Seeing Through Culture
Updated: Jul 25, 2020
I read a New Yorker article the other day about “the only woman to leave Picasso,” the painter Françoise Gilot. As a young woman, Gilot announced to her wealthy father that instead of being the lawyer he wanted her to be, she wanted to be a painter. Her father beat her, cut off her income, and tried to get her committed to an insane asylum. Instead she went to live with her grandmother, gave riding lessons at a stable, and painted.
She was married to Picasso, with whom she had two children, for ten years, after which she’d had enough. Picasso had an insatiable sexual appetite, several wives, numerous mistresses, hundreds of lovers, and according to this article believed that women came in two varieties, goddesses or doormats. He didn’t necessarily fill the lives of those around him with delight. A wife, a mistress, a son, and a grandson of Picasso’s all committed suicide. When Gilot left him, he told her “even if you think people like you, it will only be a kind of curiosity they will have about a person whose life touched mine so intimately. And you’ll be left with only the taste of ashes in your mouth. For you reality is finished; it ends right here.”
After leaving Picasso, Gilot remarried Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine, and continued painting. She is now 97, and according to the article, is not only enjoying a revival of interest in her art, but is “still beautiful… lucid, witty, and pitilessly dry in the French way.”
I don’t bring up Picasso’s character flaws to write him off as a human being or to say anyone should like his art less. But it struck me: Yes, Picasso is generally considered the better artist or at least the more influential. So be it. (I’ve never been a huge fan of his work myself.) But choosing to value that is just that: a choice.
That we as a culture are flooded with Picasso and not Gilot doesn’t reflect anything innately or absolutely more worthy about him. You could easily make the argument that Gilot should be the cultural figure we hold in our gaze—independent, artistic, strong, and persevering.
I also just finished the book Sticky Fingers, which chronicles the life and times of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. It got me thinking along the same lines as the Gilot article. By revealing the particulars of who Wenner was—along with all the maneuvering, bias, deals, and egos involved in what got in the magazine and what was left out—the book drove home the same insight: Rolling Stone has always been—no matter how glossy the pages, how accomplished the writers, or how famous the celebrities that adorn its covers—another filtered, quirk-filled, selective presentation of reality, of what matters, of what I should think.
Our culture is like the water we swim in. The news, websites, what people talk about, the covers of magazines, university departments, what we write books about. We tend to accept it because it’s what we’ve always known, what we get bombarded by every day.
But as I grow older, the difference between our culture and reality—or at least realities I like better—is becoming clearer and more important to me.
I see it everywhere. What we collectively revere and emphasize—even what we take as the fundamental truths of science—do not often reflect what in my experience is ultimately true, what works for me, what makes my life rich and satisfying and joyful.
Everything presented to us is presented through a certain filter, distortion, and set of invisible assumptions. Our news, for example, is not news; it is bad news. We are steeped in a “what’s the next problem” consciousness. Outrage, accusation, impending catastrophe, and judgment of the kind Jesus never practiced seem like reality. Moreso than the sky, the trees, the sound of the wind, the steady love you feel for people in your life, the billion unreported acts of kindness.
Public people are almost always presented through a lens that makes them either a saint or Satan. But over and over I’ve found that, upon deeper exploration, the images I used to carry of prominent cultural figures, whether alive or dead, prove distorted or at least cartoon versions of a far more complex and nuanced reality.
Even the great edifice of science that has helped to fill our lives with so many gadgets only focuses on a tiny slice of reality and calls it real—what can be repeated, predicted, measured. When new studies come out and splash across the internet, according to a Stanford professor who does research on research itself, they are “more likely to be false than true.” Scientists—and journal editors—it turns out, are humans, both subject to the pressure to publish exciting results even when those results are questionable (Google John Ioannidis for details)*.
What we’re told we’re supposed to like has a massive influence on what we think we like. There’s the famous example in which not one of 54 wine experts could tell that white wine dyed red was in fact white wine. In another study, among 18 subjects given a blind taste test of duck-liver mousse, pork-liver pâté, puréed liverwurst, Spam, and Newman’s Own dog food, 13 of them mistook the dog food for pâté.
If what we expect to taste has such a massive influence on what we think we taste, how much more must this be true in our other tastes—art, people, literature, activities.
I’m not encouraging you to dismiss all heroes or influences. I want instead to remind you of the only thing that is ultimately true—the only thing at least that I’ve found leads to satisfaction and deep joy. Turning your dial away from the bombarding frequencies of what we’re supposed to believe, like, admire, strive for, and tuning yourself to the song God is humming in you.
You are the only one who knows what you like, love, enjoy, what feeds your soul. Filet mignon or peanut butter and jelly. French pâté or dog food. Pablo Picasso or your nephew’s drawing of a tree. Don’t let anyone or any institution—no matter how powerful they seem, no matter how many people are chanting the same tune—convince you away from who you are.
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*My book, How to Believe in Science and also in Something Beyond further explores the limitations of the conventional scientific outlook.