Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Chicago Picasso”


Here’s the thing about poetry: it’s not easy. Unless we’re talking total doggerel, the worst, most simplistic limericks, or the kind of rhyming couplets that people use to narrate their family Christmas cards, poetry demands real work from readers.

In 1967 Gwendolyn Brooks was asked by Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, to write a poem to commemorate the dedication of the “Chicago Picasso,” a welded steel sculpture by the famous Spanish artist that still stands in Daley Plaza downtown. This is the poem she read at the dedication:

The Chicago Picasso

August 15, 1967

“Mayor Daley tugged a white ribbon, loosing the blue percale wrap. A hearty cheer went up as the covering slipped off the big steel sculpture that looks at once like a bird and a woman.”
–Chicago Sun-Times

(Seiji Ozawa leads the Symphony.
The Mayor smiles.
And 50,000 See.)

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.
In commonrooms
we belch, or sniff, or scratch.
Are raw.

But we must cook ourselves and style ourselves for Art, who
is a requiring courtesan.
We squirm.
We do not hug the Mona Lisa.
may touch or tolerate
an astounding fountain, or a horse-and-rider.
At most, another Lion.

Observe the tall cold of a Flower
which is as innocent and as guilty,
as meaningful and as meaningless as any
other flower in the western field.

You might see where I’m going with this. One of the reasons I love poetry is precisely because it makes us work, as all worthwhile art should. In a 1970 interview, Brooks put it better than I ever could, telling George Stavros:

Well, in “The Chicago Picasso,” first of all I was asked to write a poem by the mayor of Chicago about that statue, and I hadn’t seen it. I had only seen pictures of it, and the pictures looked very foolish, with those two little eyes and the long nose. And I don’t know a great deal about art myself; I haven’t studied it. So I really didn’t feel quali- fied to discuss what Picasso was doing or had intended to do. So I decided to handle the situation from the standpoint of how most of us who are not art fanciers or well educated in things artistic re- spond to just the word “art”and to its manifestations. And I decided that most of us do not feel cozy with art, that it’s not a thing you easily and chummily throw your arms around, that it’s not a huggable thing, as I said here: “Does man love Art? Man visits Art. …” And we visit it, we pay special, precise little calls on it. But those of us who have not grown up with or to it perhaps squirm a little in its presence. We feel that something is required of us that perhaps we aren’t altogether able to give. And it’s just a way of saying, “Art hurts.” Art is not an old shoe; it’s something that you have to work in the presence of. It urges voyages. You just can’t stay in your comfortable old grooves. You have to extend yourself. And it’s easier to stay at home and drink beer.

Now, Mormons don’t drink beer, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not also doing our damnedest to be comfortable most of the time, to read books and watch films and tv shows that are simply pleasurable. Myself included. Which is fine. I think providing pleasure and escape is a perfectly legitimate and vital function of art.

But it’s not the only function of art, and maybe not even its most important function. One fear I have is that in Mormon culture we might be particularly predisposed to avoid difficult or challenging art because we are so constantly admonished only to read and/or watch things that are “uplifting.” I don’t like that word. I think I understand what is meant by it–that we should seek out art that makes us better, more Christlike people. But there are two problems there. The first is the assumption that art does all the work, that the book we read or the show we watch acts on us and we just take it. This is simply false. We bring a lot to the table, not the last of which are our critical capacities and spiritual sensitivities, our ability to engage any particular text through interpretation.

The second problem is that the word “uplifting” implies that all art should elicit the same experience from us. That it should inspire us, make us happy, make us feel, as a student told me earlier this week, “fuzzy” inside. Again, there’s nothing wrong with reading a book purely for pleasure, or watching a tv show as an escape from anxiety and stress at the end of the day (K and I are currently addicted to The Good Wife). But art can and should demand of us a range of thoughts and emotions. And the greatest works of art I have personally encountered are like the Chicago Picasso–they make me squirm.

I love the final stanza of Brooks’s poem, where she asks us to “observe the tall cold of a Flower.” This line makes me squirm in two ways. First, it subtly twists the normal codes of grammar. “Cold” here is nominalized, changed from its usual function as a adjective to a noun. I have to do some work to make sense of this shift. The “cold” of a flower I take to indicate its imperviousness, the way it simply is, defying interpretation.

This idea is the second way the line makes me squirm. We may want the Flower (capital F) to symbolize innocent or guilt, as Brooks writes, but it finally refuses to give an account of itself to us, just like “any other flower in the western field.” That’s hard to hear. I’m used to thinking of flowers as beautiful, delicate objects that exist to make me happy. But the poem reminds me that the Flower is something wholly independent of me. It does not care whether I am happy or sad. On the other hand, the Flower is not simply “meaningful or meaningless.” Rather, it is exactly as meaningful or meaningless as any other flower, which is to say, that I am important to the Flower inasmuch as I can work to give it meaning.

I suspect that many people, when they first encounter a poem, feel like they’re staring at the Chicago Picasso, or the tall cold of a Flower. And I suspect that when they feel uncomfortable, they think they’re doing something wrong. I just want to say, you’re doing it right. It’s okay to feel discomfited, unsettled, ruffled, even disrupted from time to time. It’s okay to squirm.