One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Pablo Picasso:
“What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”
In this quote, Picasso implies that the artist is inextricably bound to their context, that they are shaped by the events in their world, and as a result their work is a response to it. The fact that he calls the artist a ‘political being’ seems to suggest that he feels it is the artist’s responsiblity to consciously address the events around them, thus becoming more of a particpant and less of a mere observer. This quote has had a huge impact on how I view art, and my poetry has certainly been informed by Picasso’s sentiment.
While his quote has been very influential to me, I acknowledge that there seems to be a narrowness to the quote, largely because he attempts to define art itself, not just the role the artist plays. Is art only an ‘instrument of war?’ This is a tough question for me because I know the answer that I want to give. However, it taps into a larger discussion about the autonomy of art. For the purposes of this posting, I’m gonna talk about art in general and use some examples from visual art, though the implications of autonomy affect all forms of expression, including my chosen form, poetry.
Simply put, autonomy refers to the ability of art to stand on its own. According to Oxfordscholarshiponline, “aesthetic autonomy refers to the idea that art (literature, music, visual art) belongs to a realm of its own, separate from ordinary activities and everyday concerns.” The intepretation of these ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ concerns varies, but it seems that there is debate as to whether art should address social concerns. Can art merely be aesthetic and non-political, removed from context? Can art be produced with the sole purpose of decorating apartments?
There is little doubt that art CAN be these things. There has been a long history of artistic movements that prove this; from the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th Century to the guy spray painting space-scapes at your local flea market, ‘art for art’s sake’ has long had a place in our society. Art in these categories requires skill, knowledge of material, and creativity. It also makes art a more populist endeavor. Even if you don’t have an avant garde, ground-breaking idea, even if you are not trying to make a political statement, you can still create something emotionally meaningful and aesthetically pleasing. Bob Ross made a career of this, empowering people to create and teaching them to paint while creating pretty and realistic naturescapes. In this view of art, it is divorced from concept and relies heavily on the practice and skill of the artist. It suggests that art is therefore judged by these skills, and good art is that which is aesthetically pleasing.
The question, though, is whether or not art SHOULD be these things. Picasso clearly thought not. He didn’t think that art for decoration or ‘art’s sake’ was legitimate. In his mind, it seems good art was art that pushed boundaries. It responded to society, either by addressing social issues or by challenging the definition of art itself. What made art good was its ability to break from convention and explore society and art in surprising and innovative ways.
I liken it to paradigm theory in science, developed by Thomas Kuhn and others. According to paradign theory, a new idea is offered to explain a phenomenon that couldn’t be explained by science previously. After the new idea has been offered, scientists test that idea and continue to test it through what is called ‘normal science’ until someone discovers a test that it can’t pass. Once that test has been discovered, scientists attempt to find a new idea, a new paradigm, that passes the test, and the cycle goes on. This theory has been applied to everything from business to government, and even art. The avant garde artist or writer is proposing a new idea about art, but by the time that idea has been accepted into mainstream culture, it has become ‘normal’ and ceases to be good art because it is imitating what has come before. In this vision, only the artists on the cutting edge are producing good art. Only the artists outside of the mainstream (aesthetic or political) are producing anything worth looking at.
There seems to be a strong desire for us to value the innovative artist who marries art with concept and social awareness. However, I don’t know if that is all art is or should be. Every year I give my students an assignment in which they have to interview people and ask them what their favorite poem is and why. The vast majority of the people interviewed select poems that are or were not ground-breaking, but rather poems that held meaning for these individuals. Who am I to discredit that? Who am I to say that their emotional responses to these poems are invalid because the poems are not cutting edge?
Further, can we even have ‘cutting edge’ art without ‘normal’ art? Is it not the normal art that makes the cutting edge stand out more?
In the end, to me, it seems that limiting art and poetry to Picasso’s definition also limits who participates in experiencing and producing art. As someone who feels everyone should be encouraged to embrace their own creativity and expression, this idea does not sit as well with me as it used to. While I certainly accept Picasso’s model as valid and influential to me, I certainly don’t feel it is the only show in town.
Can art ever be truly autonomous, removed from context? Personally, I’m not so sure that it can. Even Bob Ross, in his own way, was challenging the idea that art is reserved for the elite few with specialized talents. The poet who comes to a poetry open mic and reads a poem, however personal or sentimental, is still challenging the idea that only highly skilled and popular writers should write. Seeing these as aesthetically autonomous seems to negate the statement that these acts unto themselves represent. After all, not all wars are fought on battlefields.
What role do you feel autonomy plays in art or poetry? Let me know your thoughts.
Thanks for reading!