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Picasso and the art of simile

Reality, tweaked.

Françoise Gilot lived with Picasso for just under ten years and bore him two children. In Life with Picasso, she records that he was fond of referring to Braque as “only Madame Picasso”. When Picasso slept now and then with Nusch, the wife of Paul Éluard, Éluard knew but looked the other way. “The ultimate test of friendship,” Gilot says – to lay down one’s wife for one’s best friend. Picasso: “But it was a gesture of friendship on my part, too. I only did it to make him happy. I didn’t want him to think I didn’t like his wife.” What links these two stories? Condescension, a conviction of superiority, a certain droit du seigneur. Remember Picasso wrote “yo el rey”, I the king, on some early paintings.

In his essay “Borges and I”, Borges notes the gap between his intimate private self and the literary figure, the writer, the Borges of reputation. No such ontological fissure in Picasso. As an artist, he took what he needed – from other artists, from his acolytes, from his lovers, from his collaborators. Lionel Prejger, who worked with Picasso on his metal sculptures, recalled: “He loved all that kind of thing. When Picasso came to my scrap-metal yard, he’d look at all the bits of junk . . .” This self-belief led to a torrential oeuvre, a complete absence of doubt, a refusal of conventional discriminations. Gilot records: “One must be the painter, never the connoisseur. The connoisseur gives only bad advice to the painter. For that reason I have given up trying to judge myself.” Taste is always the enemy of art. But the refusal to discriminate means that as the torrent sweeps along unstoppably, it carries with it sweepings-up and a fair percentage of rubbish and repetition – of kitsch.

In “Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901”, the current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, you can see his Child with a Dove – the first in a long, lachrymose line of doves, harlequins, fauns and pan pipes. Then there is Picasso’s Blue Period sentimental melancholy, with its self-regarding student-bedsitter politics. Later, the megaphone megakitsch of Guernica (1937), not to mention the terrible attitudinising, the ramped-up rhetoric of Massacre in Korea (1951), whose composition is stolen from Degas’s Young Spartan Girls Provoking the Boys – a picture John Updike said resembled figures in a lift trying not to touch. Picasso took what he wanted. But in this case, his politics, his urgent banalities, were all hand-me-downs. He is an uneven, inconsistent painter.

There are, though, creations that move one by their brilliance, their spontaneity, their exactitude, their economy of means, their decisive perfection. In Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos, we read: “Here error is all in the not done,/all in the diffidence that faltered.” In the best Picasso nothing falters. His art is unhesitating. It is also various, teeming and impossible to encompass. So I’ll write about two drawings, one painting and two sculptures – most of them not widely known or reproduced, all of them incomparable.

On 4 May 1946, Picasso made a penciloutline drawing of two lovers having sex (Couple Enlacé). The man is taking the woman from behind. They are doing it standing up. You can see half of his scrotum like a fig. Her arms are behind her head. Her right leg is lifted high to let him in. His left hand reaches round and down to caress her vulva. His right arm goes over her right shoulder and round to caress the base of her left breast. They are intricately intertwined, inseparable, were it not for the fact Picasso has outlined the woman’s curves in blue crayon and the man’s harder slimness in red crayon. This way we can work out that the woman’s head is laid back, abandoned, ecstatic, on the man’s left shoulder.

The miracle here is first the freedom of the original pencil lines and then the accuracy of the covering crayon, which seems equally free and spontaneous. It isn’t careful in the least. It is carefree yet almost exactly in register as it follows the pencil’s template. It doesn’t seem to be following at all. It is the opposite of painstaking. Intricate though it is, it is as if Picasso was practising his signature. It is full of flourish and at ease with its skill. And it captures something previously uncaptured about the act of sex – its grace, the perfection of its fit, its ideal beauty, what we think we are doing when we lose ourself in the other person. A oneness dependent on differentiation – two colours, two sexes, with a shared pencil outline.

In his Rose or Circus Period, Picasso paints La famille de saltimbanques (1905). This large oil is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The second figure on the left, in front of a fat clown, is a girl with a basket of flowers. It is the study for her figure that I want to analyse. The girl has her back to us. There is no basket, only a dog. She is looking down to her right at the dog below. Her right hand rests on the dog’s head. The drawing has two colours only – black pastel and a faint, dull pink. Her dress is pink and her bolero top is black. Her hair is black with a pink flower in it. The dog too is black. It seems to be drawn on matt wrapping paper. You can see horizontal lines at regular intervals.

The drawing is a beautiful enigma. All its secrets are internal. Though it seems quietly realistic, there is a clue in its single, discreet, disguised anomaly. The girl’s left arm is raised and crooked. She appears to have no hand. The viewer allows for perspective and makes the correction, ekes out the drawing with expectation. But the etiolation is deliberate. Actually, the arm is configured to parallel the dog’s curved tail at the bottom right. And once noticed, this sets off a series of explosive parallels. Her head and the dog’s head are turned to the right. Her feet and the dog’s paws mirror each other. The line of the dog’s torso – an inverted mountain range of ups and downs – is picked up in the outline of her bolero top. And further repeated in the Toblerone of her hairline. A great harmonic drawing, a sumptuous chord.

