I saw a photo of Picasso’s painting “The Old Guitarist” the other day and it reminded me how I fell in love with it the first time I saw it.
I was maybe 9 or 10 years old, a happy-go-lucky, middle-class suburban kid, but I remember being spellbound by the suffering I saw in it. The pain, poverty, hunger and loneliness. I also saw how the guitar was a tool of transcendence for the old man sitting in that gloomy corner.
He played, not to entertain others but to raise himself into some private place of peace. Such is the power of art to be able to convey, even to the mind or the heart or the awareness of a very young person, such understanding.
Looking at it now, from where my learning and my experience have taken me, I would call that old guitarist a true bluesman, for if you listen to the old masters like Leadbelly, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and and all the rest, they tell you, in their own way, that they play and sing to get past their problems, so they could get on with living.
As for Picasso, if all we had from him were the paintings created during his three-year Blue Period, of which “The Old Guitarist” is one, he would still be regarded as a great artist, but not as great.
The greatness of his art is that he was so prolific, and also in the scope and breadth of style and themes, and tempo and energy. How much less would his body of work and its impact on the world have been without the social commentary of Guernica, the street cool and defiance of the prostitutes of Avignon, which so many photographers, rock bands, actors and ad firms have strived for but fallen short of in their promotional photos, or the striking colors and the radical take on relativity given to us in the many portraits of his mistresses seen from different perspectives.
It’s the same with Dylan. A song like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” gives such vivid pictures and clear examples of racism and injustice, but how much less of a force would he be if all we had from him were the protest songs? How much less would his art and its impact be if he didn’t take us “through the smoke rings of my mind … to dance beneath the diamond skies with one hand waving free,” if he hadn’t given us “the vagabond rapping at the door,” the surreal characters of Desolation Row, or the blood on the tracks of his heart?
His greatness lies in not only being able to say it in a way that no one else could, but in its elusiveness. It isn’t contained in some easy and obvious box.
Some people like to draw parallels between life and art. I don’t really know about that stuff, but I do know that in both life and art I yearn for and respond to the broad experience and expression.
All the self-help, life’s great and I am powerful philosophies would have us focus on what we want and don’t want in our lives, and then judge ourselves and others by how successfully we attract or repel those things.
But maybe the real art of life is taking it all in and making it into a thing of beauty. For rest assured, there is no one among us who has not or will not experience sadness, sickness, disappointment and death. The beauty of life and the excitement of living is in all the colors, all the flavors and all the experiences.
I have no facts to offer to support such statements, but then again, the heart is no place for facts.