The study of Picasso in popular culture today raises many questions - more questions, perhaps, than readily available answers. What is the fascination our society has with Picasso? What caused it? What feeds it? How does it manifest itself? This last question is naturally the simplest to answer. Mentions, representations, allusions, and references to and of Picasso abound in the unlikeliest of places.
Cinema and television also make frequent reference to Picasso. In the 1995 remake of "Sabrina" wealthy but idle socialite David Larrabee nonchalantly relates how he and his brother purchased a Picasso for their mother's birthday. The popular sitcom "Frasier" contains a replica of a Picasso in the main part of the set meant to represent the title character's Seattle apartment. Dr. Frasier Crane and his brother, Niles, make a point of their sophistication and good taste (which naturally extends to art as well as coffee) in a running joke that provides much of the premise of the programming, contrasting their rather European, aristocratic ideas with those of their decidedly working-class father. And in what appears to be the most spectacular pop-culture phenomenon since the 1969 lunar landing (or MTV, for someone of my generation), the wildly overblown 1997 blockbuster "Titanic" contains a reference to Picasso as well: female protagonist Rose Dawson is ridiculed by her heinous fiance for purchasing such newfangled rubbish as Monet and Picasso rather than the work of the good Old Masters.
Even children are not exempt from the barrage of Picasso references which abound in today's media. The highly successful and entertaining animated series "Animaniacs," produced by none other than Steven Spielberg, the most well-known film director in America, contains an episode entitled "No Pain, No Painting" in which the main characters, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner visit Picasso in his studio after seeing his advertisement for new models. Picasso is portrayed as a struggling artist (note the velvet dogs playing cards) with a rather unusual French accent who "steals" cubism from the Warner brothers and their sister during a game of "Guess the Picture" initiated to help relieve "P.P." (as it reads on his smock, to the bemused horror of the Warner kids) of the stress he encounters in attempting to revolutionize painting yet again. It is interesting to note the role played by the art critic in this scene: Picasso is under pressure to create a new movement and a new style in order to impress the bourgeois, top-hatted and moustachioed critic. In reality, however, cubism was hardly developed to cater to public opinion. Avant-garde art is in fact the very antithesis of art for the general public, and cubism followed in the tradition of the earliest avant-garde artists, the Impressionists and the Symbolists. In addition, the sequence of Picasso's various "periods" is completely inverted: reference is made to his Blue and Rose Periods, as well as the fictional "Plaid Period" and "Velvet Clown Period" as preceding the development of cubism; in reality, Picasso's cubist paintings form some of the earliest works in his oeuvre, following only his classical works and those of the Blue Period.
The spinoff from "Animaniacs," "Pinky and the Brain" also features Picasso (in name, at least) as the quintessential modern artist. When bumbling sidekick Pinky inadvertently creates the acclaimed new style of "nasalism," The Brain christens him "Pinkasso" and hails him as the future of painting. The portrayal of the art world and the art market in this episode, if none too flattering, are remarkably apt. The museum of modern art as portrayed in the show is a giant toilet emblazoned with a neon sign, a nod, no doubt, to the infamous obscenity trials which recur so frequently in the history of modern art, as well as the opinion of many Americans that modern art is "trash." "Bob DelMonte" (a takeoff on Bob Dole") declares the work of Pinkasso to be obscene, an event which sends the popularity of the artist and his work through the roof, reflecting the fascination which popular culture seems to have with all things vulgar and disgusting. The decidedly haughty art critics who first "discover" Pinkasso write for "Artsnob" magazine, and the bohemian types who cluster around the museums speak in French accents but seem to have little or no idea what they are discussing - a tongue-in-cheek portrait of the art historians, critics, and experts of our day (which I, quite frankly, find refreshing and absolutely hilarious.) Finally, the monetary value of Pinkasso's canvases skyrockets after his premature "death," broaching the subject of death as a career move or apotheosis for artists of any kind (which I have discussed in an earlier paper.) These points stray slightly from the precise topic of Picasso in popular culture, but it is interesting to note that all these satirical and social issues are discussed in a thirty-minute television program ostensibly aimed at children. The "Pinkasso" episode of "Pinky and The Brain," like the Picasso (and Michelangelo) episodes of "Animaniacs" provide a fascinating insight into the status and perception of art and artists in today's society.
What greater barometer of popular culture exists in America than "The Simpsons?" Numerous references to art in general, and Picasso in particular have been made on this long-running animated sitcom. Still other references to Picasso can be found in film and television, including "Batman: The Animated Series," "Toy Story," and "Pleasantville."
