I love Picasso. He was the first major painter I ever experienced. I first saw his work when I was sixteen and journeyed to my first major museum during my first trip outside of the United States. I traveled to Spain in 1987 to spend a summer in a Spanish language immersion program with a group from my high school. I had never had my mind blown by a work of visual art. I had been a singer and a dancer throughout my childhood, so that kind of pure rapture had previously been reserved for performing.
In Madrid, Picasso’s La Guernica was on display in an annex next to the Prado with a wall big enough to display the larger than life painting. La Guernica depicts the bombing of a public market in Guernica, Spain, on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The politics of war have surrounded the entire history of the painting. The masterpiece portrays the horror of war in black and white. The cruelty of fascism. The dark side of humanity. The work is huge. I was not prepared for its scope or size, or for the fact it was behind glass being protected by armed guards. I was not used to armed guards. The image floored me.
A woman was filming a video in front of the image. She was singing in French. I don’t remember the vibe of the song. I think I was just too overwhelmed by the entire experience to truly pay attention to anything but The Guernica. Her presence, and the presence of the crew filming her, forced me to initially look from a distance. I stood there and my eyes were immediately drawn to the tragic face of a mother mourning her dead child, the rage of a bull destroying everything in its path, and the horror of the light exploding with force of a powerful bomb.
When the singer left the space, I walked closer to the glass and velvet rope rail. Drawn by the grief of the image, I moved from left to right, slowly reading the story of that tragic afternoon told by disfigured mouths from destroyed faces, transported not by a literal representation of war, but invited to a communal experience. It was like I was reading a novel. Picasso begs us to see the black and white cost of war: for the armor that surrounds our hearts to break: for our eyes to flood with the tears of mothers who have lost their children to war: for our minds to question why we go to war at all. I was right there. Present.
Wide-awakeness looks like that: being present to works of art, bluegrass music, concert cellists, prima ballerinas, marching bands, novelists, and acoustic guitarists. I have a friend who is an editorial cartoonist and his work often stops me in my tracks. Sometimes forcing me to think, sometimes to laugh, sometimes to hold a mirror up to my own creative pursuits and check how present I am to those parts of myself. His work provokes, inspires, lightens, and informs.
There are unique conversations that happen when we are present to the arts. There is the individual conversation we have with the art, dance, or music. The art speaks to us and we make our own meaning. There is what the artist is trying to say, inspire, reveal, evoke, or express and our capacity to experience their message. There is what the audience experiences together in a gallery, at a concert, in a museum, or during a performance. The sum of all individual experiences being a different kind of wonderful than what happens when we make sense in isolation. All of these conversations happening simultaneously, in perfect harmony and dissonance, are why the arts matter.