It’s funny how ideas swirl around and converge like storm fronts, gathering strength and momentum until it feels like the entire universe shouting a specific message, “HEY, HAVE YOU NOTICED…??” I realize it’s more to do with synthesis in the mind, focusing attention in a certain direction, and a bit of Baader-Meinhof, but just in case there is a supernatural element at work, I try to remain open to it.
I have been under the weather lately, which meant catching up on some prestige television, including the first two episodes of the Picasso season of Genius (highly recommended) and the first five episodes of Trust, to do with the Getty family and the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III. Apart from high production values and being recent period dramas, these two shouldn’t have much in common, and yet, certain ideas about the 20th century seemed to explode out at me. Historical fiction (or dramatization of history) is a brilliant opportunity to examine the present sociopolitical climate and asks us to question which of our current beliefs are anachronistic holdovers or, more explicitly, how we got where we are now.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937 (May 1-June 4, Paris), oil on canvas, 137.51 x 305.74 in. (349.3 x 776.6 cm)
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
The two episodes of Genius established a resistance motif, juxtaposing young Pablo Picasso, cavorting with anarchists and political dissidents in Spain, with “most famous artist in the world” older Picasso going toe to toe with Nazis during the occupation of Paris. They show one of my favorite art historical anecdotes, when a Gestapo officer contemptuously thrusts a photo of the “degenerate” Guernica in Picasso’s face, asking of the painting made in response to the German bombing of the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, “Did you do this?” Picasso wryly responds, “No, you did.”
In another scene, Picasso lies on the beach in Antibes in 1938 with his lover and muse, photographer and painter Dora Maar, discussing how Francisco Franco‘s Fascist government had banned divorce (along with contraception and abortion) in Spain. Picasso said it would make his wife happy, goading Dora into expressing her disappointment that she could not now become Madame Picasso. She surprises him by saying, “I would never marry you… Marriage is a bourgeoise convention supported by priests and lawyers – and their Fascist dictators.” She coyly continues, “And besides, wives by definition are boring creatures.”
In an episode exploring Picasso’s search for freedom from the constraints of society, aesthetics, economics, and traditional Catholic morality, the bikini-clad Dora comes off as vastly more radical and modern in her thinking, freer for recognizing that marriage was being used to trap women and make them irrelevant under the guise of modesty or taking away their autonomy through pregnancy and child-rearing. That is, if she meant it – it’s possible she was simply making the best of a situation and appealing to Picasso’s thirst for unconventionality. It is an unfortunate fault of art history that Dora is still chiefly remembered as Picasso’s mistress and not as an artist and activist in her own right, but this scene elegantly demonstrates the way religion is used as the cudgel of authoritarianism, prodding people into behaviors advantageous to maintaining hegemony.
Samantha Colley as Dora Maar in Genius, “Picasso: Chapter One,” National Geographic, 2018.
Dora’s attitude is one that probably arose from seeing through the illusion that authoritarianism was a form of protection, recognizing the motivations for war and injustice are almost always greed, and understanding that patriarchy is a tool to keep men in power by oppressing women (and ethnic minorities). By contrast, the post-war free love “sexual liberation” in 1960s-70s America seems like a childish imitation of clarity, manipulated by men to their advantage. Women embraced the fun of showing their bodies and having sex, but it seems they forgot the other part of the rebellion, achieving freedom. This is where I feel our current iteration of feminism seems to have been co-opted, with many women in the early 2000s adopting the Carrie Bradshaw definition of “having sex like a man” instead of becoming a fully autonomous person (we’ll return to this another time).
Trust shows the 1970s status quo as something of an inevitability of the times. Opening with a gruesome scene set amidst a lavishly drug-fueled party, perfectly soundtracked by Pink Floyd’s “Money,” the Getty family is shown as sun-soaked libertines, squandering their family fortune and considerable advantages in life to live decadently but pointlessly. Donald Sutherland uses his preternatural gift for playing a cantankerously unlikeable creep spectacularly in his portrayal of the miserly, bitter patriarch J. Paul Getty, complaining that the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Hearsts, and even “Irish peasant” Kennedy family somehow managed to create a legacy of war heroes and accomplished men, while his children are “simpering, idle wasters,” disappointments because they pursue movie production, composing a symphony, and drugs. He channels his mourning into lamenting the “Getty dynasty,” without a trace of recognition that he played any part in their lives and development of character.
