Picasso’s art is under review because of his bad character. The Brooklyn Museum is mounting an exhibition, It’s Pablomatic, from June 2 – September 24, 2023, which spotlights his attitude to women and his use of ideas and artifacts from African art. It may be iconoclastic but it proceeds from an acknowledgement of his greatness.
The great step forward in art history in the late 19th century was the move away from biography and judgement to formal analysis. Formalism was a strand of 20th-century modernism and Mondrian’s and Rothko’s Olympian abstractions seem to preclude biographical inquiry.
Picasso never followed the route to pure abstraction yet remained respected even at its high tide, but his reputation is so high now that it’s hard to grasp how late fame came to him in Britain. To be sure, in France his precocious talent, ferocious energy and self-promotion earned him recognition very early, but at the time of his big London retrospective in 1960, when he was 79, he was still regarded as a charlatan in some artistic circles.
Post-modernist, Marxist, feminist and post-colonialist narratives have displaced formal analysis and have replaced aesthetics with the sociology of art. Even when abstract art is displayed, curators focus on social explanation, context, biography and stories. Narratives foreground the artist, conditions of artistic production and social meanings of display, and they attach little importance to the object itself, and since concept became elevated over object and imagining was severed from making, little attention was paid to what art actually looked like. We have always been more or less interested in the lives of the artists, of course, but art and the artist have merged. It’s not surprising that now one of the most popular artists is Frida Kahlo.
Biography and sociology are valid endeavours but the conditions giving rise to art and the value of art occupy different universes of discourse. The art is not the artist. Put simply, bad people can produce good art – and it may even be the case, as Lord Acton said, that great men are almost always bad men.