It's Pablo-Matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby - Brooklyn Museum - June 2 - September 24, 2023
Deference is currently ubiquitous; it's there in every demand that white leftists "sit down and shut up" when black people begin talking, that television executives hire queer people to tell queer stories, that first-generation college students run seminar discussions on Marx. In such a politics, we "defer" to people who appear "to fit a social category associated with some form of oppression" on the assumption that they have some sort of privileged experience of that oppression and thus have privileged access to correct diagnoses of, and good strategies for dismantling, the evils in question. - Nicholas Whittaker, Review of Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else) by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, The Point, Issue 28, Fall 2022.
I wrote most of this before I saw the show, partly because I had a train of thought on the subject the other evening and started making notes, but also because the opening reviews made it abundantly clear that the show had little to offer beyond its dismal concept. That the show is a failure is self-evident, no matter how loudly the curators may condescend to their (remarkably civil) critics for their "male tears." It seems odd to me that such brazen essentialism is accepted as a plausible, if obviously postured, comeback, (does anyone actually think male critics dislike the show because we feel threatened? Or that, by implication, all women and non-binary people are sure to recognize a challenging eloquence that's invisible to men?) but it's this callow literal-mindedness that's at the core of such a stupid show, and as such the stupidity is more worth addressing than its curatorial faults. I didn't even want to write about it after the already ample reviews in the New York Times by Jason Farago and in ARTnews by Alex Greenberger went viral, but, unfortunately, I felt there were a few more things to be said.
In her anemic rebuttal to the show's critics in The Art Newspaper, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, asks, "To those who question whether Gadsby's voice belongs in this exhibit, I would simply ask: Whose interests are threatened by including it? Or, who benefits from excluding it?" Let me answer that for her: no one's, and no one. Aside from the show's own remoteness from what Pasternak calls "an exhibition that invites complexity," it's patently false that calling Picasso a problematic sexist is anything more than a status-quo assertion, not to mention a simple fact. If I strain my mind I can dimly imagine a fan of Bronze Age Pervert on Twitter with 23 followers claiming his sexism was "based," but then Picasso's communist politics would repulse that type of reactionary. I literally can't imagine anyone denying that he treated women badly, let alone a member of the arts establishment. It's just the truth. Making uninspired little quips about Picasso's penis doesn't challenge anyone's understanding of him. At the very most it might diminish our estimation of Gadsby's ability to recognize a joke worth displaying publicly. Actually, to revise my answer to Pasternak's question, the only interests being threatened are those of people who respect the cultural edifice of art, and the only beneficiaries of not including Hannah Gadsby in a curatorial team are the same group. By the edifice of art I mean the arts in general, not just a "pale, male, and stale" canon. Clearly, when museums in New York City are putting on these sorts of exhibitions, there is no male chauvinist establishment left in the arts; the curators are conjuring long-dead specters of misogyny to rail against to convince themselves of their own radicalism from normative positions of institutional power. (This seems like a good place to mention the co-curator who is the Sackler Senior Curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.) Far from deconstructing the inherent misogyny of art history into an expanded canon, this exhibition only serves to further ratchet down the standards of art institutions into a morass of uncomprehending anomie for little more purpose than stroking the egos of the curatorial team.
A critique has to take its subject seriously to be successful, or else it amounts to little more than flinging insults. The brief press release accompanying the show asserts that an incisive critique is taking place, of course, but Gadsby seems to have little interest in Picasso except as an outlet for their rage, to the point of fever pitch rape fantasies of "stick[ing] one up him." Everyone knows that Picasso was a bad person, but everyone also knows that he was a great artist. It's certainly a problem to hold both of these thoughts in one's mind at the same time when addressing his legacy, but to make a substantive critique the problem must be surmounted. Years ago I ascribed for a while to the notion that the work of problematic artists should be avoided, but I outgrew the idea when I realized I was only comfortable with it when it came to artists I didn't like. I refused to support Woody Allen (I saw all of his movies when I was younger and had outgrown them anyways) and Bill Cosby (I wasn't about to get into him at 24), but I drew the line at Miles Davis, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly, Morton Feldman, Ezra Pound, Caravaggio, etc. In other words, I could separate the art from the artist whenever it was in my own interest, so pretending to do so otherwise started to seem like specious logic. Gadsby evidently doesn't share my outlook, but it also doesn't seem like they have even a cursory interest in Picasso's art. The line from Nanette about Cubism showing visual perspectives but not a woman's perspective reads like an excerpt from a bored student's homework in an art history 101 class, and not least because it doesn't make any sense regarding Cubism. Making a post-hoc demand that he should have also had a woman's perspective isn't even an observation, it's a bad pun. If an artist's art is to be criticized for their personal behavior, the two need to be brought together through analysis and argument about their interrelation. Belittling one of the twentieth century's greatest artists doesn't cut it.
