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Picasso, Genius, and Intellectual Disability

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.

In his words, “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. 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 working toward the world we want to live in rather than adapting to the world as we already know it.

Last week, I spent a profound week with a group of students, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are part of Project UNIFY through the Special Olympics. And, I was stunned and moved by what I saw. I got a glimpse of a social and educational world created by youth and rooted in Picasso’s deconstructive genius.

As in Picasso’s approach to painting, the norms, expectations, and definitions of disability (rather than art) were denied by these young people in order to develop more genuine friendships and achieve shared learning. In this space, “otherness” of all types was set aside for the one-ness of youth. During this time, the young people understood that there is no justice for one without justice for the other. The whole premise of their engagement defied our adult-driven society’s limiting expectations of youth and of disability and created a space for each person to be more fully himself/herself.

Disability was for another place and time and certainly another audience. This was about ability – something everyone has. What the Project UNIFY approach enabled was truly profound:

  • The ability to express your love for another with openness and courage;
  • The unbridled spirit of dancing without self-consciousness and without a care for what is “good” dancing and what is “bad” (and without a dance floor!);
  • Finding joy…in a conference room;
  • Living in the presence of sincerity rather than seeking the safety of cynicism;
  • Seeing no one as a stranger and being willing to sit down at a lunch table with anyone and start a conversation about anything;
  • Asking the question you really want to ask;
  • Valuing the experience of teamwork and peer support over winning;
  • Understanding that difference is our common trait and that friendship and respect are at the center of everything good;
  • The power not to judge what is said when someone shares their thoughts or grabs the mic but rather to celebrate the courage it took to do so;
  • The respect to clap sincerely when someone stands up rather than ironically when they fall down;
  • The belief that the “high 5” can and should be used at any time at any place and for any one.
What I saw enabled in youth at the Youth Activation Summit can only be described as a sort of social genius. While Picasso struggled a lifetime to undo the social, cultural, and creative norms of art, these young people (at least in this setting) were already unfettered by the social and cultural norms and expectations of the teenage years, of disability, and of so much more. All of the anxieties, the self consciousness, the uncertainty of youth were somehow set aside and overpowered by the collective and by the commonality of difference. These were teenagers who were willingly and passionately deconstructing through their relationships and actions the prohibitive and exclusionary norms of their schools, communities, and our broader culture that label and exclude those with intellectual disabilities.

While these young people are already displaying a remarkable degree of social liberation, it is our charge as adults to take Picasso’s more rigorous path. We must commit to supporting their liberation through more inclusive systems and structures and broader awareness and understanding of all kinds of “differences.” We must meet their sense of the collective and of commonality with inclusive schools and classrooms rather than the separate educational and social worlds so many of them beautifully and painfully described. We must commit to revolutionizing the systems, formal and informal, that categorize, segregate, and separate our young people. We must ensure that the young people who follow us into adulthood will have the space to truly develop, rather than diminish, the skills of collective power and social inclusion demonstrated by these young people.

We must create the space for their genius to shake and shape our world and ensure that our jadedness and our tired paradigms don’t shape theirs.

We must meet their liberation with our own and together move forward in new and profound directions.

If Picasso sought creative liberation in deconstructing his world to see and paint like a child, surely I now seek my own by living among my family, friends, co-workers, and community with the courageous humanity of the student leaders in Project UNIFY.


Image: Anderson Williams
Anderson received his B.A. from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Email Anderson Williams.


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