Naselli’s essay “My Misogyny” appears in AGNI 98.
On the heels of the publication of “My Misogyny,” I intended to write about Pablo Picasso and Shirley Hazzard, particularly Hazzard’s Gauss Lectures, delivered at Princeton in 1982. Hazzard’s idea of submission to a work of art guided me for years as I struggled to put down my thoughts about Picasso. How does one directly experience a work of art and articulate that experience without giving in to the tyranny of the authoritative view? How would I cut through the unquestioned notion of Picasso’s genius without capitulating to either of the camps that have formed around his work—those who love it and those who hate it. The question had turned personal and political: Picasso was a monster. Why should we look at his art at all?
When I sat down to write this blog post, however, what came to my mind was holiday schmaltz. So I have to permit myself this digression. Every year, we go to the German-style Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza in Chicago, where the massive sculpture known as “Chicago Picasso” looms over the festivities. We buy a sausage and kraut, maybe some glühwein, and let the kids pick out an overpriced ornament. By the time the children have had enough holiday doings, I privately congratulate myself for my restraint—for not yucking on my family’s yum, as my son would say. But in truth, every year I’m surprised to find myself there.
My first experience of a holiday market was in Northern Germany, when, twenty-some years ago, I walked off my job as a groom for a small horse farm. Each morning after the overnight frost, I’d walk the horses to their pasture, two at a time, all of us gingerly treading across the pavement until we reached the grass and could take longer, more confident strides. The horses’ hooves crushed the icy blades, leaving imprints of their steps until the sun melted them away. I loved the work. What I didn’t love was the submission expected of me in my station. I was to serve as a kind of lady-in-waiting to my employer—to listen and affirm her good judgment, to feed too much grain and not enough hay, to bring tea to her instructor, to fetch horses when she fretted a mere turn in the weather.
In Germany, I was lonely and irascible. On my single day off, I had a long conversation with a baron at a fox hunt he hosted at his estate. (There was no fox—the friend I accompanied jumped the course ahead of the hunting party, laying a scent for the hounds to chase, while riders mounted in their pink coats drank whiskey to quell their nerves.) After the riders had made their way over fields and hedges and stone walls, some at a drunken gallop, everyone celebrated. The baron wanted to tell me about his year as an exchange student in Texas, so he and I talked long into the night as his other guests sat in docile patience. Their eyes drooped with boredom. But no one could deny the baron. And for a moment, I relished a passing illusion of belonging.
As with any medieval relic, Christkindlmarket in Chicago is a shared conspiracy of make-believe. The vendors sell German knickknacks from little kiosks dressed up as wooden huts. Shoppers buy pretzels and braunschweiger. Carollers in bonnets and capes put on a strenuous display of holiday cheer. Above the candy-cane rooftops, Picasso’s massive, airy sculpture recedes into the skyline. Its locally milled steel matches the color of the brutalist city hall building adjacent, becoming nearly invisible when one is preoccupied with cuckoo clocks and nutcrackers.
It’s a credit to Picasso that when he gave the sculpture to the city in 1969, he never indicated what it represents. This is perhaps one reason the work was not universally welcomed. “What do you see?” the docent asked on our field trips in elementary school. I remember standing in the vacant plaza and seeing, distinctly, a lion and a baboon. After we prattled off our unconscious associations, the docent directed our attention to the subtle human profile cut into the vertical steel holding it all together. Picasso’s public refusal to name his sculpture wasn’t the whole story. In 1962 he drafted variations on this very piece called Six Busts of Women. Picasso may have gifted Chicago this animal-woman looking over us, but we get to decide how to name her.
In those lectures at Princeton, Shirley Hazzard described a contemporary trend in literary criticism toward collective feeling, collective judgment, and collective opinion. Within a group, she argued, we often hide behind the power of authorized judgment. But this is what human animals do. We don’t want to be alone in our joy or our disgust.
One way to interpret the controversy that accompanied Picasso’s sculpture when it arrived, as with so many works of nonrepresentational art around that time, is as an anxiety about the lack of shared meaning. What it was could not be easily decided. It forced participation, poking, perhaps, at some not-yet-articulated feeling, some unauthorized association.
Our inclination to coalesce around an authoritative view, no matter how brief its reign, may be as natural as queuing for bratwurst and knickknacks or deferring to a baron’s whim. The power of collective feeling is underestimated in modern life, though we’ve seen anew in recent years the degree to which it can be manipulated. How often do we defer our own freedom of expression to preserve a sense of belonging? What do I actually think? What do I actually feel? Is there anything original to say about standing in line for tiny commemorative mugs, on which the Chicago Picasso is drawn against a blue, uncluttered sky? My children enjoy the little huts of tchotchkes, the hot chocolates that quickly turn cold. In painted glass ornaments they find the likenesses of dead pets. I marvel at their unguarded pleasure. When I ask what they see in Picasso’s sculpture, they name it with confidence: it’s a giraffe angel.
I’ve been ashamed for years that I left Germany without saying goodbye. I now know my younger self longed for more than was reasonable to expect from strangers. I left the key in the door and left my employers, whose only sin was to regard me, simply, as a groom. I made my way to a local Christmas market. A man selling carved ornaments stood behind his table, bundled in a green coat and woolen hat, moving stiffly, bracing against the cold. In my poor German, I greeted him and asked for a tiny rocking horse strung with gold thread, pleased that in this simple transaction I was understood.
Mara Naselli is an editor and writer. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Ninth Letter, The Hudson Review, and elsewhere. The recipient of a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, she lives in Michigan. (updated 10/2023)