For all of living memory, they have been making this wilderness and calling it art. If you were there in Paris, as I was, for the public sale of the Picasso legacy belonging to the artist’s mistress and model Dora Maar, you would know whereof I speak.
The masterpiece of this collection, Weeping Woman, probably the most repulsive work in portraiture up to its time (though successfully emulated since), inspired an hysteria of greed. Both the painting and its sale must rank as highwater marks in the incarnation of the hideous, the ongoing search for an ideal ugliness to characterize our time.
In this painting, Picasso has outdone himself, insulting his subject, the art of portraiture, all the artistic ideals of the West, and life itself And it is not well painted. Which is to say one would be hard put to imagine paint laid to canvas in some less painterly way. That he made myriads of such paragons of anti-craftsmanship can only imply that (beyond his contempt for his patrons) Picasso loathed himself.
There is a term for this state of soul, taedium vitae, for which our word “tedium” would seem too neutral. What it really means is that one abominates life. Many must have this affliction, since paintings radiant with the beauty of the artist and the model, pieces that prove Picasso could really paint if he wanted to, went for little money.
At the same time as the Paris sale, an American gallery mounted a retrospective of Jackson Pollock, whose fanfare one might have recited by heart: O that courageous, refreshingly nose-thumbing iconoclast! O so uniquely American originality! To have come up with a way of painting that annihilated it!
The inevitable product of an age obsessed with absolutes of individuality. Pollock confessed to having run his method into the ground before his offhand end, although many a tarmac splatted with pigeon droppings, and many a drop cloth besmirched, has taken on new meaning since. Meanwhile, two of Picasso’s most formidable contemporaries, creators of modernism’s defining works in music and poetry, have entered what one hopes is a temporary eclipse. (The hope is for humanity, the artists themselves being well out of it.) Igor Stravinsky and T.S. Eliot, after giving birth to monsters of provocation, reconsidered, and thought better of it. Their works, hardly ever considered together, are intimately interrelated. “The Waste Land,” opening as it does with the now familiar dirge upon April’s cruelty (which is assumed to parody the opening of Canterbury Tales), pays explicit homage to The Rite of Spring. Eliot had attended the London debut, risen to his feet in an audience nonplussed, and cheered.
Although they did not befriend one another until old age, both worked at different times in artistic seclusion on the same stretch of the Lake Geneva shoreline. The two works inspired almost identical public reactions, inciting a notoriety that amounted to scandal—in Stravinsky’s case it was an actual riot—that soon gave both of them reputations exceeding their art. But there was also a prolonged crisis for the artists themselves, both of whom split off into shards of miserable modernism before embracing Christianity. Their conversions were regarded with an unease that equaled the original outcry. At the same time, both the poet and the composer were returning philosophically to the classical traditions of their arts, laboring doggedly to produce work to rival any in the realm of ideal beauty.
In a conjunction, unheralded and unpremeditated (as of stars), each in the course of 1930 unveiled another watershed masterwork—of spiritual surrender, this time —attuned to the public mood ensuing upon the Great Crash. Stravinsky’s A Symphony of Psalms even shares a biblical text with Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” The Exaudi supplicationem meam with which the one begins and the “and let my prayer come unto Thee” with which the other ends, are the first and last lines of the same psalm.
This could only have been what it was taken for: a slap in the face of modernism, modernity, skepticism and all its works, though in each case, the despair was real. Their works also represented a revolt against the cult of personality that had rendered both of them so public, a cult adhered to by modernists of a wider sphere, including Stalin and Hitler, who presented themselves as saviors of mankind. Stravinsky and Eliot were denounced: Not only were they bourgeois decadents, they had failed to fulfill the promise of their apocalypses.
What, one wonders, was anyone imagining might be the sequel to a virgin’s blood sacrifice or to the collapse of civilized consciousness with corpses in the street, other than what actually did happen during the 20th century? For some three centuries now, thoughtful minds (not usually those of artists) have been witness, Cassandra-like, to the coming war of all against all, although droves of sophists have humored us into paying no heed. Still, the big thing proceeds, chaotic and futilistic, to descend upon us.
But to take responsibility for the prophetic role that artists of the last century only dreamt of (and that several of ours have actually performed) is to embody something beyond mere personality and to move into the perennial, the catholic, the cosmic, the anonymously human. It requires us to defy the current axiom —that publicity is the only reality, a reality we must survive by living for things beyond ourselves and for others besides ourselves. Stravinsky and Eliot, as long as they lived, enjoyed uncommonly widespread, uncommonly perceptive, uncommonly devoted approbation, having voiced the unvoiced aspirations of a host of anonymous souls by becoming, themselves, anonymous souls.
Now, they must seem remote, as publicity’s reality proclaims some poor soul the Hemingway of a new lost generation. I thread through a Paris whose bistros bulge with the new lost generation drinking alone in crowds, museums trafficked as the Metro, barren of Hemingway or other vestiges of former glories. I learn that “He” is dead. I learn that “He” was nothing but the creature of his editor whose vampire’s knack transformed its victim’s drivel into a cynical (if sleekly crafted) trash, truly expressive of its time.
And who is to blame? Audiences eagerly devour the hoax of personal celebrity, while would-be artists who have already thrown away their souls line up around the block to try to sell them again for sums that purchase barely a fleeting illusion of having lived. There can be no question of actual art in such a world.
As the Battle of Britain loomed, Eliot closed his magazine, The Criterion, by sounding a somber note from the Dark Ages. There would be, he predicted, no more organized culture for the foreseeable future. In spite of the Allied victory, by the 1960’s, there was none. Meanwhile, the counterculture resembled culture as a black hole resembles a solar system. An aged Picasso appeared in Life on the pot. He conceded that he was not a great painter: “Raffaello, Velasquez, Vermeer, they were. I am only a public entertainer.” Stravinsky, his end impending, offered some last advice to composers of the future: “Make a million. Only if it comes easy. Otherwise, head underground.”
In a previous darkening time, as Rome succumbed, as the bishop of Hippo turned his mind to eternal things, the citizens of the city went underground, sequestering what remained of civility, literacy, the arts, within an anonymity of innovation, the manor monastery, consecrated to the renewal of the world by fostering the soul out of the soil. In time, Cassiodorus and Benedict carried their point. They renewed the world.
I rest my case.