There are two things happening in the art world that are completely unconnected but, being me, I can’t help connecting them—at least in terms of what they mean. The first is that some art historians and critics are using the fact that 2023 is the fiftieth anniversary of Picasso’s death as a reason to examine his legacy. Again. As if Picasso’s legacy doesn’t get examined every single time someone walks into an art class. And you know you’ve reached a special level of fame when people celebrate the year you died.
The other thing that’s happening is Bob Ross’s first painting that he made on his PBS show is going on sale for nearly $10 million—about the same price many Picasso paintings go for, if you can find them for sale. There are probably Picasso drawings—sketches even—that’ll go for that much.
There’s a really strong contrast between Picasso and Ross. Picasso was, to be blunt, a monster. Art historians consider his work, primarily cubism, to be the major break between old figurative traditions and the many -isms of the 20th century that followed, but he was a horrible person who destroyed lives. His mural Guernica remains a powerful statement on the horrors of war and yet he was a rapist.
Bob Ross, on the other hand, developed his famously calm and quiet demeanor because his time as a master sergeant in the Air Force left him never wanting to yell at anyone ever again. He may not have broken any major ground in an artistic sense—although that’s very subjective—but he was patient and kind. He was an all-around good guy whose philosophy about “happy little accidents” applies just as much to life as it does to art. The only negative thing I know he ever said is that he hated his perm, which he originally got to save money on haircuts, but he kept it because it was his trademark look. I’ll be honest: I don’t really like Bob Ross paintings, but I feel like that’s a problem with me. If I didn’t know so much about art maybe I’d like them more, and I really wish I did. Picasso’s legacy has clouded his work. Ross’s legacy should brighten his. Anyway it’s all subjective and it’s okay to like whatever you like.
Picasso saw himself as competing with other artists, even, in his later years, using his influence to make sure galleries shut out artists he didn’t like. Bob Ross believed everyone could paint, and encouraged everyone to paint if they wanted to, sharing techniques. I loved watching Bob Ross’s show when I was a kid. I didn’t appreciate his personality at the time but I was fascinated by how just a few strokes with a specially shaped brush could add snow, and depth, to a painted pine tree, or how a few swipes with a palette blade could become a mountain.
I know people looked at, and still look at, Picasso’s paintings and say, “I could do that.” He never cared about inspiring others but he does. And Bob Ross made paintings and said, “You can do this.” One was selfish, one was generous, but the one thing they have in common is they both encouraged people to make art.