Yesterday I was talking about Picasso to an old friend who trained as an art historian. She adores him; I don’t like his work at all, or at least his work after his earlier, more realistic periods. That is, I don’t care for his surrealistic, cubist work. I told my friend I find it ugly and meaningless. She strongly disagreed, and explained why.
We talked about the influence of social and cultural conditions of the early 20th century on art and literature, and especially about World War I. None of this was a surprise to me, obviously. We agreed on the shattering effect the war had on so many certainties of Western peoples. Her basic point was that in his revolutionary uses of forms, Picasso was expressing the felt experience of what it meant to be alive in this violent period, when all structures of meaning collapsed.
I agree with that. What I don’t agree with is that Picasso created beauty out of what he saw. I find his non-realistic work to be extraordinarily ugly and hopeless. My friend strongly disagreed. What we agreed on was that Picasso accurately diagnosed the condition of the world into which he was thrown.
My friend said that Picasso’s work shows a world whose symbolic meanings have been obliterated. She was talking about “symbol” in a philosophical sense. The word derives from the Greek words meaning “to throw together.” In this sense my friend means, a “symbol” is a concept that brings together data and organizes them in a rational, orderly way that conveys meaning. Her point is that Picasso’s radical deconstruction of visual form represents the catastrophe (cultural, religious, philosophical, etc.) that overtook the West in the 20th century.
I get that, I told her. There is nothing wrong with the artist as diagnostician of a diabolic age (“diabolic” in the sense of the antonym to “symbolic;” in other words, as separating and scattering what had been brought together). It is far better to have an artist who can recognize and tell the truth about his age than one who lives and works in denial. (In this sense, French novelist Michel Houllebecq is a valuable artist — more valuable than the many artists who have more formal literary skill).
What I wish for is artists who find a way to re-symbolize what is scattered and rendered meaningless. Those artists offer real hope, and life.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) lived and wrote in an age of corruption and dissolution. He was a victim of the tumult of the times. His exile from Florence, at the hands of his political enemies, including the Pope, took everything from him. His Divine Comedy is a peerless journey through the ruins of his own life, and of his civilization, and of rebirth through repentance and reconsecration.
Dante was ruthless in his diagnosis of the cancers eating away at his society — and he didn’t spare himself. The lashing he has Beatrice give him when they finally meet near the end of Purgatorio is breathtaking. But to offer an example with contemporary resonance, here is Dante, from Inferno XIX, addressing a corrupt pope he places in Hell:
“And were it not that I am still restrained
by the reverence I owe the keys supreme,
which once you held in the happy life above,
“I would resort to even harsher words
because your avarice afflicts the world,
trampling down the good and raising up the wicked.
“Shepherds like you the Evangelist had in mind
when he saw the one that sits upon the waters
committing fornication with the kings,
“she that was born with seven heads
and from ten horns derived her strength
so long as virtue pleased her bridegroom. …”
[trans. R. and J. Hollander]
Dante is comparing the papacy of his era to the Whore Of Babylon from the Book of Revelation. But — notice this — Dante still reveres the office (“the keys supreme”), and is not condemning the papacy itself, but the corrupt men who have gutted it.
If you read on, especially through the third and final book, Paradiso, you will see the Church in glory — and a repentant Dante himself restored.
As readers of my book know, the imaginative story Dante told — which is really a story about how God restored him out of his own total brokenness — was a source of healing grace for me in my own brokenness a few years ago. His is an art that makes all things whole again, and new.
Where are our Dantes?
In all honesty, I must note that Dante died two decades before the Black Death began sweeping across Europe — a civilizational catastrophe that paralleled World War I more than anything that happened in Dante’s own life. So the analogy is limited. Still, my general point is sound, I believe.
(And let me encourage my Catholic readers who are reeling from the latest eruption of scandal in their Church: read your Dante. He saw it all, remained faithful, and triumphed. He did not do so by living in denial, but by embracing the Cross, telling the truth about spiritual death, and what is required for spiritual life. He will never be canonized, but he is one of the greatest Catholics — and greatest Christians — who ever lived. Start with the translations by Anthony Esolen or Mark Musa, both of whom have excellent notes, which you will need.)