I tried to come up with some perspectives on Picasso that would stick as a feminist critique; I'm not the one to do it, but I had some ideas that I think are better the "Ooh, I just hate him!" rhetoric in the show. The gist would be an approach that attempts to adequately address and deflate his excesses from an understanding of masculinity, like his obsession with male sexual potency, which as always is a fragile, anxious front to hide a fear of impotence, or his reliance on women to be his muses even as he tormented them and portrayed them cruelly. I'm not even convinced by the other reviewers suggestions that the show would be improved with more historically relevant and accurate curating. Exhibiting female Cubists against Picasso's own Cubism, for instance, would just underscore how much better he and Braque were compared to every other Cubist, bar none, male or female. That's not pedantry; last winter I got into Cubism and was initially more interested in exploring the lesser Cubists, until I saw their work. There's great pieces here or there, but the conventional wisdom that Picasso and Braque were the true avant-garde of the movement, with Léger a distant third before everyone else, strikes me as qualitatively undeniable. That's the issue with this juxtaposing frame for the show; Picasso's importance can't be shouted down or shamed by contrast. He's too talented and too important. No amount of revisionary history can undo his towering central position in the last century of art. Hilma af Klint can be added to the canon as the first abstractionist, which is a good thing. But that doesn't change the fact that men like Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich were the immediately influential abstractionists of their time. These things have already happened, their influence has already spread, and that can't be undone. Also, to complicate things, unlike most of the above examples of problematic male artists, Picasso's misogyny is integral to the content of his work, but his ability to convey the raw, visceral phenomenon of those feelings are also integral to his greatness. The scrawled lines of the hairy, disgusting, virile minotaur contrasting with the smooth, nubile flesh of his sleeping prey, the gradually deforming portraits of his lover as their relationship sours, these are real, immediate feelings, no matter how objectionably he may have acted in relation to them in life. Artistic experience is a recognition of phenomena, not a collusion with the acts of a singular individual. I can understand and appreciate the force of Picasso's depictions of sexuality without acting similarly to him in life. As Borges says, "Are the enthusiasts who devote themselves to a line of Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare?"* If one were a bad reader that could read as a point in favor of Gadsby's criticism, but the point is the inverse, that Shakespeare himself was only a vector of reality. Our engagement with his writing is a connection with that vector, and Shakespeare is no more a pure individual than we are because experience is shared.
Gadsby says in Nanette that she agrees with Picasso that a proliferation of perspectives is a good thing, but that evidently doesn't extend to Picasso's perspective, because being a bad man negates him being a good artist. I suppose it would be a step too far to wade into the question of whether his sexual magnetism and male chauvinism has some fundamental connection to his art's expressivity, but, if one wants to criticize Picasso for his way of living, it should be addressed that all good artists are chauvinistic in their way, in the sense of their dedication to their art. Talented artists live excessive lives, whether they're imperious, narcissistic, reclusive, neurotic, paranoid, depressive, spacey, messy, obsessive, rude, overly reliant on drugs or sex, incapable of handling routine tasks, or whatever else. I've certainly never met an artist that was completely normal, whatever that means. Making art is a difficult process that requires one to mold their lives into a shape adequate to the task, and as far as I know those shapes are always abnormal. An artist without the courage or compulsion to violate at least some social norms is in essence no artist at all. This is, of course, not an apologetics for Picasso's treatment of women, but just to say that there is an apparently intrinsic relationship between living a volatile, imperfect life and creativity. Whether reprehensible behavior is somehow extricable from it is an open question. In fact, it seems clear that in the time since Picasso's day, since abstract expressionism's self-hating machismo and drunken fistfights with critics, even since the meta-objectifying of masculine Americana and sexuality in the '80s with Richard Prince's blithe cultural fetishes and Jeff Koons' Made in Heaven, that the traditional outlets of male excess have receded substantially. Its relative absence, and the apparent condition of toxic masculinity as an impolitic, if not explicitly forbidden, quality in the arts, begs the question of what challenging complexities It's Pablo-matic seeks to offer, even if it was a more competently staged exhibition. Ironically, it seems to me that the main hubris on display is not that of the man who has been dead for half a century, whose considerable moral failings we are all well-acquainted with. It lies instead with the overconfidence of the curators themselves, whose sense of entitlement to a moral high ground has blinded them to the actual qualities of everything they purport to be dealing with.
