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Picasso’s Guernica: The Difference Between Art and Propaganda

Posted: April 26, 2014 at 4:21 am   /   by

April is the cruelest month in many ways, including being the anniversary of a terrible act of savagery.  In this case, the savage act also led to the creation of one of the best known paintings of the modern era.

In the late 1930s, Spain was undergoing the turmoil of civil war. On April 26, 1937, the Condor Legion, German Luftwaffe pilots who had volunteered on the side of the Nationalist forces, launched a raid on the defenseless Basque city of Guernica.  Multiple waves of airplanes bombed and strafed the civilization population of the town. The total figures are disputed, but hundreds were killed. An early experiment in the terrorizing carpet bombing later refined by the Nazis, the Guernica attack demonstrated the callous brutality and efficiency of twentieth century warfare. The world recoiled in horror, not knowing even worse events were yet to come.

Expatriate Spaniard Pablo Picasso was moved by the tragic assault to make what is probably his most famous piece of art: Guernica. Completed by the summer of 1937, the work is mural sized, eleven feet high and over twenty five feet long, rendered in somber grays and boney white suggestive of the starkness of photojournalism. Although its initial reception was somewhat mixed, in time Guernica has become accepted as a powerful statement against war. As such, and since it references a specific conflict which can also be referenced to symbolize a confrontation between opposing ideologies, the success of the painting Guernica is often referred to by those who emphasize art as a political act, an attitude very prevalent in establishment artists today.

Looking at that end results of the opposed forces of Spanish Civil War, fascists and communists, it’s clear their terminal points are no different. It just depends on whether you prefer your primitive tribal dominance to be organized along nationalistic or class lines. Hitler is reviled as the true monster he was, responsible for killing millions with the war and genocide he launched; however, it’s the forces of the Left that have proven to be the most determined and blatant worldwide mass murderers in history. The real numbers will never be known, but communist regimes have claimed an estimated 85 to 100 million victims in just the last century or so. Their clunky mechanistic theories on the nature of reality have ended in misery, oppression and vast inequality everywhere they have been applied, and yet the dream of running other people’s lives like they were unthinking drones in a social hive remains powerfully attractive to control-freak sociopaths.

Talking Marxism is good cover for stealth autocrats, who believe in their hearts some animals are more equal than others. The building of their utopias always seems to demand a foundation of mass graves, and yet their long promised egalitarian heaven on earth has yet to materialize. Maybe if they kill a few million more inconvenient humans, their schemes will finally provide the anticipated results.

It’s ironic that a fabulously wealthy painter like Picasso once espoused the communist party line, but it was the trendy thing at the time. But the fact it was mere lip service is summed up by a catty quote attributed to fellow artist Salvador Dali: “Picasso is a painter, so am I; Picasso is a Spaniard, so am I; Picasso is a communist, neither am I.”

Even back then, the well-connected got a pass for double dealing. There are no consequences for hypocrisy in the elitist mindset. Any actions are permissible to the select few, as long as the correct ideas are publicly endorsed. The establishment is full of examples of those who consider themselves above the behaviors they demand of others. Our culture is currently being rotted out by the double standards practiced by the would-be new aristocracy of government, academia, the media and the arts.

But despite the heralding of Guernica as a triumph of political art, is that really the source of its haunting presence? Those who claim it as such bring external knowledge to the piece, being aware of the circumstances of its creation. There is nothing in that work that makes it specifically about the bombing of a Spanish town or the power struggles of the early 20th century. What ideological side is there to be chosen amongst those tumbling ghosts and stricken animals? The power of the piece has nothing to do with a particular time or viewpoint; the audience does not need to know anything about the Republic, the Condor Legion or white phosphorus to feel the horror. It tells a universal story of the tragic violence in life.

There are important distinctions between art and propaganda. Although both are forms of visual communication, their aims are completely different. Great art explores the mysteries of human experience. Propaganda seeks to influence an intellectual decision by stirring up obscuring clouds of emotionalism. Strong art reaches universal, shared experience by honestly presenting the results of self-exploration. Propaganda seeks to substitute that universal appeal with the presentation of ideology it assumes to be commonly held by all right-thinking people. But what if the audience doesn’t share the same convictions, or are indifferent to them? Then the art fails to connect, falls flat. The more blatantly political a work is, the smaller its audience will be. Our contemporary cultural institutions’ strident advocacy is big part of why the visual arts art are suffering such a crisis of relevance now.

There is a great strain in postmodern thought that relies on the opinions of others-the right institutions, the right critics, the right scenesters, official recognition-to validate the significance of works of art. It is also a postmodern tendency to gauge artistic merit in terms of money. The rewards systems of the cultural institutions are now calculated to encourage certain types of behaviors and thoughts that often have nothing to do with the quality of art, and have everything to do with reinforcing their own power as arbiters. Signaling conformity with the elitists’ social agendas is obligatory for advancement. And just like with personal behaviors, endorsing the correct attitudes trumps the need for actual artistic achievements. Any old trash can be presented as art, as long as it parrots the party line.

But there’s a great big world out there, outside the bubble of the self-styled cultural elite. When an artist works from vision and inner need, no such appeal to outside authority is required. This is where the future of art will be determined, among those who currently not served by the priorities of an insular, irrelevant cognescenti. The art world is really as big as humanity itself; the purposes of art are greater than serving to reinforce the snobbery and biases of the power-hungry New Class.


Richard Bledsoe

Richard Bledsoe is Phoenix, Arizona painter and writer. He grew up in Manassas, Virginia, and in 1993 received a BFA in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He was one of the founding members of Phoenix gallery Deus Ex Machina (2007-2012). He is coauthor of the children's book "The Secret Kingdom" with his wife, painter Michele Bledsoe. Their work can be seen at Improbable Art.

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Picasso's Guernica: The Difference Between Art and Propaganda