Pablo Picasso was the preeminent artist of the 20th century and his genius shook the art world from hundreds of years of tradition and sent it in new and profound directions. If you have ever seen a Picasso exhibit that includes his earliest work (I am thinking of a portrait he painted at age 13) you know that his technical skill was genius. He could render a self-portrait at 13 that defied understanding. His skill and technical ability at an early age were equivalent to those working at the highest level of the academy. And yet, this is not the genius for which he is known; a genius so defined for its complicity with the existing art world paradigm.
No, Picasso achieved his genius for exactly the opposite reason, for creating his own paradigm, one that rigorously defied the current norms that simply did not work for him. And yet, his efforts in creating this new paradigm and his efforts toward artistic innovation were not about looking forward to new technologies or the skills and techniques of the future. They were instead focused on looking back and unpacking the baggage of cultural expectations and tired creative standards and traditions to become an artist that was more fully himself, more fully human.
In his words, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael and a lifetime to paint like a child.”
Picasso’s groundbreaking genius was the genius of the child; a genius we all once had but has been obscured by years of “development” and cultural norming. His was a genius of deconstruction for the sake of a more fully realized, more liberating construction. It was the genius of starting over and working toward the world we want to live in rather than adapting to the world as we already know it.
Last week, I spent a profound week with a group of students, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are part of Project UNIFY through the Special Olympics. And, I was stunned and moved by what I saw. I got a glimpse of a social and educational world created by youth and rooted in Picasso’s deconstructive genius.
As in Picasso’s approach to painting, the norms, expectations, and definitions of disability (rather than art) were denied by these young people in order to develop more genuine friendships and achieve shared learning. In this space, “otherness” of all types was set aside for the one-ness of youth. During this time, the young people understood that there is no justice for one without justice for the other. The whole premise of their engagement defied our adult-driven society’s limiting expectations of youth and of disability and created a space for each person to be more fully himself/herself.
Disability was for another place and time and certainly another audience. This was about ability – something everyone has. What the Project UNIFY approach enabled was truly profound:
What I saw enabled in youth at the Youth Activation Summit can only be described as a sort of social genius. While Picasso struggled a lifetime to undo the social, cultural, and creative norms of art, these young people (at least in this setting) were already unfettered by the social and cultural norms and expectations of the teenage years, of disability, and of so much more. All of the anxieties, the self consciousness, the uncertainty of youth were somehow set aside and overpowered by the collective and by the commonality of difference. These were teenagers who were willingly and passionately deconstructing through their relationships and actions the prohibitive and exclusionary norms of their schools, communities, and our broader culture that label and exclude those with intellectual disabilities.
While these young people are already displaying a remarkable degree of social liberation, it is our charge as adults to take Picasso’s more rigorous path. We must commit to supporting their liberation through more inclusive systems and structures and broader awareness and understanding of all kinds of “differences.” We must meet their sense of the collective and of commonality with inclusive schools and classrooms rather than the separate educational and social worlds so many of them beautifully and painfully described. We must commit to revolutionizing the systems, formal and informal, that categorize, segregate, and separate our young people. We must ensure that the young people who follow us into adulthood will have the space to truly develop, rather than diminish, the skills of collective power and social inclusion demonstrated by these young people.
We must create the space for their genius to shake and shape our world and ensure that our jadedness and our tired paradigms don’t shape theirs.
We must meet their liberation with our own and together move forward in new and profound directions.
If Picasso sought creative liberation in deconstructing his world to see and paint like a child, surely I now seek my own by living among my family, friends, co-workers, and community with the courageous humanity of the student leaders in Project UNIFY.
In September at my alma mater Wake Forest University, I am having my first solo art exhibition in almost ten years. What is interesting is not that I am showing my artwork again, but how these paintings came about and why. I could have never guessed ten years ago that I would be making this artwork. Six years ago, I would have never guessed I would be using these words to discuss it.
I have written before about my Father’s suicide on April 27, 2006 and have talked a bit about the coping process I continue to work through. But, interestingly, creating artwork was not a part of that coping process – at least for the first three years. My artwork for several years up to 2006 had been technical, analytical, philosophical, and intentionally cold and emotionally vacuous. After Dad’s death, I was not sure what creating artwork really meant to me anymore. I would rather just work in my yard, on my house, or do something else “practical” with my time.
For three years, I did not paint a thing. I entered my basement studio a few times, but I just stood there and looked around and was not compelled to engage. In retrospect, I believe all of my creative energies were focused on reinventing my self, getting to know my self, getting to know the world in a state that did not include the physical presence of my Dad. I had nothing else creative to give.
Then, in 2009, I went to New York and saw an exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon. I came home. I started painting. It was as though I had no choice. I couldn’t explain it. There were no words.
I had three years to reflect on. The painting process was cathartic. But, it also became sociological, philosophical, and psychological. I had fun. I made a mess. I cried. I laughed. I cranked Godsmack and Metallica. Intensity. I blasted Hank Jr. and Willie Nelson. Longing. I boomed Disturbed and Rage Against the Machine. Anger. I meditated with Pearl Jam. Indifference.
I lost 6 and 8 hours at a time rarely acknowledging my self, exhausted from three years of reflecting on my own existence. I just dialogued with the materials; they told me as much about where to go and what to do as I did them. I had no plan. I had no vision. It just kind of started happening.
As the process gave way to discernible thoughts, I began reflecting on my experience of loss and the physical and mental challenges, paradoxes, dislocations, and general contradictions of the trauma and reconstitution of it all. I wake up one day and my mind is ready to head into work and is energized to get back into the mix; my body feels like I have been hit by a truck. I wake up another day and am ready to start exercising, eating right, and getting my body back working for me again; my mind wants me just to go back to sleep or just isolate in hopes that tomorrow it will feel clearer and more focused. I can read again, but I don’t want to talk about it. I can laugh again, but only around those I am most comfortable with. I can work again, but not in the same personal way I used to be able to. I am re-forming.
Back and forth, on and on, my mind and my body distinguished themselves and their own mourning patterns and needs. I had no real control. It was a dissonance I had to learn to live with. By the time I started painting again, I didn’t need to tell anyone; I just needed to “talk” about it. I didn’t need anyone else to understand. I just needed to get something out. These paintings were for me. They were about me. They were about living. There were no words.
As I finished new paintings and propped them up in corners and against walls, my studio became a chorus of new friends and philosophers, each talking with me and helping me explore further. Some had bad ideas and needed more work; some felt transcendent; others sat silently to speak to me another day, or perhaps never at all.
And now, I will put them out there for others to see, for them to have their own dialogue with my internal experiences and external manifestations, to interpret a language that I have created for myself and that was never necessarily intended for them. Some may judge and despise them. They don’t speak to them. Some may be engaged and ask questions. They provoke them. Some may be moved and be unable to say why. There are no words.
I am conflicted in acknowledging that these paintings were for me and yet now desiring for someone else to find meaning in them.
This is why art matters. Francis Bacon didn’t paint so that I might cope with suicide. He did it for his own reasons. And, while I am certainly no Francis Bacon, I now put my work back out into the world and wonder if it just might speak to someone when there are no words.