I experienced an unpleasant shock of recognition last week upon hearing American Idol judge Randy Jackson, in a TV promo for the upcoming season, describe the show as the “Picasso of its kind.” Wow! High praise to be sure, but while Picasso liked to paint musical instruments, sheet music, and musicians, and famously said that “To draw, you must close your eyes and sing,” he never described himself as a musician; I doubt he could sing well enough to rate a slot on American Idol. Moreover, he was a person, not a corporate entity; his individualized, hands-on creativity was distinctly different from the division-of-labor group effort required of any television production. So what was Jackson doing positing Picasso’s groundbreaking visual modernism as a parallel for the achievements of a televised pop music competition? Wouldn’t the more appropriate exemplar of modern musical excellence be Stravinsky, the groundbreaking musician who Picasso stylized in an iconic line drawing portrait?
I tried to parse what judge Jackson meant by shunning sonic innovation in favor of visual exceptionalism. It couldn’t be because Stravinsky’s compositions were more difficult, more radical than Picasso’s—both received plenty of outrage when they first hit the scene, and both are now seen as primary players in the story of artistic modernism. Was it because Stravinsky’s glasses and formal attire seem less hip to contemporary eyes than the pose of virile informality Picasso struck? Perhaps. But what is it with musicians and Picasso? A little Googling turns up a quote by Tony Bennett from a January 11, 2012 Rolling Stone interview with Steve Appleford, stating that “Lady Gaga could become America’s Picasso.”
Neither of these people are Picasso, although Bennett paints as well as sings.
So that’s where Jackson got the idea! Well, Picasso is alleged to have declared that “good artists copy, great artists steal,” and Jackson, himself a musician, definitely liberated an idea from a great vocal artist. Is this need to cite Picasso some kind of secret code among musicians, a lust after the Spaniard’s legendary mirada fuerte, the strong gaze Picasso claimed allowed him to seduce women with his eyes?
Invading another cultural realm in search of an analogy, Bennett and Jackson found in Picasso a natural, one who had the extra value of having already been road-tested in 1990s Gap ads as one of many hip 20th-century creatives, living and dead, who “wore khakis.” Understanding that visual art, when not encountered in its more obscure contemporary forms, remains a principle avatar of contemporary creativity, they simply took advantage of the fact that, within mainstream media, visual art remains an undefended, uncontested, target-rich analogy environment. In choosing Picasso, each felt free to channel what they thought was the most famous dead artist their target audience would recognize. But here’s the rub: While museum-building remains a growth activity, and museum attendance is popular with all audiences and demographics, no one talks about it on broadcast American television now that Robert Hughes is dead; worse, precious little ink is spilled discussing it in mainstream online or print publications. This means there was no one available to go on camera and point out to Jackson that Picasso’s creativity was incarnate, not incorporated; no critic was available to question the wisdom of Bennett’s connection between Picasso’s transformative seven decade creative arc and a musician still in the early stages of her career. What this brought home to me, as if it needed reinforcing, is how marginalized art criticism has become, and that in its marginal existence, all the writing of all the art scribes, critics, and scholars in the world cannot compete with the televised throw-weight of one 30-second spot broadcast during a professional football game.
This apprehension gave me a creeping sense of helplessness, similar to what the Polish army must have felt as they tried to counterattack the German army’s mechanized blitzkrieg on horseback. But then I remembered another Picasso quote, made in the middle of World War II by an artist who had completely remade an already momentous career by painting “Guernica”: “Art is not made to decorate rooms. It is an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy.” This was my “aha” moment. Critics need to update their reading list to include the Art of War, and in so doing relearn what it means to think outside the box. “Art is not made to decorate rooms” is a direct refutation of what the hyper-commercialized art world has come to be, as well the descriptive formalism in which many critics find refuge. Picasso’s opinionated distinction between eye candy and assertive content reminds me of the late, great Manny Farber, who wrote primarily about film, in venues as mainstream as Time and audience-specific as Film Culture. He was also a painter who knew what it was like to make art. His 1962 “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” endorsed art that “goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” This is trenchant advice for anyone involved in making observations or drawing conclusions about art. Farber’s emphasis on “burrowing into a topic” sounds a lot like the tunnels and alternative pathways the Vietnamese used to supply a long, costly, but eventually successful struggle against a much stronger opponent. We critics need to set aside what has become a penchant for accommodation, which we too often practice as well-spoken formal descriptiveness. Instead, we need to learn again to be activist “termite” critics, in order to build tunnels and alternate pathways that allow us to once again influence the ways art is discussed and understood by mainstream media.
CHRISTOPHER FRENCH can't carry a tune, but he knows how to handle a paintbrush. He has written about art for more than 30 years, and is president of the United States chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA).