Natalie Serene Lobach
Two years ago, I told a family friend of mine I was planning on going to art school. “Oh, you want to be an artist?” he asked me. “Like the guy I’ve got designing a logo for my website?” “No,” I said, “I’m going to be a painter.” “You can’t really do that,” he told me. And when I asked why not, he replied, “You won’t make any money like that. I just don’t want you to starve.”
I wish people went to art museums more. I think, if they were to see the way in which art continues to thrive and move the world, they would be less inclined to tell young artists that our dreams are going to starve us. There is a strange but popular misconception that art is somehow losing relevance in our society. I am here to tell you that the importance of art is not fading. Entire periods of human history are characterized by their art, and this one will be too. Our species has not been around very long. 2.8 million years, and the first record of the development of human thought was art. The cave paintings of our earliest ancestors show an incredible reverence for the ability to tell stories and replicate one’s world with one’s own hands. The earliest expressions of spiritual and religious belief can be found in these cave paintings. Devotion to creation has not faded as our species has evolved. From the architecture of the Islamic age of enlightenment, to the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, to the modern surrealist movement, art has been synonymous with living.
It’s one thing to know this in your mind, however, but an entirely different thing to experience this truth in person. In Barcelona, Spain, there is a museum called the Fundació Joan Miró. Two years ago, I found myself sitting in a little three-walled white room in this museum. On each wall was a white canvas with an arc of black paint carved across it. Splatters along the lower half looked like sprays of gore, and each painting had one color. A yellow circle, a red circle, and a blue circle. Sitting in that room brought tears to my eyes. I had never felt a painting so agonizing, so loud yet so simple. The triptych is by Joan Miró, an artist who emerged out of the Dada and Surrealist movements of the late 1910s and 20s, which rejected logic as a basis of living in response to the First World War. Hope of a Condemned Man is Miró’s response to Francisco Franco, one of the bloodiest dictators in the history of his country.
To experience the suffering of a nation in splatters of white paint is a profound experience. Miró is a reflection of his context, influenced by the identity of his time. He is one of countless many. They fill the walls of museums and the foundations of holy sites. They can be found in Florence, in the palatial halls of the Uffizi where the Italian Renaissance is a living, breathing thing. They cluster the rooms of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, a collection of the new and progressive of the last two centuries. And they rotate through the pristine corridors of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a constant flux of now.
Two months ago I stood in another small white room, this time in the MoMA. Four walls this time, and on each wall hung a picture of an African American family. They smiled benevolently down at me from dinner tables, park photoshoots, family photos. WE ARE AMONG YOU, WE ARE AROUND YOU, WE ARE WITHIN YOU, YOU ARE SAFE the installation exclaimed in huge red letters. I moved out of the room and through spaces filled with images of police brutality, street performance art, and thought dumps. It was a retrospective of Adrian Piper, an African American woman whose art was and continues to be an unabashed and immodest response to the dynamics of her identity in the United States.
It’s hard to scoff at the importance of art when you’re standing in the looming shadows of artists like Miró and Piper. People who have made waves, who have changed societal consciousness and fought injustice, who have sparked movements and paved the way for the young artists behind them, for people like me. Art builds upon itself. I would not exist here as I am without Basquiat, Dalí, and Rauschenberg. They would not have existed as they did without Picasso, Kahlo, and Matisse. Cezanne, Van Gogh, Serat. El Greco, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci. Art is a process of constant exploration and redaction, investigation and refinement. Every century, every decade, every year builds upon those that came before. Artists right now, people like Kehinde Wiley and Jenny Saville, are paving the way for the generations to come, the millennial artists and the Gen Z artists and the Gen Alpha artists.
Art is the lifeblood of humanity. It is beautiful, yes, but it is much more than that. Art reflects its environment, art is a response to life, art is a member of society. It is constantly in flux, it mutates with our time. Art is politics, and art is a refuge. It is the past, it is now, and it is the future. I do not plan on being the next Monet, or the 21st century Rembrandt, because their times are not the times we live in. I am going to be the next me, an artist shaped by my generation, by the issues of now. And I wonder, in a hundred years, what will the museums say about today?