Art and society. Who is master, who is servant? Ask someone with a background in social theory and he will most likely reply that art is a mere expression of social relations: the classic theory of structure and superstructure, as made famous by Marx. Ask an artist, and he will most likely reply that art, by definition, is ‘art pour l’art‘, an entity that does not depend on, nor serve any reason other than itself.
The early 20th century clearly was in favor of art as the master. During times where pop culture was, if it all, an emerging phenomenon expressing itself through Art Deco (North America), or the rise of cinema (Europe), actual artists still existed. Outside the world of record label deals or sponsorships by art foundations belonging to big-league corporations looking to better their image, early 20th century artists were in fact looking to impose their work on society – and not the other way round.
One early 20th century artist who had little to no interest making a living through the fame or goodwill of others was Pablo Picasso. Born into a family of artists, painting, sculpting and illustrating came natural to the Spanish-born painter who enrolled into art school at the tender age of ten. With politics and society, the later founder of cubism, for a long time had an almost abstinent relationship.
Of course, being a left-liberal throughout his life, Picasso observed the world with open eyes and saw social democrats, anarchists and communists as his friends. Politically active, though, he was not.
With Picasso, things were different. In his case, it was as if society reached out to the idiosyncratic artist, instead of the artist reaching out to society.
And reach out it did: in 1937 the elected Spanish Republican Government, at that time in the midst of Civil War against the fascist Franco movement supported by Hitler and Mussolini, asked Picasso to supervise the Spanish pavillion for the 1937 world exposition in Paris.
Picasso’s main contribution? The 3,59 meter wide painting of Guernica portraying the German Blitzkrieg-style bombing of the small Spanish town of the same name. While the painting itself shows no portrayal of actual violence or even a semblance of a town, bomber, or war scene, its social impact was tremendous. Similar to the Falling Soldier, Picasso’s Guernica drew the world’s attention to the European conflict which should act as the blue print of World War II in regard to warfare and opponents.
And today? While nothing could be easier than to lament about Western decay it would be fruitful just to reflect on where the idiosyncratic artist has gone. Perhaps society should reach out to him once again.