Accepting Fragility: The Key To Living A Happy Life
How a torn portrait of Picasso’s lover reminds us to appreciate the tangible in this digital age.
You may not recall, but right before we stepped into this new decade, the last one concluded with a man called Shakeel Massey being charged with criminal damage. He’d thoughtlessly attacked and ripped a £20 million Picasso oil painting at London’s Tate Modern art gallery.
The surrealist piece, entitled Bust of a Woman, was painted in Paris, 1944, towards the end of the Nazi occupation, and depicts Picasso’s muse and lover Dora Maar.
Picasso first met Maar in 1935 at Les Deux Magots, renowned Parisian hangout of the young intelligentsia of the era — think Hemingway and de Beauvoir and Sartre. His liaison with the photographer, painter and poet lasted for 9 years, during which time he painted many portraits of her. In most, she was portrayed as a nebulous and fragile soul, the broken outcome of pain and suffering.
When I read about Massey’s strange and inexplicable attack, and subsequently looked into the painting and its subject, it got me musing on the frailty of existence, of the corporeal, of poor, forlorn creatures like Maar. This led me down a gloomy path, much the same as when a person thinks for too long about the concept of infinity — it can break the brain. And no more so than now, during all this coronavirus panic, do we need to steer clear of darker patterns of thought. So, I quickly did a one-eighty, instead arriving at (more comfortably) contemplating the fragility of tangible objects — and not only cultural treasures like Bust of a Woman, but anything really.
We now live in a digital age. Technology dominates our lives, and humans have a closer bond with machines than ever before — for the better or worse, depending on who you ask. For the sake of convenience, security and organisation, many areas that once offered a tactile experience — literature, art, film, music, work, finance, and so on — are now accessed by a majority in digital forms.
Although it’s true that lots of people prefer to deal with content digitally, we’re not yet at the stage where technology has swallowed us whole. Items still perceptible by human senses are still all around us. We can still see them, hear them, touch them, smell them — and, if the mood so bizarrely takes us, we can also taste them.
And many remain true to such articles, largely refusing to handle their digital counterparts. These folks prefer to hold a book in their hands rather than an Amazon Kindle, living for that distinctive, addictive scent of paper and ink, old or new. They’d take the smooth feel of a DVD or Blu-ray over a Netflix or Hulu subscription any day, relishing that sound as the disc slides in the player. And they’d always opt to visit the sprawling halls of our nation’s art galleries instead of their websites, where the physical manifestation of the real thing and quiet contemplation of it isn’t on offer in nearly the same way.
And there’s all the rest too: CDs (and maybe cassette tapes as well), vinyl records, traditional musical instruments, magazines, newspapers — people love it all. For those who grew up with this stuff, it represents a nostalgic anchor in simpler times. For younger generations, especially the otherwise tech-obsessed Generation Z, it’s often a chance to experience things they missed.
But owing to human fallibility, or the mere existential fragility of some old-school analogue items, partial or total loss or damage is possible — and perhaps inevitable — in the absence of special protections. Sometimes, either can occur irrespective of the presence of security — destruction, just like nature, often finds a way.
It’s this very fallibility and fragility, taken together with various other extreme and problematic limitations — spatial and temporal limitations, for example — which led to today’s best-known digital innovations. These — the most basic innovations we now take for granted, like word, picture and audio files — were designed to create, house, analyse and share different types of content or information traditionally created, housed, analysed and shared by physical means.
As might be expected though, it’s become clear frailty isn’t a characteristic exclusive to tangible objects. Over time, the unique opportunities afforded by digitisation have been overshadowed by its innumerable issues and challenges — namely those around security and data protection. New data security threats come to light every day, but thankfully, we’re getting better at tackling these threats, and even getting ahead of them before they have a chance to mess with us.
Still, some who were once converts to digital are now running back to analogue, tail between legs, seeking pardon for abandoning the (normally) sturdy and dependable for the allure of the new and shiny. After assessing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in both, I suppose they make a conscious choice to pick what they believe to be the lesser of two evils.
Other, more faithful tech converts, however, won’t ever break up with technology. That said, tech like VR and AR will allow this cohort to straddle the fence between the two, one foot on solid ground, the other in more exciting simulated or enhanced actuality.
Perhaps, as the next decade rolls around, another Massey will destroy another work of art somewhere in the world, for the tangible objects that humans appreciate won’t disappear into obscurity any time soon. If they’re to be enjoyed, despite inherent weaknesses caused by a state of materiality, these treasured items will simply have to remain open to potential destruction — the same as all the humbler things we still love, yellowing books and dusty CDs and suchlike.
Fragility is there in every corner of life, and there ain’t much we can do about it.