Sunday, March 14, 2010

No Answers

There's a pair of paintings by Picasso that I've been fascinated with for years. He painted both of them on the same day, January 21, 1939. They portray the same pose as performed by two different models - Marie-Therese Walter and Dora Maar, both of whom he was involved with at the time:
Marie-Therese Walter

Dora Maar

I think that Picasso was trying to figure out which one to dump. He set up a single-variable experiment, in which the constants were time, composition, and pose, and the independent variable was the woman. Picasso the Man asked Picasso the Artist to tell him what to do. And these two paintings were what Picasso the Artist said.

Picasso the Artist didn't answer the question. He simply restated the question more clearly: he said that for Picasso the Man, Marie-Therese had more simplicity, more harmony, more beauty. And that Dora had more vitality, more excitement, and more conflict. The Artist simply threw the question, in more detail, back into the Man's court. The Artist said, "Here's how you see them. I can't tell you which one to choose - the answer to that lies in what kind of a man you are yourself, and what you want out of your life."

I have this feeling because, in completely different circumstances, I have had art fail to answer my questions as well. So naturally, I assume that what happened with me is directly applicable to Picasso. That's the limitation of individual perspective for you. I concluded this, from my own experience and from the evidence of Picasso's experiment:

Art's no good at answering questions, but it's very good at stating questions more clearly. It's good at increasing the crushing burden of choice, by clarifying the irreconcilable divergence of the options available. Art will prevent you from hiding from yourself what you are rejecting, and what you are accepting. But it has no answers. It cannot choose for you.


  1. A slight revision, if I may. Some art is very good at answering questions: bad art, that is. And the answers are almost always trivial or wrong.

  2. Thanks Chris! I think you're right, although I hope you can see why pointing this out completely slipped my mind in the original post. And let's hope I got the right Picasso paintings and date, eh? I'm pretty sure I did, but damn, the guy did like five paintings a day right up until the Reaper dragged him off kicking and screaming, so I may have the wrong ones.