Picasso, Pistoletto, and New Perspectives for Peace

Intermountain Jewish News and other publications under different titles 2007

 Mel Alexenberg

Italian artist Michelangelo Pistolletto was awarded the coveted Wolf Prize in the Arts at a ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem as the centennial of Picasso’s having painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is being celebrated.  Through their perspective inventions, both Picasso and Pistolletto have changed the way we see the world.  These two artists can provide new perspectives for envisioning peace in   the Middle East

 On one of my frequent visits to the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960’s when I was a doctoral student at New York University, I first saw Pistolletto’s Man with Yellow Pants inviting me to see myself interacting with his world. On my same visit to MoMA, I marveled once again at seeing Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and his monumental painting Guernica although I had seen them many times before.  In his Los Angeles Time article, “No More Boundaries to Break,” former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas Hoving, describes Picasso’s 1907 painting as being the single most influential work of art ever created.  Although as an art student, I recognized the significance of this painting to the history of art, I felt that Guernica was his more important painting.  It extends beyond the tranquil white walls of the museum calling attention to evil in the real world demanding that we confront it.  It speaks to the present condition

 Guernica cried out against the bombing practice by Hitler’s burgeoning war machine killing hundreds in a little Basque village in northern Spain. Just as the world’s acquiescence to Hitler’s raining bombs on the village of Guernica gave him the license to proceed with preparing for WW II and exterminating the Jews of Europe on his way to global conquest, the world’s indifference to the thousands of rockets launched against Israel by Iran’s proxy armies, Hamas and Hizbullah, are empowering Ahmedinejad to create nuclear weapons to wipe Israel off the map as a prelude to his global jihad

 After having been saturated by seeing numerous Cubist paintings, seeing Pistolleto’s artwork was a breath of fresh air.  It made me realize that just as Picasso shattered the single-point perspective of the Renaissance, Pistolleto was extending Cubism’s multiple perspectives viewed passively standing in a single spot to a new perspective of being actively immersed in a work of art that responds to my movements as I see ever changing perspectives.  Artists’ perspective inventions change our worldview

 Pistolleto silkscreened a photographic life-size lifelike image of a man onto a highly polished steel plate.  As I encroached upon the domain of this man casually standing about, I found myself walking into his private world beyond the plane of the mirror.  I peered back at myself from a reflective surface infused with the potentiality of the temporal dimension.  “Reflection” denotes both the occurrence of a visual likeness and the act of mental contemplation.  From these early works, Pistoletto’s art has continually sought to explore the interface between seeing and thinking 

 In the past few years, he has created Cittadellarte, the city of art in his hometown of Biella, Italy, with his stated mission of placing artistic creativity at the center of research directed towards the responsible transformation of society.  Pistoletto writes:  Art is the most sensitive and comprehensive expression of thought and the time has come for the artist to assume responsibility for establishing communication between every other human activity, from economics to politics, from science to religion, from education to behaviour, in brief all areas of the social fabric

 To realize these aims, he invites young artists from throughout the world to spend four month residencies at Cittadellarte to join with him in this interdisciplinary quest to create a better world.  In his acceptance speech at the Knesset award ceremony, Pistolleto announced that he will donate his $100,000 prize for scholarships to young Jewish and Arab artists who live in their troubled neighborhood at eastern rim of the Mediterranean to work together in peace at Cittadellarte 

 At the festive dinner after the Knesset ceremony, Michelangelo Pistoletto responded with enthusiasm to my aesthetic peace plan for the Middle East derived from Islamic art and thought.  I told him that I see the Arab conflict with Israel as an aesthetic problem that calls for an artistic solution, for the creation of a new metaphor that can cause a shift in perspective that leads to peace 

 Islamic art that we admire in rugs and mosaics is an art of an unbroken repetitive pattern.   Arabs often see their world through the perspective of this continuous geometric pattern as a beautiful Islamic carpet that runs across North Africa and the Middle East.  They see the Jewish State as a blemish that disrupts this pattern.  Most Arabs view Israel as an alien presence that they have continually tried to eliminate through war, terrorism, and political action

 A genuine peace can be derived from the concept in Islamic art that a uniform geometric pattern is purposely disrupted by the introduction of a counter-pattern.  Since it is believed that only Allah creates perfection, this counter-pattern demonstrates that human creation is less than perfect. Rug weavers from Islamic lands intentionally weave a small patch with a dissimilar pattern in order to break the symmetry of their rugs to demonstrate that they are not competing with God

 Peace can come from a fresh perspective through which Arabs see the existence of the State of Israel as the will of Allah.  A shift in viewpoint where Israel is perceived as the necessary counter-pattern in the overall pattern of the Islamic world will usher in an era of peaceful coexistence.  The Arab world needs Israel to realize its own aesthetic values

 Pistolleto and I concluded our dinner in Jerusalem with the hope that art can bring peace where politics has failed

 Mel Alexenberg is a member of the Council of the Wolf Foundation and author of The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness. He is former art professor at Columbia University, head of the art department at Pratt Institute, and research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  His website is www.melalexenberg.com