John Gray, one of the greatest thinkers of his generation, wrote last year that “truth is determined by reference to how an idea accords with the projects to which the speaker is committed”.
Truth is something we’re all looking for, although, if you’re a fan of Gray or share his sentiments – the author John Banville describes him as being “against all proponents of the grand idea” – you’d have to accept that ultimately this is an illogical pursuit.
Nevertheless, while we can only ever know nothing thanks to Socrates, if all pursuits are ultimately redundant, the days have to be filled. What better way to occupy oneself, professionally or leisurely, than in finding the spark that lit the big bang?
However, what Gray’s assertion reveals is that ultimately no universal truth can ever be realised, as for each of us, our interpretation of the life we’re living, the world that has come before us and the unwritten future is constrained. Or, it’s as we would wish it to be.
For T J Clark, a professor of art history emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, historians and critics have, in their over-romanticism of Pablo Picasso, failed to deliver an accurate portrait of the Spanish artist.
He describes, for example, with brute confidence and credible vigour, that almost every attempt to understand Picasso has been “abominable” and that most if not all biographies on him are akin to “second-rate celebrity literature”.
This undercurrent of dissent and contempt runs through his persuasive and brilliant book Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica, which reassesses his work during the twenties and thirties.
For Clark, the only way in which you can understand one of the titans of modern art is to do away with biography altogether, to reduce Picasso to a mortal man who stood in front of a canvas and shook up the art world with his symphonic, affecting and poetic brushstrokes.
The expert, whose books include The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848–1851 and Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, fails to see any merit in the sensational aspects of Picasso’s life, be it the heartbreak or celebrity he achieved.
His riposte to art history is tremendous but he is not without his shortcomings. His ruthlessness is a little too parochial, but it does what all good works should do: fire up debate, a dialectical conversation. It’ll never get us to the truth, because what then? What will happen to Picasso?
Clark knows what he is doing and while he has certainly ruffled a few feathers in the art world – in particular the art historian John Richardson, a renowned Picasso biographer – one expects that he will relish any counterarguments to his assertions. Arrive at your own truth.
“The fact that for a long time Cubism has not been understood and that even today there are people who cannot see anything in it means nothing,” Picasso once said.
“I do not read English, an English book is a blank book to me. This does not mean that the English language does not exist. Why should I blame anyone but myself if I cannot understand what I know nothing about?”