Rock music has often been condemned as the bane of modern society, "dumbing-down" today's youth and propagating ignorance and wrong ideas. Ironically, however, many of the best musicians (and even some of the mediocre) incorporate literature, art, and history into their songs. Picasso is mentioned in the lyrics of Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones" and Barenaked Ladies' "If I had $1,000,000," to name what are undoubtedly just a few. Nor is this fascination restricted to English-language media: in 1990 a cassette was released by Polygram specifically made for the "Compagnie Internationale d'Express" clothing stores entitled "Musique d'Express." As the store purports to sell French fashions, the cassette included a sampling of mostly unknown French pop artists as well as Vanessa Paradis and Serge Gainsbourg. The first song on the album is "Picasso" by a Claudia Phillips who seems to have no further references or productions. Although I have been unable to completely translate the lyrics to the song, they seem to describe a woman who wishes to have Picasso use her as a model in one of his paintings.
Picasso and his name are often used as a sort of metaphor for modern art or for artists in general in our society as well. A recent issue of Games Magazine contained a "fake ad" for a CD-ROM program named "Picasso" which was purportedly designed to determine via scans whether or not a person had any artistic talent. The inclusion of such invented testimonials as "Without Picasso I would never have known I was colorblind" along with the name reinforce the idea of Pablo Picasso as a sort of omniscient deity of contemporary art.
This vision of Picasso as a brilliant, if not completely understood, master is reflected in the responses I received to my e-mail survey of Picasso and the oral interviews I compiled on the subject. About halfway through the project I managed to produce the idea of surveying ordinary people for their ideas about artists in popular culture. As Picasso seemed to be the forerunner in terms of pop-cultural references in the media (my original topic), he became the subject of the questionnaire and the main focus of the paper itself.
My attempt to procure a truly random sample of individuals from all age groups and all walks of life was somewhat impeded by the lack of time and my own personal reluctance to accost strangers on the street. Indeed, a random sample is always difficult to achieve. Participation in this sort of a study is always voluntary, and were one to set up a survey point in a public location, the socioeconomic makeup of the location would determine, to some extent at least, the segment of the public who would respond. In any case, my thirty-eight respondents were predominantly although not exclusively female, and ranged in age from nineteen to eighty, with the majority somewhere between thirty and forty-five. Professions included students, university professors, housewives, artists, biologists, food service workers, and retirees, and locations included the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South America. Many of the respondents were members of a Georgette Heyer mailing list to which the survey was sent, and so had at least this one interest in common.
As for the results themselves, the answers I received from friends and family in oral interviews and from others via the e-mail survey raise innumerable issues about art in our society, the way in which it is viewed, modern tastes, and the role of commercialisation as a factor in the success or failure of any given artist. Some of the responses were surprising, and all were refreshingly candid, honest, and revealing in comparison to "traditional" writing on art historical issues. For example, from my experience as a student of art history the masterpiece of Picasso's œuvre is generally regarded to be the painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. However, the most frequent response to my query "Can you name a work by Picasso?" was Guernica. This greater renown can be attributed to a number of factors, including the more political nature of the Guernica painting and its association with the Spanish Civil War, and the vandalisation incident of 1974 in which Tony Shafrazi spray-painted the words "KILL LIES ALL" on the canvas during an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The media coverage which accompanied the work as a result of these issues undoubtedly increased awareness and consciousness of the painting among the general public. Whether or not this higher profile is also a result of a more preferable aesthetic or a greater degree of mastery is rather subjective, and therefore uncertain and open to discussion.
Given my relative ignorance of modern artists before I began studying art history, I was surprised how many of the respondents were familiar with Georges Braque, or at least with his name. About half of the people questioned had heard of Braque, and most of those correctly associated him with the foundation of cubism and as a contemporary of Picasso. In general, however, since all the persons questioned were familiar with Picasso to varying degrees, it seems safe to say that Picasso is much better-known. There are undoubtedly many reasons for Picasso's greater fame. I suspect that his extremely broad and copious body of work, which includes painting, engraving, sculpture, and other media and spans many decades, provides, if nothing else, more opportunities for his name to be mentioned than that of Braque, who is known only for his cubist paintings. The attention given to Picasso's personal life could be another factor. Several respondents mentioned that Picasso had a reputation as something of a womanizer and/or an unpleasant personality.
