‘What happens to art in a society when belief in God has withered away?’

'Femme au Chien' by Pablo Picasso (PA)

I recently reviewed for the Herald the “Spiritual Letters” of the well-known art critic, Sister Wendy Beckett. It is a collection of letters to another nun about God, the religious vocation and other topics. There are few references to artists or works of art but Sister Wendy does briefly mention her love for Paul Klee and for Matisse, yet admits to finding Picasso “a very poor third [by comparison.] All power and no beauty.”

This is a tantalising remark and I wish she had expanded on it. I am no art critic; I confess I am not drawn to Picasso, though I am obviously aware of the cult surrounding him and his place in the 20th century art world. After reading my review a friend has contacted me to say that her father, the late biographer and man of letters, Hugh Ross Williamson, had included a further intriguing reference to Picasso in his book “Letter to Julia”.

She quoted the passage to me: “Among artists, however, Judases are not wanting and we are surrounded by the results of this ultimate treachery, associated in our century primarily with the name of the Communist artist who painted Our Lady as a louse, Pablo Picasso who had, however, his moment of honesty when he wrote to Giovanni Papini as long ago as 1952: “In art people no longer seek consolation and exaltation…they seek after whatever is new, odd, original, extravagant or scandalous. And since cubism and what followed, it is masters and critics such as these that I have sought to please with whatever bizarre extravagances entered my head, and the less they understood, the more they admired me. By dint of amusing myself with such fun and games and meaningless head-splitting riddles, I became a celebrity in no time. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, riches, a fortune. Today, as you know, I am both famous and rich.

“But when I am alone, alone with myself, I haven’t the courage to consider myself an artist in the former grand sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, these were great painters. I am only a public clown who has understood his period and has exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity and the cupidity of his contemporaries.”

An elderly writer on Catholic subjects once told me “Art should elevate us.” In that he would have included the “consolation and exaltation” that Picasso mentioned: the inner journey towards truth, glimpsed through beauty, which is especially significant for those who have not (yet) encountered the God who is beauty himself. What happens to art in a society when belief in God has withered away? Or when you have prodigious gifts of draughtsmanship but no inner vision? I suppose Picasso is the answer. The story of Western art -including the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe – and its magnificent flourishing in the Christian centuries has been told by the late Lord Clark in the celebrated 1960s TV series “Civilization.” Significantly, the series ended with the 20th century – just when Picasso stepped into the circus ring.