The Two Brothers (gouache on cardboard) was painted in Gósol in 1906. Picasso kept this picture for himself. You can see it in the Musée Picasso in Paris. It shows a naked boy giving his smaller brother a piggy-back, his left leg advanced towards the viewer. Once more the palette is restricted, this time to brown-pink, though there is crimson and blue in the rim of a drum in the left foreground. The little boy has his arms around his big brother’s neck, his fingers interlaced. His legs poke through his brother’s arms and hang pointing outwards.

The drum has a small pottery dish resting on it, also being carried, and it makes the trelliswork compositional motif explicit, though not obtrusive. Its body is held by interlacing wire in an unequal diamond pattern. Why did Picasso reserve this picture for himself? Because, I think, it contains an artistic secret that is central to the development of Picasso’s art. On the right eyebrow of the little boy being carried is a fleck of paint, a little skin-tag of pigment. This is a sculptural inflection and tells us that the dusky, dusty pinks are intended to summon terracotta garden sculpture.

Picasso’s art really begins to accelerate once he discovers – in his effortlessly ver - satile way – how much sculpture can contribute to painting. If you consider the diagonal nasal striations around the time of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – those primitive comb-like rakes along the ridge of the nose – you can see they represent rough carving, chisel marks, as well as pronounced shadow. A painting such as Dancing Couple (1921-22) uses the coarse, nubbly grain of the canvas to create the illusion of granite – helped by the monumental quality of the hands and the features (a shared simplified version of Picasso), especially the faintly rudimentary lashless eyelids. Then there is cubism’s initial impulse to represent in one dimension sculpture’s three dimensions and shifting viewpoint. In the 1930s, Picasso’s paintings are pastiches of monumental classical sculpture, with large-limbed subjects clad in pleated tunics – every one a sturdy Isadora Duncan dancer or a Joan Hunter-Dunn, with height and heft and burly wrists.

And Picasso became a wonderful sculptor, better even than Matisse, who can’t quite get his natural beauty into sculpture. Picasso is naturally rebarbative, though he can paint beautiful pictures on occasion – like the representation of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter asleep (Nude in a Garden, 1934) – where the arsehole, navel and nipples are a constellation of Cadbury’s chocolate buttons; the legs are another divided, large-scale vagina; and the fingers and blonde hair mirror their different, shapely strands. The river she lies by is ravishingly coloured, the narcissi above like butterflies trembling with cerebral palsy. Picasso could be beautiful, but mostly he chose to be realistic.

He made two Little Owl sculptures. One owl has a body made from a mattock. The other, even greater sculpture, is made from a dish. Its wings – the mattock silhouette – are made from nails, fixed with plaster to its back. The plaster coverage is only partial, like batter on courgettes cut into allumettes – and this creates the perfect, Platonic fledgling. Its claws are screws, the thread mimicking the hard, scaly legs and claws. Its eyes are screws, its beak a truncated sneck of metal found on a dump. It is brilliant bricolage, an act of improvisation, collage, makedo- and-mend, based on Picasso’s gift for seeing likenesses. His is an art of simile that can create a bull’s head from a bicycle seat and a pair of handlebars; a baboon’s face from two toy cars (a Panhard and a Renault); a little girl’s knitted cardigan from a wickerwork basket; her ears from teacup handles.

One of Picasso’s other great discoveries is interchangeability. In The Embrace (summer 1925), the nose and the eye are a single unit, a penis and scrotum; the bearded mouth and the fringed eye are both vaginas. Breasts can be eyes. The sign for pubic hair – a notched triangle – can also stand in for a belly button and armpit hair. Part of Picasso’s greatness is bound up with the idea that equivalence is more effective than literal representation, dull mimesis. The sign for something shows you have thought about what is being represented. It is reality tweaked.

Picasso’s 1958 Bull at MoMA in New York is a white-wood, simplified outline of a bull in profile, tail down to the right, head to the left and turned to face the viewer. The horns are not pointed but rounded like a boomerang. The lower body of the bull is masked with a second outline, not of white wood but of a coarser, darker wood, the texture of packing cases. To this smooth/ coarse, white/raw-mahogany template, Picasso adds four things: the sinews of the bull, the veins of the bull, the flies on the bull and the sweat on the bull.

The sinews and veins are stripped reddish- brown twigs, roughly nailed to the other two textures. The nails are sturdy and have been hammered in, then bent across the twigs. The nail heads bite into the white plywood finish and the packing case material. Flies and sweat are clusters of gunmetal tin-tacks – darkly glittering, strategically placed where you would expect to find them. The eyes are unforgettable – nuts and bolts right through the head, full of menace – their intensity further focused by a wooden frame.

Picasso said of his goat that it was more real than a goat. You can smell this bull; you can see the sinews; the hair is there before you in the coarse hirsuteness of the wood. To the idea of the bull, to its billboard outline, to its almost cartoon conception, Picasso has roughly added its actual roughness, its animal force, its beastliness.

“Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901” is at the Courtauld Gallery, London WC2, until 27 May. Craig Raine writes regularly on visual art for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge