“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscle? Far, far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”
Picasso’s painting of Guernica came at a time when paintings still held some importance to the culture around it. His painting was a protest of the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German Lutwaffe planes. Picasso was the greatest artist of the age, and his painting caused a lot of controversy when it was exhibited. It didn’t stop the Nazis or the coming of World War II, but it did show the horror of war to anyone who viewed the painting then and to anyone who views it now.
In Berkeley last year, Botero exhibited 50 paintings and drawings protesting the treatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison. It caused quite a bit of controversy and several museums have refused to show it.
I’ve read that paintings no longer have the same ability to influence society that it did in Picasso’s day, that other art forms, like rap, or movies or books, have usurped the role that paintings once had to influence society and inflame controversy. That may be true. When I see Guernica or Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings, though, I still feel a sense of outrage and sadness.