The Strange Joy of Watching Police Shoot Picasso

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When I I remember rushing out of the Museum of Modern Art in New York after a boy tried to touch an Ellsworth Kelly painting. Confused when I heard anxious voices as I approached the painting, I extended my hand. I couldn’t relate the sounds myself because what I was doing made a lot of sense to me: I was attracted to a deep red, so I wanted to touch it.

We do not live very comfortably with art. There are other valuable objects that we can coexist more easily with: sports memorabilia, antique furniture, musical instruments, luxury watches and handbags. We use, wear and touch them, perhaps because we perceive them as objects with a use or purpose. But “art” status often elevates the object into something we naturally struggle to live with.

Watching this is like watching someone else’s nightmare.

There are practical reasons for this. Art is often desired to be encountered visually, out of reach of the fingers. It can be fragile and require protection to last – especially when we decide it needs to be protected as part of our cultural heritage. Yet as I watched the video of Picasso falling over and over, I felt a surge of childlike joy, not surprise. Following the usual rules was a vaguely infringing experience – use it carefully, proceed with caution – to be so haphazardly broken. A limit has been crossed. This was the reverse of another transformation: when a forgotten canvas in an attic is recognized as a Rembrandt or a van Gogh, it suddenly acquires importance and value. Here we see the opposite. Very briefly, a painting by Pablo Picasso becomes an everyday object, something that falls to the ground and is picked up again. (The thief also turned the art into something pedestrian, telling police that during the robbery he cut off his hand, used it to erase a 16th-century sketch, and then flushed the piece down the toilet.)

Before I watched this video, I thought I was tired of art. I write about it for a living, among other things, but after being away from museums for a year, I did not feel the anticipated desire to return. After watching this video many times, this came to my mind: Art but the predictability of how we will encounter it. Always far away, often behind glass, often in sterile galleries resembling airports. Much of the world’s art is never found; The financial value of works of art has led more and more collectors to purchase them as investments and store them unseen in climate-controlled vaults.

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