Picabia, Nihilism, and Searching for Meaning in Art in 2017

"Art is the field for those who want to know what’s going on, whether they like it or not."


This is going to be a little bit dark and weird, but I can’t help it: it’s 2017. The universe doesn’t care about us! Maybe 2018 will be better. (Those numbers look weird. I don’t want to count from Christ.) But I was asked about what book or movie or art exhibit affected me most this past year, and what came to mind was the Picabia show at MoMA. I was amazed by the show. I loved it and learned from it and I’m still thinking about it.

Inevitably, in 2017 the thought of the Picabia show also brings Trump to mind. The two men have things in common. Both have been plausibly called nihilists (as have I, in fact, in connection with my “punk” history). Both inherited enough money to live comfortably their whole lives. (Picabia was born and raised in Paris; his father was a Spanish-Cuban aristocrat with a sugar plantation and his mother came from wealthy and intellectually distinguished French merchants.) Both lied and misrepresented themselves a lot and were sexually self-indulgent and untrustworthy. They also lived to insult and provoke. How could what is repulsive and ridiculous and scary in Trump be fascinating and intriguing in Picabia?  I suppose art absorbs everything without damage; societies don’t. Societies are about living in harmony and prosperity; art is about how things are.

I mentioned I have a “punk” background. A lot of what punk was about was “authenticity” or “honesty.” Of course, a quality carried to its extreme becomes its opposite (the universe appears to be curved) (or, as Picabia put it, and MoMA adopted for his show’s title: “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change directions.”) Picabia was so fraudulent he was completely real. He probably found that “heads are round” line in a newspaper somewhere. It doesn’t sound like Nietzsche, who was the writer Picabia usually stole from, and by all accounts the painter didn’t read much.

Picabia, of course, is primarily associated with Dada, that and with Duchamp, who was his lifelong close friend, and from whom he also seems to have taken a lot of ideas. Duchamp was an originator of conceptual art more than he was a Dadaist. Picabia is largely a mixture of those two tendencies, Dada (“anti-art” art) and the conceptual. Also “of course” Dada and punk have things in common: mockery of the idea of skill or virtuosity in art, a general inclination to subvert… Irreverence, brattiness, aggression. Dada was also thought of as nihilist, though it was a kind of idealistic nihilism, in that it was largely a reaction of anger and despair regarding the values and social structures and political leaders responsible for the unprecedentedly horrific and pointless carnage of the First World War.

The 20th century was full of massacres. People are always trying to put the killing in perspective, find ways to say it’s not so bad. I often wonder myself. I wonder how lucky I am not to have been in a fully hot war zone, or an imposed famine, or some other murderous situation in my lifetime (yet). I wonder how large a proportion of general human life is about murder. I wonder how much time throughout history the average person has spent with his life immediately threatened by other human beings, as in a war zone or an extremely violent neighborhood or household. I tried to figure it out recently. The best I could do was find statistics on violence. A World Health Organization report online read that “In 2000, an estimated 1.6 million people worldwide lost their lives to violence—a rate of nearly 28.8 per 100,000. Around half of these deaths were suicides, nearly one-third were homicides, and about one-fifth were casualties of armed conflict.” Somehow the numbers didn’t really enlighten me as to how miserable exactly it is to live in our world. The most surprising thing was what a large proportion—half—of violent deaths are deliberately self-inflicted. That suggests that perhaps things are even worse than they seem.

Figuring out Picabia is almost as hard as figuring out how mean human life is. I’ve always appreciated Dada but have not been particularly fixed on it, partly because, whatever “metaphysical” position I may have (nihilist?), I love art (and being “honest,” I don’t want to deny that, however uncool it may sound). I depend on art. Art is the only answer I have. I hardly believe in anything else, and, supposedly, Dada was about subverting art, demystifying it, mocking it, destroying it. The thing is, even more than capitalism, art absorbs all its opposition. Once you acknowledge it, it owns you. And that’s what’s so revealing about the Picabia show. It demonstrated the power of art despite all arguments to the contrary, seeing as how some of the most beautiful and interesting art of the century was created by someone, Picabia, with nothing but contempt for art, if an apparently irresistible compulsion to create it. Art is the field for those who want to know what’s going on, whether they like it or not.

Everything about Picabia is suspect, except for maybe two things: the quality of his work and the respect and affection he won from his friends, extraordinary brilliants like Apollinaire and Duchamp and Gertrude Stein. Not only was Picabia independently wealthy (he spent a lot of money on fast cars and yachts), apolitical, and intensely egotistic, it seems that he was a narcotics addict. He was a rampant plagiarist, most egregiously in his many writings, half of which were aphorisms, most of which he copied from Nietzsche. He didn’t draw very well. He mostly liked living the high life on the Riviera with his witty friends and many and simultaneous lovers and wives. It all seems completely frivolous, when not positively evil. Yet not only are his works tremendous, but a lot of their aura positively comes from their dubious origins and aspects—unlike say T.S. Eliot whose conservatism and anti-Semitism can incline one to rethink one’s opinion of his art, Picabia’s plagiarism and appropriation actually confer glamor. He’s proving that plagiarism does no harm in the hands of a good artist. People don’t own ideas. He’s enlarging your mind. Can a self-absorbed immoralist make great art? Of course.

