In one of Virginia Woolf’s diary entries, she writes the following: “I do not like the Jewish voice.” And then: “I do not like the Jewish laugh.” Both of these strike me as morbid statements, given that, as far as I am aware, there is neither a Jewish voice nor laugh, though of course Jewish humour, so imbued with the pathos of recurring “types” found in the shtetl, the ghetto, the exile and the Shoah, has a distinctly Jewish flavour. I remember a Jewish punchline I heard once, which stopped me in my tracks for its horror, its creative potential, its poetry, its irony, its revulsion. King Solomon said, simply: “I guess you just had to be there.”
Still, I adore Virginia Woolf. In fact, if one puts to one side their singular creative gifts, the common denominator with great artists of the past seems to be just how disappointingly human they are. Geniuses were invariably as fallible as the rest of us. They were often racist, bigoted, sexist and cruel. Dostoevsky was, like Woolf, an anti-Semite. Conrad was a racist. Bruckner was a perv. Debussy was a brutal philanderer. Bach was once involved in a knife fight. Mozart’s brilliant wife was left to raise their children. Much of Wagner’s philosophy contributed to the desecration of history that was the Holocaust.
What is it about these geniuses that makes them endure in our cultural consciousness? Dostoevsky’s riveting, coruscating prose prefigured the cultural alienation we currently endure, stripped as we are of unifying myths. Conrad enlivened the language of the unconscious whose dark dreams we all share. With his spiny shapes, Picasso gave us a topography of modern fragmentation. Bruckner created entire universes with motifs of only four notes. Debussy helped us see sounds and hear shapes.
All these figures are great artists because they force us to question our place on this tiny, wet planet as we go about our lives with varying degrees of success, each of us tiny nodules of potential and hope, fear and electricity, madness and fragility. I loathe stereotypes but love the potential for humour in stereotypes. I loathe bigotry but some of my favourite writers are bigots. I am a Jew, but many of my favourite writers are Jew-haters. Is this balance, this dividing line, easy to negotiate? No, but I find this exciting. Everyone seems so certain of everything these days, but great art retains its ambiguity, its mystery.
None of these figures, however great, are people with whom I would wish to have lunch. If I met Wagner, I am not sure what I would do. I might be so in awe of his genius and personality that I would be unable to speak. Underneath, though, would be an understanding of the conniving power that his music possesses in willing ears and plotting hands, power that, like language, can so easily mutate into something else, a megalith of hatred that can assist in the wholesale destruction of a people.
Of course, I could do as many do in this strange time of rigid taxonomies and imbue my own Jewishness with an inherent morality: I was born to the parents that I was, who in turn were related to one of the most persecuted minorities in history, in turn connected to a group of roving wanderers in the Levant. By virtue of this I should be disgusted by Woolf and Dostoevsky, not to mention Wagner; but, to go even further, it is entirely possible that, by virtue of my Jewishness, I just see things differently. Due to the experience of my life I am privy to a repository of wisdom and morality that is at the same time, and not inconveniently, no longer individual but sanctified. I have, simply by existing and declaring myself outraged, eclipsed both artwork and artist.
In a time of rhetorical culs-de-sac, art does the very opposite. It asks questions. It invites, cajoles, breaks into, deepens and devastates. To paraphrase Emerson, it casts wider and wider circles of knowledge. All we can do as finite, feeble beings is stand on the outside looking in, with wonderment and awe.
My life would be lesser were it not for these people, these ghosts who, when alive, were often cruel and hateful, who mistreated their loved ones, discriminated against people with differently coloured skin or genders, who at worst contributed to the language of destruction. Each of these figures has something to say about our collective condition, our spiritual fabric, that somehow resonates with the often difficult business of existence as we go about our lives and jobs, trying to do the best we can for our children’s sake, trying to be better spouses, trying to be good pet owners, doing our best to make enough money to survive in an increasingly point-and-click world.
This is why I find exhibitions such as It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby at the Brooklyn Museum so disheartening. What is presented as the unfurling of a nuanced argument, an invocation of complexity, a reinterrogation of Picasso’s work and legacy, has in essence become the very thing it purports to counter. After all, what, ultimately, is the difference between idealisation and denigration? If Twitter is anything to go by, not very much, and one can argue that, in a world of heroes and villains, of naked ideology as exegesis, one seamlessly flows into the other.
It’s Pablo-matic is hardly the problem. It is an example of the venerated individuality of this age. Yet what of those who might want a little more than a stentorian lecture about the sins of the past from a vantage of unalloyed purity? Is it “elitist” to want more from ourselves and the world?
I love art for the very reason that it is not about me. Nor is it about Hannah Gadsby. Of course, they can say and feel what they wish about Pablo Picasso, which they do – a “monumentally misogynistic and abusive domestic authoritarian dictator”. Yet trauma does not always confer wisdom. Pain does not equal profundity. As I have seen in my own life, more often than not, it makes you smaller. Your purview shrinks, your perception becomes wizened, your senses ossify and addle. For many people it is intensely threatening to admit that the sublime in art might actually exist in a world like this, that the man who mistreated woman after woman, who sported an ego bigger than God, who arguably became greater than his art, somehow also created the most crushingly beautiful homage to the horrors of war that ever existed.
Art is frightening. I recently attended the National Gallery of Victoria’s Rembrandt exhibition. There in the flesh were the Dutch master’s glistening reds, golden browns and mottled golds, his piety, honesty and humility. Also present were etchings, no less masterful, of his various partners, whom he treated appallingly. Nowhere, however, was my perception manhandled or jostled into place. I was free to wonder, to dream. Leaving the exhibition, I was a slightly different man to the one who walked in. If Picasso was shitty and wonderful and average at the same time, might we be, too? Might it be the case that this work, this symphony, this painting, this poem, might require excavation so that we might pass the rind to reach the glorious fruit? Or, as one of my heroes, Richard Gill, once said to an audience of children about Beethoven: “I am not interested in whether you like it or not; I want to know how it makes you feel.”
It’s Pablo-Matic is at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, until September 24.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Blueing period".
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