The cyclical nature of fame in which success breeds renown and renown breeds success may also play a role in determining the extent of Picasso's place in popular culture. Pablo's daughter, Paloma Picasso, is a well-known fashion designer. Although I am not familiar with her work to make any judgements on its style or quality, it seems distinctly possible that her father's famous name has played a part in her success. Likewise, Paloma's status as a major designer keeps the name Picasso in the spotlight, carrying on her father's legacy and thus potentially drawing attention to his works well after his death.
Despite the fact that many individuals responded rather negatively to Picasso's work in terms of personal tastes, all but one respondent replied in the affirmative when asked whether he or she would accept a work by Picasso should it be offered. Some stated that they would be willing to hang a Picasso in their living rooms if they liked the look of it, but most remarked that they would give it away to someone who better appreciated modern art or sell it for what would undoubtedly be a vast sum. Many estimates of the selling price for an "average" work by Picasso were in the millions of dollars although some were as low as "several thousand." In a way, all the answers were correct. According to the 1997 edition of Art Price Annual, works by Picasso were sold at auctions for as low as seventy-nine U.S. dollars for a lithograph to over forty-eight million for a painting (Les noces de Pierrette, 1905), with prices varying based on medium and other factors. Despite the fact that many modern artistic movements, such as Dadaism, attempted to halt the commercialization of art, objets d'art are in fact seen by a large number of people today as commodities, worth more for their monetary than their intrinsic or artistic value.
Still other surprises awaited in the lists of favourite or most famous artists which the respondents compiled. Not surprisingly, Michelangelo and the Impressionists are among the most popular and most often mentioned. The inventories of museum gift shops and other art-based gift stores seem to favor the work of the Impressionists, the Old Masters, and a few other select artists, as seen in Monet's Waterlilies on umbrellas, Raphael's angels from the Sistine Madonna on tote bags, and Keith Haring stationery sets. Whether public taste dictates what is offered in the stores or whether the availability of certain artists results in their greater popularity is difficult to determine (and, quite possibly, a subject for yet another study.) Not all the artists mentioned in the survey responses were so well-known and well-marketed, however; other artists generally considered lesser-known, although not necessarily due to lack of talent, were also listed, including Durer, Fragonard, and even Phidias.
What else can be learned from such a study? I believe that a detailed analysis of survey responses would provide limitless opportunity for discussion; there simply is not enough time, at this moment, to fully explore the possibilities. However, some statements can be made. In terms of modern art, there seems to be a degree of confusion between "who's who" so to speak. Picasso was sometimes confused with Dali, Duchamp, and the Impressionists in the survey responses, and various oblique references to Matisse, VanGogh, and Seurat seemed to interchange the various artists and their works or styles. I would hypothesize that this confusion has its basis in the appalling lack of art education for children and adolescents. I personally could recognize very few artists or styles before beginning my art historical studies as a freshman in college. In addition, while Cézanne is hailed as the father of modern art by numerous art historians, he seems to be virtually invisible to the public eye, with Picasso often taking the crown as "undisputed master of modern art" in popular opinion.
Picasso may be one of the best-known artists in history and one of the few to become deeply integrated into popular culture, but to call him popular or well-liked would be a gross overstatement at best. Most of the people interviewed stated a dislike or a disinterest in Picasso's work, and in modern art in general, and indeed one respondent went so far as to associate the name Picasso with "ugly paintings." The common feeling seems to be one of confusion as to the meaning or philosophy behind the works and a distaste for the less naturalistic and sometimes less overtly pleasant aesthetic of modern art, which is typified for many by the cubist works of Picasso. Art which seems to require more skill and effort to understand than to create is viewed as less masterful and less appealing than carefully crafted masterpieces of artists such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Not surprisingly perhaps, people prefer art which is attractive to art which is intellectual (the author included), and works which may seem brilliant and innovative to art historians in terms of their place in the ideological traditions of visual culture, such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, often fail to strike a chord with viewers outside of the art historical community. Some would say that this contrast results from the inability of less sophisticated or educated viewers to fully appreciate the genius of a work. I, however, take umbrage at this elitist and aristocratic approach to art. Perhaps art which finds general disfavour is not so advanced that only a select few can understand it, but has in fact begun to stray from the decorative and functional purposes for which art originated. This is not to say that modern art has no merit; it is merely a suggestion that the philosophy of art, the reasons for which and in what manner it is created today may need to be reexamined in light of what appears to be a growing disjunction of art from everyday life.