I’m not clear on the source of this (who is the “I” in this story) but follows a story of Picasso’s reaction to receiving a telegram requesting his support in an effort to stem a wave of anti-art sentiment from American politicos.
One morning, soon after Miro had left, a special delivery letter arrived from Kahnweiler in Paris. Enclosed with Kahnweiler’s letter was a cable from New York.
We had been hearing wildly fantastic stories about American congressmen fulminating against modern art as politically subversive– the kind of rabble-rousing speech that Hitler used to make in the thirties and that the Russians go in for now – the only difference being that the American congressmen saw it all as part of a Communist plot and the Russians call it “bourgeois decadence.” The resistance to the lunatic fringe on this American subcultural front apparently centered about the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the cable was a real cri du coeur from the stoutly pumping heart of that center of resistance. It was signed by the painter Stuart Davis, the sculptor Lipchitz, and James Johnson Sweeney, at that period director of painting and sculpture at the museum. It was addressed to Pablo in care of Kahnweiler’s gallery and read:
SERIOUS WAVE OF ANIMOSITY TOWARDS FREE EXPRESSION PAINTING SCULPTURE MOUNTING IN AMERICAN PRESS AND MUSEUMS STOP GRAVE RENEWED PRESSURE FAVORING MEDIOCRE AND UTILITARIAN STOP ARTISTS WRITERS REAFFIRMING RIGHTS HOLD MEETING MUSEUM MODERN ART MAY FIFTH STOP YOUR SUPPORT WOULD MEAN MUCH TO ISSUE COULD CABLE STATEMENT EMPHASIZING NECESSITY FOR TOLERATION OF INNOVATION IN ART TO SWEENEY 177 BROADWAY
Attached to the message was a prepaid reply voucher. I translated the cable for Pablo and then read him Kahnweiler’s letter. Kahnweiler had read the cable before forwarding it – “delirious” was his word for it. As far as the mounting wave animosity toward free expression in art was concerned, Who cares? Kahnweiler asked; nobody worries about people like that, he said. On the other hand, maybe he was wrong and Pablo would feel it was necessary to emphasize the necessity for the toleration of innovation in art.
Pablo shook his head. “Kahnweiler’s right,” he said. “The point is, art is something subversive. It’s something that should not be free. Art and liberty, like the fire of Prometheus, are things one must steal, to be used against the established order. Once art becomes official and open to everyone, then it becomes the new academicism.” He tossed the cablegram down onto the table. “How can I support an idea like that? If art is ever given the keys to the city, it will be because it’s been so watered down, rendered impotent, that it’s not worth fighting for.”
I reminded him that Malherbe had said a poet is of no more use to the state than a man who spends his time playing ninepins. “Of course,” Pablo said. “And why did Plato say poets should be chased out of the republic? Precisely because every poet and every artist is an anti-social being. He’s not that way because he wants to be; he can’t be any other way. Of course the state has the right to chase him away– from its point of view– and if he is really an artist it is in his nature not to want to be admitted, because if he is admitted it can only mean he is doing something which is understood, approved, and therefore old hat– worthless. Anything new, anything worth doing, can’t be recognized. People just don’t have that much vision. So this business about defending and freeing culture is absurd. One can defend culture in a broad, general sense, if you mean by that heritage of the past, but the right to free expression is something one seizes, not something one is given. It isn’t a principle one can lay down as something that should exist. The only principle involved is that if it does exist, it exists to be used against the established order. Only the Russians are naive enough to think that an artist can fit into society. That’s because they don’t know what an artist is. What can the state do with the real artists, the seers? Rimbaud in Russia is unthinkable. Even Mayakowsky committed suicide. There is absolute opposition between the creator and the state. So there’s only one tactic for the state– kill the seers. If the idea of society is to dominate the idea of the individual, the individual must perish. Furthermore, there wouldn’t be such a thing as a seer if there weren’t a state trying to suppress him. It’s only at that moment, under that pressure, that he becomes one. People reach the status of artist only after crossing the maximum number of barriers. So the arts should be discouraged, not encouraged.
“The thing that’s wrong with modern art right now,” he said, “and we might as well say it– it’s dying– is the fact that there isn’t any longer a strong, powerful academic art worth fighting against. There has to be a rule even if it’s a bad one because evidence of art’s power is breaking down the barriers. But to do away with obstacles– that serves no purpose other than to make things completely wishy-washy, spineless, shapeless, meaningless– zero.”
Pablo studied the prepaid answer form. “Well,” he said, “they wasted their nine hundred and thirty-eight francs on me.” He tossed it into the basket.