In light of the recent HBO release of a scientology documentary, there has been a revitalized debate over whether or not Pablo Picasso converted to the controversial religion during his lifetime. There have been no formal comments made by any Picasso expert on his potential involvement, but there is documented evidence that Picasso rubbed elbows with the leader of scientology.
Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, the founder of scientology, has said that he and Picasso, during a New York show in 1938, “got very involved.” Most people, at this point, dismiss the quote and all subsequent evidence as a conspiracy theory. However, while it has never been publicly proven that Picasso was a member of the church, written documentation has shown that he was part of “Project Celebrity.”
“Project Celebrity” was an effort created by Hubbard to convert high-profile celebrities to scientology to gain momentum within the scope of his religion. The list of celebrities included Ernest Hemingway, Walt Disney and Greta Garbo, in addition to Pablo Picasso. Hubbard even went so far as to offer rewards to members of the church who successfully converted any of these celebrities. There is no evidence that anyone ever managed to successfully convert Picasso.
My question is: does it matter? Or rather, should it matter? Sadly, I think it does change the way in which people view Picasso and his work in today’s society. The world is obsessed with every minute detail of the lives of public figures. Actors, singers, artists and politicians from the past and present are subject to intense scrutiny by the public. Pablo Picasso is one of the most famous and well-respected artists in history. The question of his belief system is incredibly important for people around the world. If he were a scientologist, would it change his art in any sense? Some might argue that context is everything and that if he was creating this art as a scientologist, a reinterpretation of his work is warranted.
I, however, disagree. There must be a separation between the personal and professional lives of the artists we study today. The question of Picasso’s conversion is irrelevant. It should not matter if he did or did not become a member of scientology. If his potential involvement with the religion somehow affected his approach to art? Great. Whatever state of mind Picasso was in as he painted, it created some of the greatest art of the 20th century.
Experts have viewed the question of Picasso’s religion as an issue of the highest importance. If he was, in fact, a scientologist, it must change everything. But it doesn’t. If you disagree on a personal level with scientology, that’s fine — it is an extremely controversial religion. The role of that religion in Picasso’s life, however, does not impact the integrity or critical claim of his art in the slightest. It is impossible for historians to know the personal lives of early artists. Art should be judged solely on the qualities of the work itself, and this principle, born out of necessity, should be applied to all works of art. Unless the personal life of the artist is the subject of the work, it should be kept separate from his or her art. Picasso’s religious beliefs and the questions surrounding his involvement with scientology, are not at all important to his legacy as an artist.