In the textbook Understanding Art (2000), author Lois Fichner-Rathus argues that the purpose of art is for people to understand themselves better and to preserve a sense of history. She says, “It is in the sciences and the arts that we strive to weave our experiences into coherent bodies of knowledge and to communicate them” (1). However, while the contributions of science are relatively measurable, the contributions of art are not as clearly understood. In exploring the purposes of art, Fichner-Rathus lists several different purposes that may have contributed to the production of art. These include art creates beauty, art enhances the environment, art expresses truth, art immortalizes, art expresses religious beliefs, art expresses fantasy, art stimulates the intellect and fires the emotions, art creates order and harmony, art expresses chaos, art records and commemorates experience, art reflects the social and cultural context, art protests injustice and raises social consciousness, art elevates the commonplace and art meets the needs of the artist (Fichner-Rathus, 2000: Ch. 1). An examination of Pablo Picasso’s painting ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ reveals how art can stimulate the intellect and elevate the commonplace.
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In this painting, Picasso presents each prostitute as an abstract collection of geometrical shapes arranged in a way that conveys the specific emotions and feelings his figures are experiencing without actually defining them. There are five figures seen within the image, all of them female. Only one of the figures is sitting while the others strike different supposedly seductive poses. One woman, who seems to be in the foreground and has a more masculine body, stands holding back a red curtain. The woman sitting and the woman standing behind her both wear fantastic African-inspired masks while the other women display decidedly unattractive faces as they become distorted through the painter’s vision. The only other discernable feature within the painting is a small plate of fruits in the bottom center. Although Fichner-Rathus states that “the intellectual exercise of transforming the human form into geometric shape takes precedence over any interest in expressing the plight of these women, who are prostitutes in the French underworld” (2000: 40), there is much to be said regarding the way that Picasso brings these commonplace women into public awareness.
The colors surrounding the women in the painting help to provide the viewer with an impression of old habits and tired routines. The women are stiff and hostile while their faces are masklike, as if they know they are part of an elaborate system of falsehood. This idea is reinforced in the old red of the curtains as well as in the dried up nature of the fruit in the image. Some of the women’s breasts are painted with delicate curves that indicate there is still some softness in the women while the faces might as easily suggest mild concern as open aggression. Their eyes, at least the ones that can be seen, seem to be sunken in hollows, further highlighting the concept of women tired of their profession and well aware of its benefits and deficits. The imagery of the Africanized masks on two of the women can be pointed to as a source of the general hostility felt toward the piece, yet this also brings out an emotional reaction among the public and forces social awareness of these women’s position in life.
Picasso’s painting is therefore seen as exemplifying several of the purposes of art identified by Fichner-Rathus in the textbook. It is easily seen as an exercise in increasing intellectual involvement as it uses a new form of expression that takes imagination and intellect to understand. However, Picasso’s choice of subject also elevates the commonplace, increases social awareness, inspires the emotions, reveals the truth, records experience and meets the needs of the artist who was attempting to find a more ‘real’ means of expressing ideas.
Fichner-Rathus, Lois. Understanding Art. New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.