First, something from Gertrude Stein:
Then commenced the long period which Max Jacobs has called the Heroic Age of Cubism, and it was an heroic age. All ages are heroic, that is to say there are heroes in all ages who do things because they cannot do otherwise and neither they nor the others understand how and why these things happen. One does not ever understand, before they are completely created, what is happening and one does not at all understand what one has done until the moment when it is all done. Picasso said once that he who created a thing is forced to make it ugly. In the effort to create the intensity and the struggle to create this intensity, the result always produces a certain ugliness, those who follow can make of this thing a beautiful thing because they know what they are doing, the thing having already been invented, but the inventor because he does not know what he is going to invent inevitably the thing he makes must have its ugliness.Stein, Picasso
I suppose it’s appropriate, and perhaps even artful, that the clearest expositions of artistic process is found in one of the most poorly punctuated essays I’ve read outside a high-school English class. Stein loved commas, but didn’t seem to know where to place them. I love poetry, but don’t know what I’m doing.
We’re both struggling. A perfect relationship.
What Stein is getting at — having had a front-row seat to the cubist drama — is the difference between that which comes first (which is art), and that which follows (which is entertainment). Or, put differently, Stein believes creation is distinct from understanding in the same way that inspiration is distinct from monetization. Her Picasso lived in the space of heroic vision, not in the sense that he believed he had something extraordinary to communicate, but instead something that was indelibly his — something that flowed through him rather than being produced by him.
This Picasso did not want to draw what everybody already saw; he wanted to express what he saw, almost how he saw. That vision, before it became an -ism, looked strange. Dark lines appeared on very warped faces. Nudity was not often ….provocative. While others competed in the realm of representational art, learning their crafts in structures which either applauded or denigrated fidelity to the aesthetics of the time, Picasso created. Not a movement. Something else, something Stein intimates he did not understand.
He put down, as clearly as he could, his focus, and kept moving forward. Later, his vision would be codified. Viewers now, having been trained to see what is suspiciously similar to a two-dimensional representation of (newly emergent) quantum physics, can finally see something more than what had been seen. But only after the artist created a path to a place he couldn’t describe until he got there.
That is, I think, the difference between art and entertainment — and by “entertainment,” I also mean much of academic discourse. Music. Stories. Anything that can be sold. Or claims to have a handle on a world that is constantly moving, but is really a progressively more polished (and boring) version of what is already understood. We read, or watch, or listen to the professionals, those who have perfected the technique of storytelling, or moviemaking, or songs. But — and this is important — we are not really reading, etc., in these mimes anything but ourselves. We’re not really seeing anything but what we’ve already seen.
This is entertainment. And it is fine, good, wonderful. I need to be comforted, every once in a while, by something that confirms my worldview. I can’t be challenged all the time. But it is also comforting, for me, to read that perhaps the value of art likes not in its perfection, but in its ugliness; that the first few sentences we strung together as children were not structurally perfect, but still beautiful to those listening; that I get a thrill out of listening to bands that are finding their way much more often than I do when listening to those that have become masters of their trade; and my best poems, like my best stories, are not the ones that I “techniqued” into perfection (like lectures I’d given a hundred times), but those off-the-cuff moments of honesty that seem ugly and imperfect even as they move.
The truth: I really did enjoy being infuriated at Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs more than applauding Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. And perhaps like Stein, I find more value in one ugly-but-unsettling sketch than I do in a reproduction that has been purified for public consumption. Which is why I love the fact that Stein is more concerned with content than punctuation. She’s repetitive, somewhat unstructured, a little dictatorial. But then she has to be. She creating a new view and all. Hers.
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