Picabia was essentially a Dadaist before Dada. Dada was founded in Zurich by Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, et al., in 1916. Tzara wrote Picabia, inviting him to join them, in 1918. Picabia had been painting his “mechanomorphic” canvases, which were basically diagrams of industrial/electrical machinery copied directly from a popular science magazine, since 1915. (There is actually a case to be made, too, that Picabia painted the first ever purely non-representational—abstract—painting with his Caoutchouc of 1909.) Unsurprisingly, Picabia’s friend Duchamp was meticulously depicting machinery and machine diagrams before Picabia.

I’ve always been something of a snob about Dada, I should mention, too, because, as seductive and invigorating as it was, by the time I was born Dada was passé, inevitably. Every artily precocious high school kid ate it up, and who wants to be an artily precocious high school kid? So we made up “punk” instead. Now, at age 68, I’m both less threatened by Dada and less pridefully snobbish. The thing about it, that I now see Picabia most fully demonstrating, is that, despite everything, Dada still presented sensibility. Despite being “anti-art,” practitioners of Dada made art of great beauty. I first learned this from the exquisite collages of Kurt Schwitters. Dada had a lot of inner contradictions. How was it possible to oppose art, mock art and all its pretensions, while making art (from garbage) as beautiful as Schwitters’s is. Somehow it wasn’t inconsistent. I could hold the opposing ideas in my head at once and still function. I’m smart (as Donald Trump likes to say)! My generation grew up with the idea of authenticity and passion as the ground for art-making. Cezanne through Pollock. But something else was going on too, and as much as I loved it—Duchamp and Warhol and Kippenberger—there was still a thread of skepticism in me about art that is apparently frivolously or coldly calculated, or even derisive about art-making altogether. But, in fact, as I’m sure you know already, you can be fake and not give a damn and still make great art, especially if there’s some wit involved too. That’s exciting.

Another interesting thing is that I don’t know how to explain how good Picabia’s paintings are. Like a lot of painters in the past couple of centuries he had many periods and styles. The one thing you could say about him, the way in which he was consistent, is that all the paintings seem to have followed from fairly simple formulae. Copy mechanical diagrams from technical magazines. Superimpose elements and outlines of images across each other. Arrange figures copied from soft porn magazines. Attach series of objects or prominent arrangements of heavy marks to the surface of images. There’s a lot we still don’t know about him. I remember when it became generally known that that whole period of his mildly-porny/cheerful-communist poster imagery was actually copied from European soft porn and other mass market magazines. It took a while for scholars to figure that out—same for his appropriation of Nietzsche in his writings. I learned a new thing from the MoMA exhibit: I didn’t know that Picabia as a young man, circa 1905 (he was born in 1879), had been an apparently serious, successful post-Impressionist, making paintings that looked to me like Robert Crumb doing Albert Sisley, and that, despite Picabia’s sincere-seeming Impressionist conservatism (by 1905, to be Impressionist was to be conservative), many of those paintings were apparently copied from post cards, rather than painted in true Impressionist style, en plein air. In other words, at that point he was behaving as a conceptualist/Dadaist without there being any indication that he wasn’t in fact a striving, conventional young academic painter. What was up with him???

Basically, I think he wanted to get ahead as an artist and he was very smart and he didn’t care what means he used. The ends justified the means, he felt, probably without giving it much thought at all. It’s like love and war. Who knows? But the lesson I took away is: trust your sensibility. It’s all you have, there are no other rules in art. Van Gogh and Picabia are pretty much opposites in any way you can think of, but they are both genuinely great (to the extent that humans get to use the word “genuine”).

There’s so much that’s clumsy and/or kitschy about Picabia’s canvases, but it doesn’t matter. Their richness makes up for it, where it’s an issue at all (clumsiness and kitsch have their own charms too). His paintings are like what the human world is saying at that time and place, which is all that art can be. Like the world itself at one point, around 150 million years ago, said “turtle,” the human world speaks in art, and during Picabia’s lifetime his art was eloquent. It still is. Perhaps it was as conceptual as it was “retinal” (to use Duchamp’s term for art as simply a visual experience), and often it is sourced from vulgar or commonplace imagery, but on the wall it tells you what is happening in the 20th century, and it is fascinating, poignant, funny, gorgeous, and sad.

There is no meaning, there is only sensibility. Trump is an ugly monster because he’s an amoral, egomaniacal nihilist who’s put himself in a position to control people’s lives for his own benefit. Picabia is a beautiful monster, however disturbing his nihilism may seem, because he’s an artist with an advanced sensibility who gave that sensibility free play in his work. The nihilism increased the freedom.