On Guernica and Art in General

As the final days of 2015 quietly lay down to expire, my family and I decided to vault into Spain with prodigal verve for the better part of two weeks. We lounged through Barcelona, Seville, Toledo, and La Mancha, taking siestas and ingesting tapas with frightening alacrity. On our penultimate day, we found ourselves in Madrid, and having run out of things to do, we decided to go the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which is apparently acclaimed and famous.

The Reina Sofia emerged, confoundingly, out of the wilting asphalt and thin cobbled sidewalks surrounding it. Inside, we relinquished our bags to the care of some oversized, padlocked cubbies, climbed up a flight of marble stairs, then came upon the first exhibition: Postmodernism.

I wandered from wing to wing, smiling as though I understood modern art. I could hear a looped recording of a screaming woman in some distant room, but nobody else was upset. I passed through a empty room with dark blue walls, and only after I left it did I realize that the room itself was the art.

I began to wonder strange things about vague and fuzzy subjects: What was I? Who was I? Where was color, and when was light? And what was I doing in a modern art museum?

I didn’t recognize Picasso’s Guernica as much of anything at first glance–just another big depressing painting in a museum full of big depressing paintings. It took a throng of Japanese tourists and my mom whispering “Look! It’s Guernica! See? It’s just like in the travel guide!” for me to understand what I was looking at. It was a famous painting. I stared at it, waiting for grand, spectacular notions regarding the meaning of life and the catastrophe of war. Nothing came. I waited some more. Nope. And so my academic smile fell away and I came to terms with the very uncomfortable fact that Guernica was nothing but what I saw it to be–horribly and scandalously unentertaining.

The crowd swirled. Viewers had their brief, pretentious, self-reflective moments, then walked off, so that others might have their own. I lingered. Why did that horse have a needle for a tongue? Why was everything monochrome? Why were the faces all disembodied like that? I understood that the painting was ugly, because war was ugly, but that couldn’t be it. There was no way that a simple statement of war’s de facto unpleasantness made Guernica one of the greatest pieces of art in the twentieth century. Unless, of course, I was missing something. I looked at my hand and found nail marks. This was stupid. Art was stupid. Why was I so angry? And more importantly, why was I failing to understand what was being said?

Feeling sufficiently crabby, I returned my attention to the painting. It was still ugly. I wondered, tangentially, if Picasso himself saw the world flickering in stop motion: the woman to the left, howling at the sky, cradling a small corpse. The man to the right, shrouded in darkness, screaming. The dessicated, severed hand, clutching the hilt of a broken sword. And all the littered carcasses, rent atop the altar of that screaming, red-mouthed god named democracy.

All of a sudden, it occurred to me that everything I was feeling, all this confusion and frustration and disjunction, might have been exactly what Picasso was trying to convey. Maybe, when he thought about the Bombing of Guernica in 1937, he felt confused and angry and incoherent, just as I did in 2015.

Articulated in this way, this idea is trite in the extreme. The notion that art conveys the artist’s subjective experience is both lame and uninspiringly obvious. What isn’t obvious, though, is that with art, my personal experiences, are as important as the artist’s own creative intentions. Because when you interact with a painting, or a book, or even a cartoon, that is well-made and authentic and human, you understand that what you’re really doing is having a conversation. A conversation, as author David Foster Wallace might say, between consciousnesses. And if the art’s really well-done, like Guernica is, it will make you feel a little less alone. Unified. A little less assaulted by the anthems of money and desire and power that surround us.

None of this is to say that Guernica is immediately or obviously pleasant. It’s not. Its subject matter deals with nothing less than utter psychic horror, and it presents us with a vision of homo sapiens reduced to its most careless and imperial and destructive. And therein lies its humanity.

I left the Reina Sofia feeling like a star–lonely, heavy, incandescent.

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