Picasso comes to Chicago

[In 1967 (50 years ago this year), a commissioned sculpture by Pablo Picasso was unveiled in Chicago. Critic Alan G. Artner has a journalistic account of the unveiling and the piece’s subsequent legal-political saga. But the following excerpt from the great Mike Royko’s account of the crowd’s reaction captures the day’s significance best.]

By Mike Royko
Chicago Daily News, Aug. 16, 1967

There was a gasp as the light blue covering fell away in several pieces. But it was caused by the basic American fascination for any mechanical feat that goes off as planned.
In an instant the Picasso stood there unveiled for all to see.
A few people applauded. But at best, it was a smattering of applause. Most of the throng was silent.
They had hoped, you see, that it would be what they had heard it would be.
A woman, maybe. A beautiful soaring woman. That is what many art experts and enthusiasts had promised. They had said that we should wait, that we should not believe what we saw in the pictures.
If it was a woman, then art experts should put away their books and spend more time in girlie joints.
The silence grew. Then people turned and looked at each other. Some shrugged. Some smiled. Some just stood there, frowning or blank-faced.
Most just turned and walked away. The weakest pinch-hitter on the Cubs receives more cheers.
They had wanted to be moved by it. They wouldn’t have stood there if they didn’t want to believe what they had been told, that it would be a fine thing.
But anyone who didn’t have a closed mind — which means thinking that anything with the name Picasso connected must be wonderful — could see that it was nothing but a big, homely metal thing.
That is all there is to it. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.
But why not? Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago. And from thousands of miles away, accidentally or on purpose, Picasso captured it.
Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the Summerdale scandal cops, the settlers who took the Indians but good.
Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.
It has the look of the dope pusher and of the syndicate technician as he looks for just the right wire to splice the bomb to.
Any big-time real estate operator will be able to look into the face of the Picasso and see the spirit that makes the city’s rebuilding possible and profitable.
It has the look of the big corporate executive who comes face to face with the reality of how much water pollution his company is responsible for and then thinks of the profit and loss and of his salary.
It is all there in that Picasso thing the I Will spirit. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.
Picasso has never been here, they say. You’d think he’s been riding the L all his life.

[Source: The full column is here. Thanks to Marsha Enright for the pointer.]

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