I feel like Pablo

I feel like Pablo

Kanye West named Pablo Picasso as one of his role models, but the two of them have more than art in common. What do we do about our problematic faves? Can you separate the art from the artist?

Haja Marie Kanu

5 min read

Kanye West surrounded by a crowd

The Life of Pablo

This is not a defence of Ye fka Kanye West. Like many disappointed Ye fans, I struggle to separate the art that I love from the hate the artist has come to represent.

Ye was praised for his defence of Black communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That same Kayne sent models down a runway wearing “white lives matter” t-shirts for Yeezy. That same Ye has aligned himself with the vilest white supremacy and anti-semitism.

I hate that Ye. But I think I’m always going to love his music and The Life of Pablo in particular.

But what does Ye mean when he repeats “I feel like Pablo”, amidst the impassioned plea for “no more parties in LA”? Who is this elusive Pablo that the album is named after?

Ye addressed the question on Kocktails with Khloe, his then sister-in-law’s interview show:

“Which Pablo? Pablo Picasso, Pablo Escobar of course, Apostle Paul. [Paul] inspired and was the strongest influencer of Christianity. Pablo Escobar was the biggest mover of product, and Pablo Picasso was the biggest mover of art.”

It seems that Ye is embracing his internal contradictions by modelling himself on both an apostle and a cartel boss. But it is that first Pablo whose trajectory Ye seems to follow closest: the troubled genius, the problematic fave, Pablo Picasso.

The Problem with Picasso

In the artworld, as in the public sphere, there are two camps when it comes to the idea of separating the art from the artist. There are those who want to separate the art from the heinous things the artist has done, thereby saving the art and with it the artist’s legacy. In the other camp, there are those who are all for cancelling artists completely. And of course there are people who haven’t given it a second thought.

The problem is too large to ignore and seems to stretch across the history of art and society – from Paul Gaugin to Woody Allen. But the difference there is that I don’t have any connection to these artists, unlike Picasso or Ye whose works have affected me deeply. So it is easy for me to disregard their art in my personal life, along with the barrage of other abusers brought to the forefront during the #MeToo movement. Three times I have gone to watch Lion (2016), but have not been able to make it beyond the “The Weinstein Company” title card. This isn’t just because of a holier-than-thou attitude. My introduction to Harvey Weinstein was through his countless allegations of harassment and abuse, and I am unable to see beyond that.

On the other hand, I will always look at Picasso’s Guernica as a child of a civil war. I see his Cubist world stripped of colour, and overrun with beasts. In the painting, I recognise the reckoning with trauma that defines both the person and the nation. To think of Picasso inflicting trauma on the women in his life (two died by suicide) is another heartbreak in a lifetime of idols letting you down.

His own granddaughter wrote of him “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”

Yet he continues to be considered by much of the world, myself included, a modern master.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

Context Matters

The Paris Picasso museum can’t cancel Picasso. Picasso’s legacy is the foundation of the entire institution. To cancel Picasso would be to shut down entirely. The works housed there would likely be transferred elsewhere because, after all, they are Picassos. I’m not sure anyone is calling for that. What they are attempting to do this year is recontextualise Picasso. The first step in doing so is reckoning with the reality of the harm that he has caused: whether that is his cruel misogyny, his appropriation of African art, or using a naked child model in his preparatory sketches for Demoiselles d’Avignon. Ye almost pales in comparison to the violence of his role model.

The museum shows that Picasso’s art does not exist in a vacuum. They challenge that narrative by showing Picasso alongside artists such as French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Nigerian painter Obi Okigbo, and African American artist Mickalene Thomas. These artists don’t just represent demographics harmed by Picasso. They also present alternative viewpoints on the same themes that Picasso explored: the human form, sexuality, animism, and landscapes of trauma. 

Kanye West at a listening party for his album, Donda, on July 22 2021, photographed by Kevin Mazur

Maybe the distinction between the art and the artist is easier to make with dead artists, as in the case of Picasso. I don’t know what Picasso would have to say about the museum’s recontextualising his work and legacy. As a free agent, it is up to Ye to decide how he wants to be seen, the legacy that he wants to have, and what he wants to do with the power that he has. There is also the agency of his fans to transform his work in their appreciation of it. However, there is the contingent of stans who will hang on to their idol’s every thought, word, and deed – mistaking his artistic talent for wisdom.

I think that by confronting the uncomfortable, unsavoury, and downright heinous realities of the people behind the art we love, we open up new possibilities for dialogue. We can hold two truths: that a person has done terrible things and has created great art. As in most conversations that dominate social media, the debate on separating the art from the artist lacks nuance. But it is only with nuance that we develop a richer understanding of the human condition. Is that not what great art is supposed to do?

Go deeper

In 2019, Kiana Fitzgerald wrote an impactful essay on Ye’s music and the experience of mania for Vibe Magazine. Her follow up for Vox in 2022 examines how we talk about him in light of recent scandals.

Marina Picasso’s memoir, Picasso, my grandfather, offers a close look at Picasso’s life behind the scenes.

For Art UK, Ruth Millington looks at the violent misogyny enshrined in the artistic canon.

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