Alright. I wrote the rough draft of all of that before I saw the show. I stand by everything above, and I don't have much to add. The show certainly isn't good. Almost every work by a female artist is distinctly of a generation that hadn't come into being during Picasso's lifetime, so the effect is more like two shows shuffled together than an interaction or a commentary. None of Picasso's paintings in the show are particularly major, although I do like his etchings and drypoints a lot. I might have liked the simultaneously economic and ebullient lines of his Metamorphoses series the most, but overall I wasn't disappointed by the Picasso grab bag considering the show's complete lack of curatorial focus. What blew my mind was how unexceptional the show would have been without the addition of Gadsby's strident, unfunny, and useless commentary. Their contribution is gratingly, shockingly stupid, the classic stance of a pretentious philistine who witlessly scoffs at art because it threatens the close-mindedness of their worldview. Maybe, maybe, if they'd bothered to say a single thing about the feminist art, rather than passing over everything not by Picasso in silence, there would have been some exchange, but they didn't and there isn't. Instead, some the artists themselves say what they think of Picasso's work, and their estimations are mostly positive, often glowingly so, even when they have misgivings about him as a person. Gadsby can't muster any thoughts beyond juvenile lewdness (penis, anus, hemorrhoids) and desperate insults about his skill as a sculptor, breasts looking like doughnuts, and the wrongness of him portraying women in the nude. Almost all of the wall text not by Gadsby is surprisingly solicitous and at pains to acknowledge his legacy while critiquing his sexism and the misogyny of the art world (of 50+ years ago), but that serves only to underscore how unnecessary and immature Gadsby's own captions are.
Most revealingly, in the entryway is a copy of a Picasso they made at seventeen, which Gadsby dismisses as garbage and refers to including it as a sort of prank, but I think it's a perfectly respectable imitation for a teenager. Their convoluted joke about taking four years to be as funny as Raphael is one of the most confusing moments in the show, and the inclusion of the piece, along with the awkwardness of the text, seems like a suppressed moment of vulnerability. It suggests a teenage admiration for Picasso that they're attempting to brush under the rug, which puts all of this less-than-subtle malice in a different light. Beneath all of the man-hating and repression of the thought, Gadsby is jealous on some level, envious of Picasso's ability to be a selfish, chauvinistic man and get away with it no matter how much we call him an asshole. In saying that I don't mean to imply some stupid idea about the superiority of men, but rather the nature of privilege and its critique. It's nice to have privileges and not nice to not have them. Picasso was unquestionably unfairly privileged in his time, and he used and expressed that privilege extremely frankly. Many of the feminist artists in the show expressed the discriminations of their time, confrontationally and fruitfully. The problem is that the art world is no longer misogynist. If anything, the bias has turned explicitly away from white men, although I wouldn't go so far as to say unfairly. In this climate, the tradition of feminist critique has lost its opponent, but it is unsure of what to do with its newfound normative status. By initially grounding feminist work in female identity and the problem of women being left outside of the institutional seat of power, the work has been thrown into a vacuum by now being placed in that position of power. The justified anger of female artists in the '70s was that they were first and foremost second-class citizens, shackled to the label of "women artists" and prevented from the impartial, free position of white male artists. Now that art by non-white and non-male artists is in vogue, those artists are put in a different cul-de-sac, that of deference. Their position is now lionized and equal in the art world, but with the expectation that they continue to define themselves by their identities, to enlighten us through tales of their oppression. Actual artistic equality would be to undo this residual obligation and let artists be artists, for a female artist of Picasso's stature to emerge that's not defined by her relationship to Picasso. The work's sensibility could be feminine, of course, just as Picasso's is masculine, but it would not be a female reiteration of male art or a female critique of male art because it would stand on its own as art. I'm referring to this as a hypothetical because we have no contemporary Picasso, but there already many female artists who avoid the trap of gendered self-definition. When I think of a list of my favorite young artists the majority are women, and none of them make work that is preoccupied with problems of gender. It's only institutions and galleries like the Brooklyn Museum that insist on perpetuating this fixation on identity in art when there's nothing stopping us from leaving it behind as a vestige of the past. The barriers that held back all non-white males from the Western canon have been broken down. Our time is now better spent building new canons, not recapitulating the injustices of the old ones.
* Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, p. 323.