often championed by American art patrons as the great painter of abstract virtues. Yet the one virtue most nearly absent from his work is courage. Shifting away from naturalism to cubism during an era when it was obvious that such modern techniques would have the full backing of then self-styled progressive critics, as well as a corporate home in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, funded by wealthy bourgeois-bohemian plutocrats, was a way for any artist to cash in on the hottest art trend of the first half of the 20th century. From the docile abstraction of his style to the received ideas of its audience, Picasso reliably keeps liberals right in the middle of their comfort zone.
That’s what made him one of the most important painters in modern history, and the most popular. He had almost preternatural social intuitions, along with brilliant skills as a visual salesman. Over his seven-decade career, that coupling let him figure out what middle-class white American art collectors such Gertrude and Leo Stein most wanted to feel about themselves, then sell it back to them in paint. (He started working as an illustrator at 16, in 1897. He died, still in the saddle at 91, in 1973.)
You could say that Picasso painted the backdrop against which bobo pretension continues to play itself out.