What is Art? (Bull’s Head, 1942)

What Is Art?

Pablo Picasso’s 1942 sculpture, Tete de Taureau, or Bull’s Head, is certainly one of the most significant artworks of the last century. The familiarity of this extraordinary piece has done little to lessen its visual impact and almost mysterious, simple wonder.

Bull's Head

Picasso had introduced the art of assemblage decades before Bull’s Head but this is his “sparest” sculpture, just two elements, without elaboration or attempt to make clever the elegant form. It consists of a bicycle saddle and handlebars, found objects, transformed by the artist’s imagination. Much has been made of the piece’s relation to, for instance, Duchamp’s Readymades, but Bull’s Head is more than just a recontextualizing of an object to call it art. Picasso has transfigured the common objects until we see them in both of their forms simultaneously. Bull’s Head is not a statement or a concept. It is Art.

Picasso’s piece is also a perfect touchstone for the conversation What is Art? I have identified five components as a kind of measure for the assessment of visual art.

1. Art has Intentionality. A more recent addition to the ongoing discourse asserts that art becomes art merely with the artist’s intention to name it as such. The difference, then, between My Bed (an installation by artist Tracey Emin that recently sold at auction for $4 million dollars) and your unmade bed is that Emin intentioned it to be art.

2. Art has Vision. Artists see things differently and see things that we don’t see. Then they show us and make us see too.

3. Art is Original. An artist works with the shared vision of the people but offers an individual and unique vision.

4. Art is Aesthetically Pleasing. It subscribes to basic tenets of design, or it redefines those tenets. Whether it appears ‘beautiful’ or ‘repulsive’ it operates within an aesthetic framework and succeeds or fails there.

5. Art Exists within a Context of a Larger Oeuvre. Every artwork is, obviously, a singular expression with a singular presence, but it operates within the body of work of an artist and of the world. These provide a context for understanding and critical appraisal.

By these standards is Bull’s Head evaluated. It is Picasso’s astonishing vision that recognized in a scrap heap the stuff of art (and this in the 1940’s!). He later described the encounter:

“One day, in a pile of objects, all jumbled up together, I found an old bicycle seat right next to a rusty set of handlebars. In a flash, they joined together in my head. The idea of the Bull’s Head came to me before I had a chance to think. All I did was weld them together. If you were only to see the bull’s head and not the bicycle seat and handle bars that form it, the sculpture would lose some of its impact.”

Only Picasso’s originality and sense of playfulness could produce this when he did. Exhibiting the piece in the 1944 Salon d’Automne he “intentioned” the common materials into art. He did so within an incredible large and varied body of work, much of it concerning related themes. Since childhood, the bullfight, the myth of the Minotaur and thousands of similar images created by Picasso reflect on and validate this miraculous metamorphosis. Ultimately however, Bull’s Head succeeds because of its sublime designTexture and tone, contour and curve: the thing works. It sticks in our memory as a striking image not as an ingenious stunt.

In a continually changing and expanding culture, Picasso’s Bull’s Head meets the measure, defines the measure What Is Art?

Thanks for your interest and for visiting my site. This article in particular has generated many many views from around the world since I posted it a few years back. Recently there is a great deal of interest from Australia. Before that it was east Asia and Syria (!). If you are visiting this page from some country other than the U.S., or some far flung outpost, please leave a comment and tell me how you got here and why!

You can also send an email to tornillofineart@gmail.com

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