Picturing Picasso: what can politics learn from art?

“Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.”        


Notable artist Pablo Picasso’s words remind us that while politics informs art, we must not forget the power of art to shape politics.

Last year, the Art Gallery of NSW hosted a disparate collection of Picasso’s work – one of its most popular exhibits. While we could spend innumerable hours discussing the political content of his work (e.g. beauty, vulnerability, carnality and violence etc), his jarring use of mixed media artistic practices can teach us a lot about political practice as well.

Listening to the media reports of the various political ‘scandals’ here in Australia over the last year can be a reminder of just how tiresome, banal and even loathsome politics can be. Whether it is the public policy debate on asylum seekers, climate change, or even public education, Australian politics leaves much to be desired.

However, with a new year, comes a new hope, right? Well, that, or at least we can try to find ways to move that annoyance or apathy to generate more effective politics.

We only need to observe Guernica (1937) momentarily to be reminded about how exaggerated scale combined with dislocated, grotesque images of violence can make a distant war become immediately and viscerally relevant to us.

Picasso’s work reminds us of the transformative capacity of art: a capacity that is not, and ought not to be, confined to the walls of the gallery.  Debating politics – inspired by Picasso – requires a little confrontation, reflection and experimentation.

Let’s take, just as one example, something we consider so very fundamental to our lives as human beings: the notion of family and kinship. When we think of family, our imagination is likely to instinctively invoke a fantasy of a mother and a father, probably in a married relationship, probably white, living in a home with a dog or a cat. Why?

Most of us would justify such an idea by claiming that is how families exist typically. However, such representations obscure a more complex reality. When same-sex families, step-families, extended families, divorced households, non-married families are added into the equation, we are forced to rethink our antiquated imaginings of the heterosexual nuclear family.

If we take closer look at the recent push for marriage equality in Australia, we can explore how some of these anxieties over kinship emerge. In a legislative context, marriage is defined in the Marriage Act 1961 as “the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

While legislation in Australia does not imbue marriage with religious or reproductive significance, there is a tendency in public debate to confuse the religious and civil character of marriage. What marriage equality legislation provides is formal civil equality when it comes to how the state intervenes to regulate/recognise “couple” relationships. Such an argument reminds us that the freedom of religious bodies to choose how they solemnise marriages does not translate into a franchise over all marriages.

Picasso’s fascination with history and politics was not to romanticise it or render it hegemonic. Like the Massacre in Korea (1951), Picasso’s work uses history to provide thought provoking representations that bring the past and present together as intricately woven moving spectrums.

We can transpose Picasso’s aesthetic form when considering the way political debates on marriage rely on making an abstract claim to its “natural” historical foundations. Bringing the past to bear on this debate, however, shatters, not strengthens, the conservative imagining of marriage in the present.

It was not long ago that women were transacted as property in marriage, moving from their father to their new husbands. We no longer restrict marriage between different racial or religious groups, as we did previously for Indigenous Australians or interfaith couples.

Gender, race and religion were once pivotal sites for the legal regulation of marriage in Australia, but its significance has shifted with evolving social norms.

What art can help reveal is that our investments in social understandings of family and intimacy are not only pervasive, they become so repetitive that they “naturalise” – in our society, in our bodies, in our emotions. Holding such visceral beliefs means we often fail to acknowledge the existence or value of other forms of desire, love and family.  

Cultural theorist Lawrence Grossberg refers to this as our “affective investments”; cultural maps or ways of seeing and sensing the world. Politics, then, could learn from art, by making it itself aware of just how these investments work.

Our engagement with politics must therefore not just involve questioning. We must also be able to produce arguments capable of movement, rather than intransigence. 

So if, as Picasso says, “art is not the application of a canon of beauty, but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon”, how do we use this to open up our disparate policy debates?

Simply put: mobilising political arguments should always incorporate a little curiosity, learning, reflection and imagination.

Critical reflection is difficult. Like much modernist and postmodernist art, it forces us to interrogate some of the assumptions we hold dear or take to be self-evident. We should embrace, not evade, these personal challenges.

If we can take one thing from Picasso’s art, it is that this friction, as uncomfortable as it may be, is necessary for political maturity. If we are willing to, we can endeavour to build a political culture that continues to transform our visions of ethics and justice.

Senthorun Raj is a Churchill Fellow.

Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun