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Is the Death of Art Upon Us?


In 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, General Franco’s planes bombed Guernica, the holy city of the Basques, for three days. The city was flattened, and about 1600 people were killed, a large number children. The event shocked the world. How could anyone bomb children?

It could be argued, of course, that ‘the world’ which was shocked was, essentially, the white world, since, for the first time in the history of aerial bombardment, white children were bombed. European powers had been bombing relentlessly, including children, in the non-white lands of Africa and Asia for decades. Far from being shocked, the white world didn’t even notice.

Be that as it may. The point is that the bombing of Guernica shocked the world. Out of this shock and horror emerged Pablo Picasso’s painting. It could be argued, quite persuasively, that Picasso’s Guernica has become the most well-known painting of the twentieth century, a kind of modern-day Mona Lisa, instantly recognizable across the world.

Mona Lisa represents a world on the verge of modernity. A world emerging from the dark age of semi-bondage that was feudalism, going towards the dubious freedom of capitalism. A world in which the individual was gaining an identity, but an identity that was almost instantly plunged into crisis.

Mona Lisa is a portrait of an individual, and it is perhaps only fitting that we are not sure of the identity of this individual. Her eyes seem somewhat red, and her smile enigmatic ? set in twilight, a half-smile at the end of a day of crying, or, more likely, on the eve of a long night of weeping.

Guernica is that night. The night of war. The night of wanton destruction. The sky has no sun, but an electric bulb; the bulb, however, has no light, Guernica is colourless, monochromatic. The horse and the bull evoke broken Spain, but also simultaneously the tragedy of all humankind, as if through all of history. The image is then simultaneously contemporaneous and timeless. It is quite telling that to depict the horror of war, made possible by modern technologies of destruction, Picasso uses only one technological element in his painting, the electric bulb that watches blankly over this destruction, like a blind man’s eye.

Where is Guernica today? In Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Lebanon, elsewhere. Guernicas exist in the world, not on canvasses.

With so many Guernicas all over the world, and with their horror visiting our drawing rooms every evening via television, where is today’s Picasso, and where is today’s Guernica?

It is not as if people do not feel outraged any more. It is not as if artists no longer give voice to our outrage. But something has indisputably changed.

Like all great artists, Picasso was a complicated figure, and doubtless meant many things to different people. Interpretations of his work, its motivations and meanings will vary, and scholars and historians, not to mention biographers, will continue to fight over these.

On two points, however, there is likely to be broad consensus. One, that Picasso, a revolutionary in art, was also seen as a political radical, a left-wing figure. Indeed, he remained a member of the Communist Party of France till his death. It is no coincidence that both Guernica, the most recognized anti-war painting of all time, as well as the universal symbol of peace, the white dove, are his creations. He certainly considered himself a radical. Here is what he had to say in 1944, in a declaration to New Masses:

“I am proud to say that I have never considered painting an act of charm or seduction or distraction. I wanted ? through painting and drawing, since those were my weapons ? to penetrate, to advance, always deeper, always further, in knowledge of the world and of humanity. . . . And I am conscious of having always through painting struggled as a committed revolutionary.”

Two, that Picasso was one of the most marketable painters of his time ? he was reportedly a millionaire by the time he was in his mid-twenties. Indeed, of all time ? one of his paintings was auctioned for some 104 million dollars a couple of years ago, another for 95 million earlier this year.

Picasso was, then, a “committed revolutionary” as much as the most successful painter in history.

The problems, and dilemmas, facing today’s artists are, in a sense, unprecedented. For one, the very fact that war, along with all kinds of assorted violences, enters our drawing rooms today makes it normal, mundane, less horrific. Even more. Millions of dollars are spent on, in fact, aestheticizing war and other violence. How do you cut through this massive aestheticizing? How do you make war and death and devastation in some ways tangible? Is it not the case that no matter what you do, any depiction of the horrors of our times ends up aetheticizing those same horrors, and turns us into voyeurs? Forget Hollywood or Bollywood, even Greenpeace has produced an exquisitely printed coffee table book on Bhopal.

A second, and related problem is that the market has become far more pervasive than it ever was. What the market does to the poor and the dispossessed is of course there for all to see.

In Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region alone, more than 1,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last one year, each one a result of indebtedness resulting from the integration of Indian agriculture into world prices. The market is not only pervasive, it is highly centralized and monopolized as well. As schoolchildren, we had read about the War of Plassey, waged in the mid-18th century by the British East India Company to get the right to extract revenue from Bengal. Iraq is that kind of war, waged for the private profit of a handful of giant corporations.

But what the market does to images and symbols is no less frightening. There is scarcely a radical symbol today that has not been chewed up and sucked dry by the market. Che, the quintessential revolutionary, is today an image on a vodka label, a pure icon, a footloose signifier without a corresponding signified.

The fiercest assault, however, has been on the idea of truth itself. On the one hand, postmodernism has reduced every event to a “text”, which can be read one way by you and another by me. Or, to put it more precisely, since all reality is mediated through language, there is only language available and not unmediated reality for interpretation and analysis. You could argue that this is much the same as saying that there is no reality, but of course postmodernism will not actually say it. If Nietzsche famously said that God is dead, the major philosophers of the West today would say that Truth is dead.

On the other hand, truth has been made more and more opaque, unreachable, unfathomable, precisely by the technologies that are supposed to give us direct access to it. Images of war that are ostensibly “live” are in fact staged, doctored and censored in a million different ways before they come to us.

Or consider the most repeatedly viewed events on live television in recent times: the bombing of the World Trade Centre towers by commercial airplanes, and Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in the World Cup final. After a million replays watched by a billion or more people, after reams and reams of newsprint expended in telling us what happened, isn’t it amazing that far from fathoming the truth, it appears as if with each replay, the truth only recedes farther?

While he was painting Guernica, Picasso had said:

“The war in Spain is a reaction ? against the people, against liberty. My whole life as an artist has been a continual struggle against reaction, and the death of art. In the picture I am now painting ? which I shall call Guernica ? and in all my recent work, I am expressing my horror of the military caste which is now plunging Spain into an ocean of misery and death.”

If the assault on truth continues unabated, the “death of art” that Picasso spoke about may be upon us sooner than we imagine.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, and an editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi. He can be reached at deshsud@rediffmail.com.

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