The Rolling Stones have much in common with Picasso: the artistic success and failures, longevity, fame, Midas power, merchandise deals, appropriated west African culture, misogyny… Both have their respective position cemented in the history of modern art and rock in the top five. However, like the dinosaurs, these great thunder lizards, although still fascinating, are largely irrelevant to both contemporary art and music.
Throughout their lives, both were dedicated followers of the current styles. This dedication led to their initial success and explains the motivation better than any revolutionary desire on their part. Charlie Watts would have preferred to be playing jazz; Picasso might have preferred painting in an impressionist style. We will never know because what he painted and what the Stones played kept on making money. Making lots of money was the artistic vision of both Picasso and the Rolling Stones. They were artists as businessmen (Warhol was a camp parody of Picasso’s commercial success).
Following the current fashion explains Picasso’s surrealist and neo-classical period and the Stone’s expeditions into psychedelic rock, 2000 Light Years from Home, and disco, Emotional Rescue. Looking around, we could even find an equivalent in Picasso’s oeuvre. Works as political as Gimme Shelter, as mediocre as Jagger and Bowie’s cover of Dancing in the Streets (much of Picasso’s ceramics), and as regrettable as Brown Sugar.
The Stones no longer perform this racist song that revels in the rape of a teenage slave. Still, it does point to the misogyny and colonial appropriation of Africa by both the Stones and Picasso. As Dorian Lynsky, in his Guardian article “Rock’s fake rebels”, noted: “The Stones’ unpleasantness was integral to their uncanny power. In an era when many young people saw rock stars as potential heroes of the revolution, the Rolling Stones appealed to less altruistic desires: sex and money.”
Collectors like art about money and power because it reflects their fantasy of identity. In turn, their money empowers the abuse of women. Or worse, R Kelly, who was convicted for sex trafficking women and girls. Although we can separate the art from the artist’s misogyny, Shannon Lee, in Artspace, argues that we shouldn’t. We must recognise that mistaking the combination of talent and fortunate circumstances for a unique genius creates and empowers misogynistic assholes. And it is the machismo desire to dominate that drives both that most need to be re-examined.
Creativity and imagination might appear fun and attractive. Still, they are no good unless used towards creating a better world for everyone. Art can be liberating, but only when it empowers all people. However, talent and creativity can be used to oppress, terrorise and humiliate. It has been used to exploit and create hierarchies where there are none.
If there was a Picasso century, as the current NGV blockbuster exhibition title implies, it was followed by a Stones century. (Even though the two were contemporary for eleven years, Stones formed in 1962 and Picasso died in 1973.) The question is, do we want another century of artists like Picasso or the Rolling Stones? And what can we change to stop it from happening again? How do we create a world where success is not measured by macho domination?