Picasso made the news last week. Not with a sale or a rediscovered canvas, but with a nude. Yes, you read that right. Pablo Picasso painted a nude woman — “Nude Woman in a Red Armchair,” to be precise. Her image is on a poster, and at least one passenger arriving at the Edinburgh Airport was forced to see it. Can you imagine?
Although 90 percent of you reading this might not be unduly shocked at the idea of a Picasso nude, Edinburgh Airport officials evidently had trouble with the idea. After the passenger or passengers complained, they first covered the offending area — bare breasts! — then banned the poster, before someone with common sense stepped in and said, in effect, this is an iconic image advertising a major museum show: Get over yourself.
Somehow the more widespread sexual imagery becomes, the more prurient society gets about it. You would love to say to whoever complained: “For goodness’ sakes, this woman is blue, and her hair is green, and she has a breast growing out of the middle of her breastbone, and she was painted 80 years ago by one of the great masters of Western art. You honestly have a problem with this?”
But it’s not about the breasts. It’s not even about the pudenda, though they are depicted more realistically than anything else in the picture. It’s about the art. As the director general of the National Galleries of Scotland said in the Guardian after the story broke, “All kinds of images of women in various states of dress and undress can be used in contemporary advertising without comment.” It’s when the woman on the poster is blue that people complain — not because she is realistic, but precisely because she isn’t.
Art is mysterious and confusing. It’s supposed to be great. But some people still aren’t sure what they’re supposed to be seeing, so they fasten on the elements they recognize and get it completely wrong. Think of the people who got the Smithsonian Institution to take David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” out of its “Hide/Seek” show because the 11-second image of ants crawling on a crucifix was supposedly anti-Catholic. Or the uproar over Chris Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which incorporated elephant dung and led the mayor of New York to take the Brooklyn Museum to court.
This kind of protest arises because, at bottom, people dread having something put over on them. Literal depictions are far less threatening. I very much doubt that whoever protested this Picasso image would protest a poster of Manet’s far more realistic “Olympia” with equal vehemence.
But the protest isn’t what makes news. What does is the fact that someone at the Edinburgh Airport actually reacted to it. For the real evil is not culture but cultural relativism. In a world in which there are so many points of view, the only certain pole, it seems, is that the customer must be right and must be placated — even when it would be far more helpful to help him understand, gently and firmly, where it is reasonable to take offense and where it is not.