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Take a leaf out of Picasso's book

The view that, deep down, all that human beings are really interested in is looking after themselves is commonplace and at the same time a truism. Yet it begs the question that in today’s society, individual interests and those of humanity as a whole also coincide.

Today’s correspondence of a super-heated and plundered planet with an explosive economic, financial and political crisis self-evidently cannot be solved on an individual basis, neither by the ruling classes nor by the rest of us.

But the more this becomes apparent, the more a view of humanity as simply creatures of greedy instincts is trundled out again and again. The purveyors of this jaded (but unscientific) notion perform a vital function. Hiding behind a facile cynicism, they conveniently dismiss notions of revolutionary political change.

Previewing a pioneering exhibition opening this week at Tate Liverpool, Professor Alex Danchev (military historian of St Antony’s College who has turned to art history) is given space in that paper of organised cynicism, The Guardian, to conclude that “Pablo Picasso, a painter without peer, lived and died an egotist. A party of one was his ideal station”. Danchev misses no opportunity to stick the knife into the artist, accusing him of “gesture politics” and “posturing”.

Of course Picasso’s very persona was that of an extrovert showman who enjoyed throwing spanners into the works and making provocative and perplexing statements. But that in no way was in contradiction to his impassioned opposition to Fascism and Nazism, and his campaign against war, in particular nuclear war.

Picasso was the most controversial artist of the last century. Along with Georges Braque he revolutionised painting and the way we see the world. His view of the human body and the human condition continue to excite and intrigue. Due in part to the astronomical sums fetched by his work, his artistic prowess remains in the public eye.

But the curators of Picasso: Peace and Freedom have assembled a mass of evidence to show there was a less well known side to the man – he was a political animal through and through. His painting Guernica, an outcry against the Fascist bombing of a village in the Basque country in 1937, retains its power to provoke and inspire. So much so that a replica of Guernica in the Security Council of the United Nations was covered up on the eve of the Iraq war as the United States and Britain lied their way to an illegal invasion in 2003.

Picasso joined the French Communist Party after the liberation of Paris in 1944, having lived through the dark years of the war and occupation. He stuck with the PCF despite, not because, of its Stalinist monstrosities. Almost unbelievably, Danchev portrays the artist as a “slavish” devotee of Stalinism when the opposite was the case. Picasso signed an open letter opposing the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

In staging this show, Lynda Morris and Christoph Grunenberg have thrown down a political gauntlet. They have assembled a mountain of evidence which challenges the view that Picasso’s politics were in some way secondary to his being as a person and an artist. The breadth and scope of his commitment to a host of causes, including racial equality, the campaign to prevent the execution of the Rosenbergs, against the death penalty and anti-Semitism is indisputable. Picasso has clearly come back to haunt those who seek to defend capitalism and its political institutions.

The depth of Picasso’s beliefs – and his conflicts with Stalinism – should inspire A World to Win’s Taking the Revolutionary Road conference this Saturday. In our Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions we appeal to creative workers of all kinds to help end the prison of capitalist social relations. The Cold War may be well and truly over, but “the battle for Picasso’s mind” as the CIA dubbed it, goes on.

Corinna Lotz
Secretary, A World to Win
17 May 2010

Picasso: Peace and Freedom is at the Tate Liverpool 21 May-30 August

Your Say

Dylan says:

Guernica speaks the truth so many times louder than some silly military historian's made up nonsense.

The so called 'selfish gene' is a myth too. We can be whatever we want to be through education and will. Now is certainly the time to prove cynics wrong with the eco - crisis and the need to stick together against the state and the banks who have the idea that the banks can create unprecedented debt then force the rest of us to pay it back or else, whilst the banks continue their same practises. All together now, "Can't pay, won't pay!"

Jonathan says:

Anyone who hasn't seen Guernica (let alone the preparatory sketches) and felt themselves inside 'the action' and then condemns Picasso as ‘best seen as a kind of political sleeper’, or who has seen his paintings of the first decade of the 20th century and seen the coincidence (conscious or not) of his work with that of Einstein's ground breaking work and Vladimir Lenin’s Materialism and Empiro-Criticism has either an agenda, as outlined above. Go to his ‘University’ web site; you find a picture of a Bust of Lenin lying in front of a scrap of metal dumped on some grass. He understands iconography well, but not Lenin. He has, I agree, a cynical approach to the role of the individual in society, or is trying desperately to place (paste over) cynicism in the mind of the reader, I’m not sure which is the greater crime, oh, yes I am, cynicism, a great philosophy in ancient greece, is now a tool to stop the idea of change. What started as a method of total questions becomes a method of defeat and individualism, of acceptance of your lot, of asking no searching questions of authority and power. OK at the top, hard luck at the bottom. How Picasso 'felt' linked to the role of the masses in developing events is 'felt' by an observer even if not directly involved in those particular events. And if the fact he found his role, as an individual artist, is this how he is to be condemned - maybe the military historian, and designer of political-military strategists, is feeling touched in another sense, exposed, certainly. Is this not the role of the artist? It is worth quoting the whole of Picasso’s response to, oh yes, a Journalist, and what is the precise role of the Professor of War Studies (Politics and International Relations) as a journalist, who we note from his ‘School’ of Nottingham University has experts in the ‘research department’ in milatary-media relations, political-psychology, and ‘ethics’; trashing the individual artist but not daring to trash the art. Nice work if you can get it. But is it journalism, is it review? I think not. So he quotes this by Picasso.

"What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he's a painter, ears if he's a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he's a poet – or even, if he's a boxer, only some muscles? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How is it possible to be uninterested in other men and by virtue of what cold nonchalance can you detach yourself from the life that they supply so copiously? No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It's an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy."

And it should be added that the artist must, like the rest of us, reflect the imperfections, both in their art and in their social life, of the rest of alienated humanity. Otherwise why attempt to reflect it, then change it. And Picasso did both, he fulfilled his role as a human being, with its perfections and imperfections, at that stage of development till the cup overflowed.

As the great leader of the Red Orchestra (die Rote Kapelle), Leopold Trepper , pointed out; we did not have Trotsky’s political platform available. They played a heroic part and nor should it be against Picasso, or the majority of the French Communist Party, that Stalinism had so distorted Marxism as to turn Dialectical Materialism into the dry Empiricism of Metaphysical Materialism and had murdered or had sent to Siberia those that held this scientific development in their heads. Yet a study of Picasso even shows that he never fully fell into this trap, as indeed did great swaves of intellectual members of the Party in the S.U. And indeed ‘ but nagging questions persist’ as to our esteemed Professor. I can’t help noting the irony of this excellently written piece of deception by the ‘fabled’ Professor, surely a better example of ‘slavish devotions to the servile’ militarism and decadent economics of the ‘west’ (but note, not the Stalinist Parties for all the shortcomings), war by other means but note that this form, journalism, is known to this man, he teaches and studies ‘the special relationship’ best exemplified by GCHQ.

Yea; I fully endorse the call to see the 'Picasso: Peace and Freedom exhibition and then to attend the World to Win conference. In that order if there is time left.

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