It is logical that the richest man in the world, living in a palatial estate yet charging guests for phone calls and water, taunting his harem of mistresses with games of, “Who loves me best?” should go immediately to an egocentric place in the face of loss. In these and subsequent scenes, he feels like the embodiment of toxic masculinity, gnashing his teeth at protestors holding up oil field drilling, gleefully describing the way his trust avoids paying any taxes by closing the supply chain and constantly reinvesting in other companies it owns, and refusing to give a loan of $6000 because he would have to pay taxes on it. Meanwhile, he throws a gala to show off a lioness he purchased and brought from Africa for his amusement.
Donald Sutherland as J. Paul Getty in Trust, “The House of Getty,” Ep. 1 Sn. 1, FX Networks, 2018.
The history of the Getty family trust is exemplary patriarchy. J. Paul’s father, George, an insurance salesman, invested an inheritance in purchasing mineral rights in Oklahoma (whether this was part of the dubious dealings between the Osage Nation and US government at the time is unclear, but likely). George gave J. Paul a “small loan” to create a nest egg for himself after previously disinheriting him for frivolity and wastefulness (perhaps this sounds familiar?). J. Paul bought additional mineral rights and created the oil empire that made him the titan of the 70s. None of this would have been possible without inheritances and advantageous purchasing at a time when capital was scarce, like most great fortunes, and their further consolidation of wealth was only possible by evading tax codes and finding ways to game the system.
In Trust, J. Paul Getty is distraught by the lack of a worthy heir, briefly taking a shine to his grandson over their shared interest in the Elgin marbles, basically a state-sanctioned looting of antiquities. The legacy is not a point of providing for his family, whom he treats with scorn, but seems focused around his own ego and the question of how history will remember him personally. He is not worried about his character or reputation for honesty, charity, or magnanimity, responding to every request for donations with a form letter that “Mr. Getty runs a business, not a charity” – instead, he wants to find someone driven to increase their material status and, as a consequence, sociopolitical influence and power. He is a model capitalist, but by every account, a terribly flawed human being.
What would Picasso have thought of a man like Getty, whose museum now holds some of the master’s works? They were roughly contemporaries, born eleven years apart but dying within 3 years of one another (1973 and 1976 respectively). How did their experiences shape them as men, Picasso the son of a struggling painter coming of age in war-torn France, Getty the son of a stern Methodist buying up mineral rights? Was Picasso more of a capitalist than the glamorization of history lets on? Was Getty more of a humanitarian than he appears (he endowed some of the greatest cultural institutions we have today)? Each enjoyed prestige and material comfort in life through their own ingenuity and industry, and each rose to great prominence by taking advantage of the white male patriarchal benefits that men like Franco toiled to put in place, though I would argue Getty was more the type Fascists had in mind. Nevertheless, both are part of the mythology of the “self-made man” of the 20th century, and it is worth unpacking what that really means today.
While watching these two shows, I also observed a slew of aspirational commercials, largely aimed at middle-class, reasonably well-educated viewers, the type who would be watching shows about artists and rich people. Though expected, the trait that stood out most in overwrought ads for river boat cruises and mid-priced sedans was an appeal to self-importance, the necessity of luxury and “likemindedness” in amenities. By simultaneously describing the target viewer’s individuality and free-spiritedness (literally, “Be extraordinary!“) and reminding them how everyone else has nicer things than them, these ads play on creating a sense that to buy a lesser car or to take a more affordable cruise (or none at all) is to compromise or settle.
That is obviously the gist of consumer culture, to tell people, “You’re better than this!” while suggesting that if they don’t rise to the occasion with a big ticket purchase, they’re losers. American capitalism is driven by this obsession with brand names and “essential” features that often amount to whimsy, like a refrigerator that texts you to buy more juice or cars that obey voice commands. People make jokes about which downmarket clothing brands or shoes someone wears, while elevating others arbitrarily. Very few people have any knowledge about quality or craftsmanship beyond price tags and reputation, which makes it easy to market to us this way. We want to be admired for making tasteful choices and arranging our lives attractively. Even those who may not mean to judge people by their material trappings usually end up with a mental hierarchy of what is admirable or not in terms of furniture, neighborhoods, cosmetics, cars, and even the food we consume, determining our place in society accordingly. Conformity can feel good, I get it, but we can’t become trapped by it.
Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, 1956, collage
10.25 x 9.75 in. (260 x 248 mm), Kunsthalle Tübingen, Germany.
