Cubism vs. Racism: What We Can Learn From Picasso
Carlo Rey Lacsamana
Art has social implications. It works both directly and indirectly to mould the individual and the community’s consciousness by providing unexpected ways of seeing the world. Facts inform us; art, on the other hand, freshens our sense of reality. Art determines not to simplify the most complicated issues of our time, rather it deepens our awareness by inviting us to step into an hitherto unknown sensibility: an other experience.
I remember visiting a Picasso exhibition entitled “Ho voluto essere un pittore e sono diventato Picasso” (I wanted to be a painter and I became Picasso), back in 2011 in Pisa. Both the early and late works of Picasso’s cubist phase were on display. Looking back on those cubist paintings I am pulled towards one of the most problematic issues of our time: The reality of racism which we have witnessed virtually in such a disgusting scale in the tragedy of George Floyd that marked the year 2020 alongside the outbreak of the pandemic. To view cubist works today is to be encouraged to rediscover fresh ways of engaging with the world. Great works of art may help us deal with racism today.
The startling revelation of Cubism when it first appeared in public opened a new way of looking at the world. When Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon appeared in 1907 the conception of art was dramatically altered. The 500-year-old tradition of perspective was suddenly shaken and challenged by the discovery of Cubism. It proposes that the object can be viewed from all possible vantage points round it instead of the singular linear reach of the eye. This compelling transformation of art and how we see art was possible through one simple, undisguised fact: the recognition of African art.
There are various aspects of reality that we must take into consideration if we wish to understand the world. Perhaps the most reassuring and stable reality of life is our differences: human diversity. To look at the world from a single vantage point (the fictitious claims of political party, class, tribe, race, nation, etc.) is to reduce the multiplicity, the plurality, the countless gestures and elements that make up a colorful and dynamic world into a narrow, conformist, self-righteous ideology that leads to fundamentalism.
Fascism, in its contemporary sense, is conformism, which puts traditional loyalties of one’s culture, allegiance to one’s group on top above all others. The brutal murder of George Floyd is a product of this myopic view of the world, of the degenerate self-affirming superiority over others.
“Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar-roses, should be identical. . . If you attempt to erase the peculiarities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate.” - Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
Picasso confronted the inadequate representation of perspective by resorting to a different cultural experience: African sculpture. His unforgettable visit to the Ethnographic Museum at the Palais du Trocadéro fortified the horizons of what would become Cubism. That simple act of recognizing other culture (African art), other existence, other human condition, provided Picasso another way of looking at the world, a new artistic perspective. It gave to his art the dimension of individual and social diversity. The Avignon painting generated a new class of art and artists. The unmistakable presence and energy of African art became an intrinsic element perceptible in Picasso’s time and today’s aesthetic adventures.
The eternal accomplishment of Cubism is due to that simple act of acknowledgment. It is, in its essence, the acceptance of diversity, the recognition of different points of view, and the surrender of one’s closed world. In contrast, racism is the rebuttal of differences; the inability to embrace the varied modes of human expression, feeling and sensation, the complexities of being and the various possibilities of living. Racism is a dull monologue which makes itself heard through violence.
I remember vividly that same week when I visited the Picasso exhibition in 2011, two Senegalese street-vendors in Florence were mercilessly shot by a rabid, far-right militant in Piazza Dalmazia. I often go to Florence and I’m familiar with that street market in Piazzia Dalmazia where the shooting took place. There the street vendors are mostly immigrants from Africa. They sell whatever they can sell: leather bags, pens, umbrellas, fashion accessories, books by their own native authors, pocket tissues, musical instruments, reproductions of famous paintings, etc. They work all week, all year round, no season is not a business season. Like any struggling worker in the city they work simply to survive, and the survival of their families depends on their survival, too.
Many of the street vendors are “paperless,” meaning undocumented immigrants. Whenever they see an approaching police or carabinieri they scatter like disturbed ants, hide in corners, and wait till it’s safe to be out in the street again.
To remarkably unthinking, idiotic racists these immigrants uninvitedly came to their country to steal “our” jobs, defecate in the streets, exhaust the economy, spread their religion, steal babies, etc.—all of which can be dismissed as utter nonsense. No one leaves his home country for a tormenting, marginal life in a foreign land. Immigration is enforced. It is a profound form of displacement; it entails leaving not only one’s native land but also familiar landscapes, food, friends, childhood, memories, language. The great English poet William Wordsworth writes of the heartbreak of immigration in the poem The Prelude:
“I, who with the breeze
Had played, a green leaf on the blessed tree
Of my beloved country - nor had wished
For happier fortune than to wither there -
Now from my pleasant station was cut off,
And tossed about in whirlwinds.”
To immigrate is to be cut off from the center of one’s being and tossed about in the whirlwinds of strangeness.
Cubism in social affairs is solidarity. Cubism demonstrates that in view of life there is no one center nor a specific vantage point to which life can be confined, judged, and lived. No one people is more special than others as there is no single way of living as the consumerist, corporate culture wants us to believe. Life itself must be confronted from all points of perception; must be embraced in all its wealth of social and cultural differences, and must be challenged by different values and ideas. Therefore selfishness has no room in the sensibility of Cubism but generosity. This is the essence of all great works of art: the miracle of boundless generosity that acknowledges the beauty of others through effective appropriation and nourishing awareness of other traditions.
Carlo Rey Lacsamana: “I am a Filipino born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, I have been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. I regularly contribute to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. I also write for a local academic magazine in Tuscany that is published twice a year. My articles have been published in magazines in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, India, and Mexico. Visit my website or follow me on Instagram @carlo_rey_lacsamana.”