Picasso is alleged to have said “Painting is not done to decorate apartments, it is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.” I suspect that he was referring to his own painting, Guernica, which depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
I often come across such claims about art—that it has something profound to say about the human condition. But I find them puzzling. What is the point of the commentary of which paintings are capable? How is Guernica an instrument of opposition?
I doubt that anyone learns about the horrors of war from a painting. If you did not already know of the horrors of war you would be unlikely to read the painting as commenting on them. Furthermore, if a gain in knowledge is the point, people who are already acquainted with brutal warfare would receive little benefit from viewing the painting, which seems implausible. And can’t we more effectively learn about historical events from history books or documentaries? Is there some dimension of warfare that is best depicted in paintings? I doubt it.
Perhaps the point is not that we gain knowledge from painting but that paintings are particularly good at provoking an emotional response from the viewer. Perhaps, then, paintings deepen our sensitivity to the horrors of war via their depictions or inspire us to pursue peace. But I doubt that a cool, abstract depiction elicits a more powerful response than actual war footage, filmic representations, live interviews with victims, or reports on the ground by intrepid journalists, all of which seem to pack an emotional punch that paintings rarely if ever achieve. Paintings, because they are fixed entities, lend themselves to contemplation more readily than film. But museums, especially large one’s in major cities visited by hordes of tourists are not conducive to contemplation. (Guernica is housed in Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum)
Perhaps the viewing of paintings is a reminder that we should care about warfare’s destruction. We clearly need such reminders. But the occasions when such reminders are essential do not correlate well with visits to a museum.
Paintings are valuable, in part, because they give us new ways of organizing and conceptualizing visual space. But that can be accomplished regardless of the content of the painting—such an aim would seem to have little to do with warfare. Paintings—the great ones at any rate—are unique representations of what they depict. But if this is the value of Guernica, it is the uniqueness of its depiction not some fact about the horrors of war that matters most. It is a stretch go call such an aim an instrument in a war against brutality.
So wise and discerning readers. Tell me. What do paintings uniquely say about the human condition? Is Picasso just puffing up his accomplishments.