Thursday, May 08, 2008

Becoming modern


Many years ago, Time magazine illustrated an article with a painting of Pablo Picasso. As I recall, it was the ground-breaking cubist work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Someone wrote to the magazine saying something to the effect, "My eight-year-old son could have painted that." Time accompanied the letter with a highly-accomplished sketch by the eight-year-old Picasso. I haven't been able to track down the letter or the sketch, but here is a painting by the artist at age fifteen.

What Picasso was up to in 1907 with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon has been a matter of debate among art historians, but it clearly wasn't to provide a photographic representation of reality. Ostensibly, the subject of the painting is five prostitutes in a brothel, but what the painting documents is a mind in interaction with the world. The "reality" Picasso seeks is at a remove from what presents itself unmediated to the senses.

At almost the same time, Picasso's contemporary Albert Einstein was showing that physical space and time is relative to an observer.

The parallels between the two lives are numerous and striking, as Arthur I. Miller has shown in Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc. By force of their creativity and personalities they pretty much defined modernity in art and science. Neither man, however, quite let go of classicism. Einstein never accepted the pure mathematical formalisms of Heisenberg and Bohr. Picasso never made the break into pure abstraction.

What they left us with is a simple lesson that has survived subsequent developments in art and science: We construct our own reality.

Which does not mean, of course, that every reality is equally real. We stub our toe against the real. It does mean to distrust pure objectivism and pure subjectivism -- and abjure dogma wherever we find it.