Picasso knew a thing or two. The truth is that art is a pack of lies: fiction, paintings, sculpture, music, opera, theatre, and all the other constructed elements of the artistic mind. And those new pretenders claiming to anchor themselves in the nitty-gritty facts of life—non-fiction and reality TV—are the greatest liars of all.
Last month I had the good fortune to visit the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park during their Picasso retrospective, “Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso.” I’ve always admired Picasso’s approach to art, his disdain for what passes for public taste and establishment art. But apart from his personal rebellions, I also admire what he discovered and brought into human consciousness. One of his fascinating inventions, Cubism (which he developed with the help of Georges Braque in the early 20th c.), isn’t so much a way to represent something we might encounter in daily life, but rather an exhibit of what we can perceive when the human imagination is rendered by visionary genius.
Nonetheless, Cubism is a lie. It gives concrete form to something that doesn’t exist. Yet at the same time it delivers a perception of almost mathematical balance and design, of intention, motion, and resolution. When you carefully examine the parts and the whole of a particular image, the synergy of Picasso’s work can feel overwhelming. This feeling of artistic heft is due to the greater weight of the whole compared to the sum of its parts. Whether you are looking at the Portrait of Dora Maar or Deux femmes courant sur la plage, or La Lecture you can find yourself nodding in agreement, thinking, Yes, this is the way it is: the truth.
Other art forms provide similar instructive deceptions. Hemingway and many other writers admitted to it. When they are well rendered, the illusions of art are so powerful that we accept fiction, dramatic and film characters as legitimate personnas in our lives. The same holds for music that we love and repeat (sometimes endlessly it seems) in our minds—and for other art forms divined from human imagination.
If there’s a point to this bit of argument (another clever form of deception) it’s that good art—art worth our time and money—can lead us to understand who are what sort of place we can make for ourselves in this world.