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Last week in Madrid, in the Prado, I discovered Dürer’s self-portrait. It shows a young man of 26, face ringed in curling locks, flamboyant, elegant, aristocratic and boldly asserting his artistic status. For all that such a work might be arrogant, this is not. Its inscription, ‘I have thus painted myself. I was 26 years old. Albrecht Dürer,’ is the naïve, almost innocent confidence of youth, the wayward and indomitable bravura of the as-yet unhumbled.
In the Reina Sofia Centre, Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ dwarves its gallery. There is nothing elegant or innocent about Guernica, the portrayal of the obliteration of the cultural capital of the Basques by air-borne fascist bombing. Its potent depiction of pain, death and destruction creates a monument to 20th-century man’s inhumanity to man.
When he painted Guernica, Picasso had experienced a rigorous and classical artistic education, was 55 years old, of plain appearance, married but with a history of many lovers and several mistresses, a man of the world who had seen the canker at the heart of life but remained committed to his art as well as to core values of human decency. Guernica was his statement to the world of his ‘abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death’.
During the week that I saw these works, the unfolding news story was of Susan Boyle. She has a powerful and beautiful voice but caution is required about the Damascine conversions of many of those who heard her on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. The obsession with physical beauty, innate, surgically-created or a result of photographic-editing, remains unchallenged. The red-tops pander to their readers with tasteless speculation about Susan Boyle’s private life. To ridicule a perfomer for her plain looks was seen as banal but the very stuff of such programmes is to ridicule ‘losers’ and is it not significant that in today’s youth culture ‘loser’ is among the most common of insults?
The Susan Boyle story will be a nine-day wonder. Like the facile anguish at the deaths of Princess Diana and Jade Goody, it permits mass self-delusion. The brief popular identification with the success of ‘the ordinary’ Susan Boyle cannot detract from the barely concealed relief that her characteristics and life-style are not shared by those who purport to identify with her. Elaine Paige, whom Susan Boyle admires, offers shallow platitudes: ‘She is a role model for everyone who has a dream.’ To what aspect of Susan Boyle does Paige refer: her superb voice, her long record of family caring or her winning a televised competition?
Similarly, the temporary admiration of her virtues will not lead to growth in the practice of chastity, dedicated caring for parents or devout Catholicism. Although she is now apparently the idol of Blackburn, ridicule, sadly, has been her past portion there as much as on her initial TV appearance.
Susan Boyle deserves to enjoy her success. She should be aware that there will be many who simply admire her voice and how she can use it. Although talented, she is neither youthful nor physically beautiful, as was Dürer. That may be to her advantage. In age and appearance she is closer to the Picasso of the 1930s. Her life experiences are as different from his as could be imagined but they may be sufficiently strong to allow her, with the help and support of genuine friends, to withstand the pressures which will now face her.
More pressing is how our society can withstand the shallow commercialism of a world where instant success, through stage-managed competitions, whether for artists, singers or entrepreneurial apprentices, is perceived as a route to excellence. Neither Dürer nor Picasso could have emerged from such a banal process.
This article was first published in The Scottish Review  on 23rd April 2009: was also published in The Scottish Review anthology of 2009.

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