Sunday, August 22, 2010

Guernica Revisited

Professor T.J. Clark completely missed the point in his lecture as the speaker at the University of Washington's Katz Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities on April 29. Professor Clark’s presentation entitled “Picasso’s Guernica Revisited” explored the evolution of Picasso’s painting Guernica.

Completed in a feverish 5 weeks following Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s bombardment of the city of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain in 1937, Guernica portrays one of the many acts of 20th Century’s state sponsored terrorism. Using the newest Luftwaffe bombers on loan from Hitler and help from Mussolini’s air force, too, Franco turned the city center into rubble and massacred all who happened to be there that sunny morning. And to avoid getting caught, Franco banned all journalists or other reporting, although reports trickled out, and Spain’s greatest 20th Century historian, Pablo Picasso, painted the report of the atrocity so that all would know it happened.

Professor Clark’s Picasso scholarship is well respected among academics in the art world and he walked the audience through the surviving photographs of Picasso at work on his masterpiece and the sketches that helped Picasso develop the work. Among other themes, Picasso’s work explores spatial relations between objects in a room, such as dancers in a cabaret or the objects that furnish our lives; and more profoundly, Picasso addresses the relation of the outside to the inside or the public to the private. In a growing surveillance society these were and continue to be important issues. Professor Clark introduced these themes early in his presentation and then wandered off into irrelevancy.

Guernica depicts what one might imagine the horror to have been, with dismembered animals, crushed humans, an anguished mother clutching her bombed child, and frightened citizens peering out the windows of their homes to see the carnage in the street. In one of Picasso’s early sketches, he drew a fist rising from the arm of a fallen victim and it rises from the rubble and chaos in the middle of the image. In a later sketch the arm and fist grow larger. And in the completed work, the fist is gone, and no remnant of it remains.

Professor Clark saw the fist as a homoerotic sexual metaphor, he invited the audience to snicker when the fist swelled larger in its manly act, and he was distracted also by what he saw as the sexuality of the women in the painting. By doing so, he missed a very important question about Picasso’s work. The painting is not an exploration of sexuality, it has nothing at all to do with sexuality; it is a political statement. Guernica was created to shed light on the atrocity of total war waged on a government’s own citizenry.

The victim’s fist rises, not as a phallus, but as another, far more profound statement with another kind of sexual content that screams out “fuck you Franco”. You who turned the inside out by bombing open our homes, by dismembering our bodies and animals, by opening our guts to the public, by turning what was once rational and ordered into total chaos – your brutal oppression – must be resisted by all the strength we have left. The clenched fist is the symbol of the socialist workers’ resistance to the dehumanizing growth of capital, and it was raised again during the Paris riots of 1968, by Carlos Smith on the podium at the Mexico City Olympics, and the May Day marchers two days after Professor Clark’s lecture. It is the symbol of resistance.

But if my interpretation is correct, what then do we make of Picasso’s decision to obliterate the image of the raised fist from Guernica? Did Picasso not believe in the value of resistance? Did he conclude that resistance was futile or ill advised? Or was the destruction of the old order all that he wanted to show us?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Failure at Copenhagen?

The recently concluded climate change meeting in Copenhagen is portrayed by many, if not most, as a great failure at many scales, and one that interests me is the scale of public international law.

Some wonder why the global community was able to agree to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons in war and yet fail to agree on reductions to the emission of green house gases. Assuming for the moment that the science of man’s central contribution to the problem is solid – recall that humans were believed to be the center of the universe at other times in history and Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy for suggesting the truth was something else – the reference to the Geneva Convention is apt, but not for the reasons usually stated.

The problem is, I submit, that lay persons and maybe some experts expect too much of international agreements like the ones sought at Copenhagen. The New York Times reported that the agreement finally patched together in Copenhagen by President Obama and leaders from China, India, Brazil, South Africa set a commitment to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 Fahrenheit. Am I the only one to believe that such arrogance rivals that of Galileo’s accusers?

The best example, I think, of the apparent futility of such agreements is the treaty signed in 1928 by which the states that exercised sovereign power over essentially the entire planet renounced war and pledged to resolve all future disputes peacefully. The full text of Articles I and II is set forth here:

. The High Contracting Parties solemnly declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.

The High Contracting Parties agree that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific means.

Its promises were simply and unambiguously stated; it was ratified by the US Senate by a vote of 85-1, and I believe it is still the law today.

As it would happen, we know that the states of the world began to ignore its promises almost before the treaty’s ink was dry.

So, it seems to me that Copenhagen should not be seen as a failure but rather as proof that public international law is best created, not by top down agreements from world leaders who promise too much, but rather by the accretion of consistent state practice and an acknowledged sense of obligation. Those things must happen on a local scale before they can acquire global significance.