Picasso, Movies, and Interaction

Realism has been a primary cultural interest for Marxist since the last century. Picasso was a troublesome figure for realism since he became both an immensely wealthy art figure and joined the French CP. Picasso launched a long period of abstraction in European, and American abstract art. I want to look back at the issues that realism faced in the challenge from modern art and see for realist if there isnšt a better way to understand the issues raised by Picasso. I want to introduce some new perspective on realism. I see these avenues (arising in neuroscience) providing a realist resolution of the issues raised by Picasso and the modernist movement in favor of realism. Since western cultural Modernism faded away in the 1980šs this e-mail also aims at their successors, the Postmodernists, and their views on realism.

During the nineteenth century there was a lively debate in the working class movement concerning realism. These issues of social meaning stood apart from the end of the century rise of visual abstraction, later known as "modernism". Engels himself wrote some letters observing what he thought were appropriate comments concerning realism in the novel. For example;


(letter to Ferdinand Lassalle (May 8, 1859, Marxism and Art, Edited by Berel Lang and Forrest Williams, 1972, Published by David McKay Company, Inc. New York, )

"I am far from finding fault with your not having written a purely socialist novel, a Tendenzroman, as we Germans call it, to glorify the social and political views of the author. That is not at all what I mean. The more the authoršs views are concealed the better for the work of art. The realism I allude to may creep out even in spite of the authoršs views. Let me refer to an example.

Balzac, who I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas, past, present, or future, gives us in his Comedie Humaine a most wonderfully realistic history of French "society," describing, chronicle fashion, almost year by year fro 1816 to 1848, Š"


While these first tentative comments upon the issue in the novel are too sketchy to dismiss the prolific out-put and visual ideas of Picassošs, in modernismšs challenge to visual realism, these comments by Engels provide us some historical context to understand how our principles are distinct from modernism. Primarily, Engels made a discrimination between Balzac, and Zolas that for many Marxist subsequent to these first remarks meant Zolas represented a kind of "empiricism" versus a synthesis of wholeness Engels saw in Balzac. To Engels, Zolas had so much focus upon detail, the empirical flow of phenomena, that tendency, and type get lost to the readers social understanding. If one is highly concerned with how class shapes society as Engels would have been the hidden issues of class would have been more important than empirical detail that hides class.

At the end of the last century, European painters, and later North American painters (including the important Mexican modernists) responded to photography by a retreat from the standards of photographic realism. However, Engels would have complained about snapshot photography as Zola-like, so there was a quality in the retreat from realism of a search to understand "invisible" elements of expression like "wholeness" that Engels valued over simple representational depiction. Within this search for a means to keep painting alive as an alternative to photography, there arose a quest to express motion through painting. The commercial motion picture industry was just starting when Picasso first emerged (1908) as an important artist. So culturally, motion, impressed a market issue upon those painters trying to grapple with the influences of their time in Europe. Unlike the photographer, a painter could paint anything they could imagine even if the public preferred representational images. So if certain things couldnšt be directly shown with painting such as seeing motion, then painters could still explore what it means to show motion indirectly. And these issues are ones that seem most closely linked to cognitive concepts that art explores.

This alternate route of visual expression represents an old gambit. Written language arose from exactly the same sort of desires in Egypt, and Sumeria, some four thousand years ago. Verbs, and state-of-being words canšt be directly represented visually. So written words came to symbolically represent "invisible" concepts. And for this reasons, modernist painters too could approach the problem of expressing visual issues that a painting canšt directly represent since perspective painting no longer could advance issues of realistic representation in comparison to photography.

In the nineteenth century context, realism as represented by photography was mechanically superior in capturing scenes. But a photographer was restricted to the perceptual appearance of external scenes or landscapes. Depicting motion and visually showing concepts of "states of being" were not resolved by any medium slavishly tied to physically still appearances. Engels views upon Zolas exemplify the relatively abstract thought that a mere photographic snapshot is not an adequate expression of reality. The inner dynamics of thoughts, the motion of thoughts and the class nature of thoughts were not suitably depicted by merely shooting photographs of scenes. In effect while photographs showed reality in some ways, it was still highly abstract what social context really meant.

On the other hand as an economic issue, a photograph costs less than the work put into a painting. The economics of making a living intruded upon the situation, and painters had to engage in a dialogue about how to consider what it is we do when we paint an image. Picasso followed the lead of the French painter, Cezanne, to paint multiple perspectives of a scene upon one canvas. So too did Braque. Multiple views implied moving the head to see from different angles, implied a human intelligence directing the construction, and was impossible to duplicate with the photograph. It intellectualized the act of paint as possibly directly showing the conceptual basis of motion from the previous sensual regime of representation that imposed a single unified point of view (the mechanical laws of perspective in mathematical formula).

Modernism having abandoned perceptual realism 100 years ago subsequently has been powerless to attack the issues (of seeing motion) originally motivating the late nineteenth century cultural figures that shaped modernism. There is nothing like Noam Chomskyšs efforts to explore the human grammar of language that has arisen in visual modernism. (Not that I could see an appealing aesthetic arising from Chomsky's theories either) Picassošs abstract attempts to depict seeing motion, and other subsequent devices created by Picasso do not after all tell us what really happens when we see motion any more than other forms of expression literally thousands of years old. Yet it is important to recognize that Picasso often spoke of himself as a realist. Perhaps we can consider his views as suspect, but there was at least with Picasso the awareness of realism. Other modernist when World War II ended and modernism dominated U.S. culture never much seriously troubled themselves with the issue of motion that stimulated Picasso. And so it has been for Modernism, that realism has been pushed aside. This was undoubtedly a product of cold war attitudes stretching back into the period after the Bolshevik revolution. But also reflects the limitations of science too.


What does seeing motion really mean? We donšt have videotape recorders in the brain. The whole process of recording motion through contemporary media such as film cameras is utterly unlike the human visual system.

Seeing motion requires that the brain dedicate processing to specific functions which in the vocabulary of medical research is called the "modularity" of the brain. Here is a web site with a standard definition of brain modularity.


Here is a web site with a specific example of someone with damage to their motion seeing module in the occipital lobe of the brain.


Interaction characterizes the exchange process that language exemplifies. The exchange process in communicating is what sets apart the modular nature of the mind from movies. We watch a movie passively. We donšt participate in an active use of, or exchanging of, motion pictures with others in the community of ordinary human speech acts. In that sense then the modular nature of the mind tells us considerable details about a variety of areas that represent strong working class interests yet neglected in the culture of motion pictures.

Returning to Picasso, the historical cultural expression of the issue of seeing motion that initiated modernism cannot be resolved by painting pictures. The quest to express motion and states of being in a language like way requires a modular system of expression. A system of expression that is grammatical in the sense of motion is separated from stillness when we exchange speech acts. A system that reflects the cognitive structures of vision.


Doyle Saylor