This story was originally published on DNAinfo Chicago in 2017. It has been updated.
THE LOOP — Fifty-one years ago, the city unveiled Picasso’s giant untitled sculpture in what is now Daley Plaza.
And Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who grew up in Chicago, marked the event with a poem, a work commissioned by Mayor Richard J. Daley and delivered to the crowd at the 50-foot-tall sculpture’s unveiling.
Here’s her work (and her explanation of what she was getting at):
Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages—
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.
we belch, or sniff, or scratch.
But we must cook ourselves and style ourselves for Art, who
is a requiring courtesan.
We do not hug the Mona Lisa.
may touch or tolerate
an astounding fountain, or a horse-and-rider.
At most, another Lion.
Observe the tall cold of a Flower
which is as innocent and as guilty,
as meaningful and as meaningless as any
other flower in the western field.
In a 1969 interview, Brooks talked about her poem. In her book “Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks,” she responded to interviewer George Stavros’ question of whether the poem represented her “feelings about art and the position of the poet.”
GWENDOLYN BROOKS: “Well, in the ‘Chicago Picasso,’ first of all, I was asked to write a poem by the mayor of Chicago about that statue, and I hadn’t seen it. I had only seen pictures of it, and the pictures looked very foolish, with those two little eyes and the long nose. And I don’t know a great deal about art myself; I haven’t studied it. So I really didn’t feel qualified to discuss what Picasso was doing or had intended to do. So I decided to handle the situation from the standpoint of how most of us who are not art fanciers or well educated in things artistic respond to just the word art, that it’s not a huggable thing, as I said here: ‘Does man love Art? Man visits Art.’ … And we visit it, we pay special, nice, precise little calls on it. But those of us who have not grown up with or to it perhaps squirm a little in its presence. We feel that something is required of us that perhaps we aren’t altogether able to give. And it’s just a way of saying, ‘Art hurts.’ Art is not an old shoe; it’s something that you have to work in the presence of. It urges voyages. You just can’t stay in your comfortable old grooves. You have to extend yourself. And it’s easier to stay at home and drink beer.”
Q: Were you satirizing those people who do stay at home and drink beer?
GWENDOLYN BROOKS: “No, No, I’m not satirizing them, because I’m too close to them to do that. I ‘stay at home’ (mostly) and drink Pepsi-Cola. I can’t poke fun at them. But I do urge them — because after I saw the Picasso I admired it, and I’m glad it’s in Chicago — I do ask them to look at that statue or any other piece of art that might seem perplexing and consider it as we might consider flowers. We don’t ask a flower to give us any special reasons for its existence. We look at it, and we are able to to accept it as being something different, and different from ourselves. Who can explain a flower. But there it is …”