29 January 2008

Roads to nowhere

I’ve just got back from a couple of weeks in Ancient Rome. We had fun seeing the sights and all, but it all turned to custard when we went to a party with a bunch of Roman painters.

One of them quoted approvingly that old story about the painting competition where one painter painted some fruit and birds tried to eat it. Then they went to draw back the curtain covering the other painter’s work and discovered that the curtain was the painting. He won, because while the other guy had fooled birds he had fooled humans (which is not that difficult really).

I laughed and said what a stupid story that was. The Romans got all huffy and started quoting Aristotle at me. The exchange went something like this:

Me: ‘Bollocks to Aristotle. He was Alexander the Great’s tutor, and look how that turned out.’
Roman: ‘Yes, Alexander the Great conquered the known world!’
Me: ‘Exactly. The murdering bastard.’

Picabia intervened at this point. He tried reasoning with them and used the example of music. Aristotle reckoned art was mimesis. However, music doesn’t imitate anything. It is a purely abstract art. Picabia then tried to lead them through the way he developed abstract painting through the analogy with music. They just looked at him blankly.

I reckon the problem was with their assumptions. They assumed that Rome was centre of the world. All roads lead to Rome and all that. Because it was the centre of the world, it was necessarily the most advanced city in the world. And since they were Roman, they were the most advanced painters in the world, by definition. These assumptions actually made them very parochial and insular. They assumed they had nothing to learn from barbarians from the sticks, which is what they took us to be. Idiots.

Poor old Piero. He had all his illusions shattered.

Update: Well, I've just had Picabia on the phone. My first clue that he was a little irate was his opening line: 'You fucking idiot!' He thinks I misrepresented him in this post and wants me to stress that the the whole abstract painting through analogy with music thing only reflected his thinking for a short period between about 1911 and 1913. He moved on fairly quickly from there. (I won't quote him on the subject. He did go on for a bit.) The only reason he mentioned it to those Roman gits was because he thought they needed to start with the basics. Fair call. They didn't even get that.

I'm fairly sympathetic. He's a bit sensitive to being misinterpreted at the moment. You should've seen him after he'd read some of the stuff art historians had written about him, especially when he read the one who thought he'd ripped off Duchamp. Of course, it was the other way round. He was a little disappointed no-one realised Picasso ripped him off either (to say the least).

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