Materialism and self-importance drive us to complacency. The more we acquire, the more we have to lose if the economy or political situation becomes unstable. We become literally invested in maintaining the status quo and therefore complicit in accepting atrocities in businesses polluting the environment or destabilizing regions of the world for profit, so long as it doesn’t bottom out our 401k or cause real estate values to plummet. I have observed that the more comfortable people become materially (because they benefit from the system) the more conservative their politics tend to become, which makes sense on the surface if one’s primary concerns are keeping your job, house, car, and belongings safe. And that is a lot. But it is not everything.
Most of the super wealthy people I have known are deeply unhappy. The more wealth they accrue, the greater the pressure to acquire more, to have better things, relentlessly pursuing the very best money can buy, without really questioning what this stuff actually means in their lives – or examining its true cost. It is a sad reality that most of the millionaires and the handful of billionaires I’ve met had pretty lousy relationships with their families. I can’t count the amount of times that grown men have teared up with envy when I casually answered their inquiries about my weekend plans with, “Oh yeah, I’m going fishing with my father!” However modest our version of fishing or sailing is compared with the luxury yachts these men own, they cannot buy the relationship I’ve always had with my dad, nor can they recreate it with their own sons. They know it, they know I know it, and they often gruffly say, “You are so lucky, I hope you know that,” then simmer in our mutual tacit understanding of which of us is richer in life. I know that the relationship I have with my family is truly priceless, and that it came about in large part because my parents were able to find jobs with fairly short commutes, and they chose to spend their time with my brother and me, not at the country club or traveling for work. The town where I grew up was full of 1%-ers and captains of Wall Street, but it was rare for many of my friends to know where their parents were at dinner time, let alone to eat together as a family every night.
So where are we left when we have a society driven by self-importance and materialism? As it happens, the Dalai Lama addressed this question, and it popped up on my Facebook feed just the other day.
He says the two sources of negative emotions are a self-centered attitude (check) and failure to recognize that nothing in life is as it appears (hmmm).
Is the path of what we are “supposed” to do in life truly the one that leads to happiness? I believe the acquisition of material things, even (and especially) at the scope of the Getty family, will never lead to happiness and fulfillment in life. It is not possible to buy the feeling of making a keenly-observed joke and bringing a group to tears with laughter. You can buy a fancy art school education (I will probably be paying for that one my whole life) but you cannot buy talent or the ability to touch someone’s soul with the thoughts you had, well-expressed. You can buy the finest ingredients in all the land, but you cannot buy the warmth and soulful nourishment that comes from cooking with palpable love for someone you care for with all your heart. And you can buy a boat, but you cannot buy the decades of silly exchanges, thoughtful observations, and genuine moments of love and concern that add up to the kind of relationship that makes you want to spend a whole day on it with someone.
What I value most in life is what sets me free. When I am feeling sardonic I quote Bob Dylan in saying, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose,” but it’s true – I am not invested in this society as it is. Yes, I have benefitted immensely from it, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise, but I do not believe the experiences I have had should be coveted and kept only for white people of a certain socioeconomic status and religious background. I believe everyone should have access to affordable housing, the ability to feed their families every day, education if they want it, health care when they need it, the ability to retire, and a sense of purpose in their lives. To provide this security and comfort to others does not mean it takes it away from someone else. If we assess a person’s legacy by their community-mindedness and contributions to the intellectual fabric of society instead of how much material wealth and power they’ve amassed, I believe the Getty trust and most personal fortunes would appear bankrupt.
Dora Maar, Mannequin en maillot de bain, 1936, photomontage.
Dora Maar was heartbroken and depressed when Picasso left her, but I don’t think it was because she did not become Madame Picasso, so much as she lost the love of her life. I wish she had a second act, where she returned to her art revitalized by her experiences of history and became a voice for her generation, but that is asking a lot of her in a world set against such things. My hope for the 21st century is that we can make the shift from J. Paul Getty’s style of thinking (we see how that plays out) to Dora Maar’s: stop generating war for profit and sowing artificial discontent among mankind to exploit, and instead focus on creating a more equitable society, where people can become truly free. Instead of appeasing Fascists, making stupid people famous, and worshipping consumer culture, I believe the path to true happiness is looking outside of ourselves to right the wrongs of the world. We must address the discrepancies between the world as it appears and the world as it is, and tackle the inherent negativity and cynicism that drives the cycles of capitalism and greed.
We should aspire to be able to afford generosity of spirit above everything. If we stop focusing on stuff and turn our attention to people, we can all be free.