significance." - Aristotle
Pablo Picasso was the preeminent artist of the 20th century and his genius shook the art world from hundreds of years of tradition and sent it in new and profound directions. If you have ever seen a Picasso exhibit that includes his earliest work (I am thinking of a portrait he painted at age 13) you know that his technical skill was genius. He could render a self-portrait at 13 that defied understanding. His skill and technical ability at an early age were equivalent to those working at the highest level of the academy. And yet, this is not the genius for which he is known; a genius so defined for its complicity with the existing art world paradigm.
No, Picasso achieved his genius for exactly the opposite reason, for creating his own paradigm, one that rigorously defied the current norms that simply did not work for him. And yet, his efforts in creating this new paradigm and his efforts toward artistic innovation were not about looking forward to new technologies or the skills and techniques of the future. They were instead focused on looking back and unpacking the baggage of cultural expectations and tired creative standards and traditions to become an artist that was more fully himself, more fully human.
As he summarized: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael and a lifetime to paint like a child.”
Picasso’s groundbreaking genius was the genius of the child; a genius we all once had but has been obscured by years of “development” and cultural norming, by institutionalization and isolation. His was a genius of deconstruction for the sake of a more fully realized, more liberating construction. It was the genius of starting over and creating the world we want to live in rather than adapting to the world as it is presented to us.
This is the same approach groups of young people around the country, who I met as a consultant with Special Olympics Project UNIFY, take every day; students with and without intellectual disabilities who work together to create safer and more equitable schools. Mirroring Picasso’s approach to art, these young people defy the norms, expectations, institutions, and definitions of disability in order to develop more genuine friendships and more caring school communities.
Disability is irrelevant. They are about ability – something everyone has. They are about relationships. They too see with the genius of a child. And, what their approach enables is truly profound:
· The ability to express your love for another with openness and courage;
· Living in the presence of sincerity rather than seeking the safety of cynicism;
· Asking the question you really want to ask;
· Understanding that difference is our common trait and that friendship and respect are at the center of everything good;
· The respect to clap sincerely when someone stands up rather than ironically when they fall down.
While Picasso struggled a lifetime to undo the social, cultural, and creative norms of art, these young people are already unfettered by the social and cultural norms and expectations of the teenage years, of disability, and of so much more. They are about creating relationships that defy the notion of “other.” (Sadly, Picasso had notoriously terrible relationships with other human beings.)
While Picasso sought to present a truth about objects and people and painting that was deeper than pure representation of surface or shape or color, these young people seek and see and expose each other’s “inward significance,” beyond and beneath surface assumptions.
There is an art to relationships. And, the greater the supposed differences in culture or class or ability, the greater the art and the more genius the artists.