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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Octavio Paz: "Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature" Part 003

There is not critical power stronger than that of an academic who crosses borders of artistic criticism at his or her own will. I don't have a problem with Octavio Paz' examination of Pablo Picasso, and I admit readily that most of what he says is dead-on. The only polemic I can bring up is Octavio Paz' constant use of that which contradicts itself in his criticism; sentences say one thing and before they end, they express the complete opposite. At the center of this constant contradiction is Picasso--is there anything more to say about this artist beyond saying his name? Paz' writing narrows down the rebellion of Picasso's art, the non-conformity of every inch of the artist's life, personal and public. Paz' is at once comfortable and ill at ease with Picasso (wow, now I am starting to sound like Paz). Octavio Paz' essay runs along the same lines of Norman Mailer's biography of Pablo Picasso--there's much metaphoric and analogical language to sink a ship and enough contradiction to raise it again from the depths. Paz states that, "The paradox of Picasso, as a historical phenomenon, lies in the fact that is the representative figure of a society that detests representation." Any examination of the chronology of Picasso's work exhibits enough evidence to debunk Paz' statement. Picasso did not represent, Picasso shaped, he led, he transfigured what society held as representative. He led and dictated the idiom of that representation; society be damned if it did not accord to Picasso's view of the world. Critics have labeled each and every one of Picasso's "periods," and even that signification did not make amends between the Catalonian and the rest of the art world. For example, Picasso embraced the brutality of the bullring in his art, producing even what some experts call "menial" advertising copy posters for bull fighting events. I think this harsh criticism (a criticism which also ignores the fact that those "menial" ad posters sell for thousands if not millions of dollars), and this view of Picasso's so-called "menial" work is based on today's incapability to understand the bull fighting tradition. Bull fighting, as explained by Hemingway, the self-declared first aficionado of the sport, is a representation of the ultimate combat between beast and human, perhaps Picasso's struggle against the art world. Having its roots on the great Roman games at the Colosseum, bull fighting represents not only brutality but also a sort of reverent art, a dignified moment for a man to face his ultimate fears and by the ice cold nerve of his own courage, either win or lose the battle. How does this apply to Picasso? In this case I do agree with Octavio Paz. He describes the connection as follows: Picasso, being the essential lone/rebellious artist, comes to embody the bullfighter calling out to his cuadrilla to leave him alone with the beast; the moment has come for him to individually kill or be killed. In this case, art is the beast, and Picasso its tamer. Paz states that "Like all art of this century [the 20th], though with greater ferocity, Picasso's is shot through with an immense negation. He himself once said: 'In order to make, one must make against." We live with the understanding that producing art that rebels against representation is a rebellion against plurality and an attempt at a hermetic singularity; that is to say, to go against the current by leaving behind any sort of influence, to embark in the most pure of all originality that defies the criticism of the day, is not only sacrilegious, but in most cases artistic suicide. Picasso was the first to break the dependence of art on criticism. I am not sure this is Picasso--I mean the interpretation, but Paz' takes it a step further and I begin to understand: "Our art has been and is critical; by this I mean that in the greater works of our day--novels, paintings, poems or musical compositions--criticism is inseparable from creation. I correct myself: criticism is creative. Criticism of criticism, criticism of form, criticism of the human figure and of the visible reality in painting and sculpture. In Marcel Duchamp, Picasso's opposite pole, the negation of our century is expressed as a criticism of passion and its phantoms." We know the visible world by labels, and by labels alone we interpret and criticize. This was the academic tumult of the post World War II era--perhaps what this particular American manifestation brought about. Academics became specialized, concentrated on one of a million forms in order narrow down their critical eye and create by "destroying" the singularity of meaning. Art became feminist, or anti-feminist, Marxist or even Imperialist. These specialized critics narrowed down on what they thought was Picasso's Achilles' heel; the period that propelled Picasso into the "modern" idea of art appreciation. The critics seized Cubism not because it was simple to "break down" into criticism, but because the Blue and the Pink periods of Picasso's artistic representation were difficult to narrow down, to entrap and "abuse." But with Cubism Picasso also had his coup d'etat--as if saying to the so-called interpreters to kiss his royal ass. In the late 1950s, when asked by critics what Picasso and his contemporaries spoke about in their days-long tertulias, he responded that the topic of most interest was where to get cheap turpentine. The critics were outraged. How dare the artist trick us like this! Picasso went to his grave undefeated, a master of his time and his art still speaks of that unanimity.

This is my last entry on "Convergences: Essay on Art and Literature." There's much more to discuss about Octavio Paz' vision of the literal, the lines of meaning and translation, among other themes, but the volume is thick in substance and I don't want to turn this blog into a tribute (however well deserved) to Octavio Paz. I think these entries are enough.

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