Peter Plagens, in an article for The Daily Beast, wrote that Pablo Picasso “captured the twin impetuses of modern times—fracture and invention.”
When Picasso painted “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907, his garish and remarkable middle finger to the previous five hundred years, the Great War had not even begun to wreak unprecedented global destruction and in so doing, obliterate a deep layer of human innocence. The modern sense of fracture Plagens referred to had lived since the Industrial Revolution ripped tradition off its moorings in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When western culture leaped from the cottage to the factory, a sense of continuity eroded, as did certain interpersonal connections and our closeness to the earth itself. In 1853 Matthew Arnold longed to be:
born in days when wits were fresh and clear
And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;
Before this strange new disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o’ertaxed, its palsied hearts, was rife.
This modern life has, of course, cured a lot of diseases, too. But Picasso represented our collective fracturing brilliantly—he painted “ugly” pictures that presented subjects from impossible perspectives, distorted everything, stuck actual cigarettes onto pieces that would have remained two-dimensional before him. Fracture and invention.
When I was in my twenties, I loved art that reflected my sense that everything was essentially fucked up. That’s what I heard in Stravinsky’s dissonance and wild polyrhythms. When Neil Young sang, “This old world keeps spinning round/ it’s a wonder tall trees aint laying down,” I dragged deeply on a Kool filter king and agreed, man. The Ramones, Raymond Carver, anything made or played by heroin addicts, a performance artist friend I once watched take a shit onstage—they embraced the fucked-up-ness of the place we had reached. They made or were art unlike anything before them. I celebrated them. I had their posters.
But something unexpected has leeched into my attitude. It began with the choice to weave my life with someone else’s. Then my wife and I made these two children. Relationships, while fewer, have deepened and become richer, more clearly valuable. I find myself wanting an inventive art to represent wholeness.
This weekend a few close friends came over after our kids were in bed. Some of us drank scotch, some of us water. Some of us smoked in the cold garage. How can I describe the stupid goodness of the scene when we all started doing pushups at one in the morning? I’d like to paint a canvas of impossible perspectives that shows five friends laughing and doing middle-of-the-night pushups, two desperately loved and oblivious children upstairs dreaming, an old but still alive canine licking red faces as they churn up and down, the twinkling firmament and a sixty-watt kitchen bulb gently holding back whatever stresses will discover us later. Maybe history is sick to death of love and wants more fracture, more divisiveness. But forgive me, this is my first time through.
This week’s poem, “Belated,” by Mary Stone Dockery breaks a memory apart and reassembles it in surprising ways. The imagery and lyricism in “Belated” is tender as a knife blade and feather-tough. This poem will burn into you as it softly departs.
Rich Ives’ “Alimentary, My Dear What, Son?” smashes itself to bits. The flash piece, in boldly announced sections—“this is the first part of the middle part”—offers a postmodern narrative breakdown. Full of humor and darkly suggestive, the story defeats its own arc, while seeming to accomplish more than it could have in traditional form. “Alimentary” soundly defeats expectations and still delivers an emotional wallop. (I really had to try not to riff on the food theme.)
A very modern debate takes place in “Gren,” by Kevin Spaide. In a sort of updated Hemingway piece, Spaide captures the feeling of helplessness for two very different expatriates in a contemporary world that facilitates travel and escape but often fails to replace the support of community. “Gren” is a brief, skillful story of class and country and awareness.