Another Green World: Some Reflections on Art and Optimism at the DMA
"Many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature."
The Dallas Museum of Art possesses a sense of grandeur; the sleek modern architecture made up of monolithic concrete slabs, the grand hallways and open atrium, the long sprawling mural along the first floor wall, and the ornate gilt frames on the Monets, the Cézannes, the Renoirs. And there's so much history crowded into this building; such as the sculptures of deities from India, Japan, China, the religious books from the Middle East, pottery depicting mythic heroes from ancient Greece and Rome, tribal masks and mummies from Africa, there are gold, stone, and obsidian artifacts from Mesoamerica. And the European and American art alone spans the course of hundreds of years.
Which, in my mind, extenuates the quality of art as a form of communication which not only moves across space, communicating with people all over the world, but also across time. The art remarks on the influences of the past and is remarked upon and replicated in permutations in the future. Therefore the capacities of art echo beyond the meager limitations of the corporeal body, beyond the artist and his or her own individual ego, and create lasting resonances which transcend flesh and blood. You can almost feel it as you stare at a painting, this sense of being uplifted, a lightness or floating deep inside.
The whole building and everything in it contribute to this feeling.
It always rains when I come here, like some cathartic movement of nature, clouds twisting and swollen in the days and hours beforehand and then outpouring in a sigh of relief over the city. I think about how well the music of Brian Eno would compliment the overcast and the rain streaked windows, the gardens outside with their wet metal sculptures and the overhanging canopy of the trees. I imagine Another Green World or Apollo playing as I look through the windows and into the gardens: diffused sunlight filtering down through clouds and wet black branches that twist out into flurries of green foliage, almost impressionistically, like the figures in a Cézanne.
Everything here is apart of the greater picture.
I walked through the museum this most recent time with my father, who in his twenties, during the 1980s—the time of Basquiat, Schnabel, and Clemente—was a painter and lived in New York City. I was full of energy as soon as we walked into the building, part of it was a coffee with a double-shot of espresso, but most of it could be attributed to the art. As soon as I caught sight of the first painting I was talking nonstop, practically vibrating with excitement. Every little brushstroke and shade of color shot jolts of electricity through me from head to toe.
I looked at Giacometti's tall spindly humanoid figures in a glass case. I saw Magritte's surrealistic philosophical juxtapositions, which prefigured the concepts of French post-structuralist thinkers of the 60's and 70's. I saw a Blake in person for the very first time, one of his etchings for a book. And I remember looking at a Picasso, seeing a smudged green brushstroke on the figure's nose and thinking, "He was human after all, he was real."
And all of the colors were so vivid, just like the day they were painted: I saw Frida Kahlo and Paul Gauguin in living, breathing color. Salvador Dali and Rembrandt as well. The green of the face of an Egyptian sarcophagus, containing a mummy, was as green as the foliage of the trees in the garden. Which was appropriate because the face on the sarcophagus was meant to emulate to Osiris, whose green color represented rebirth and renewal, a flourishing of new life after he was resurrected from the dead.
I remember thinking, first in the room full of modern Hopi artwork and then again in the area displaying the 20th century European art, that I never wanted to be cynical about anything again. I wanted to do away with that feeling, of trivializing or demeaning anything I saw, felt, or touched. The world is too crowded already with negativity, to try and defend one's self or control the course of life with harsh judgements or bitterness. We shut down sensitivity because we are afraid, of being hurt, of feeling the defeat that is implicit in living life. I say hurt if you have to, because it's the only way you'll ever come to flourish. To touch what these artists touched and crystallized for the world across time, to hang in this gallery and many like it around the world.
By the time I was done walking through the museum, I felt like I might float off into the sky. The serene expressions of the Buddhas in the room filled with Asian sculptures and art, the blissful smiles, which at first were cryptic and vexing, came to make total sense to me.
At the end of the tour I sat with my dad in the Museum cafe, having a cup of coffee and talking. Since we first arrived, as soon as we were pulling into the parking garage below, we had been talking about the state of the world. For the last few years I've been leaning a bit on the pessimistic side of things, my dad however has been an optimist. As we pulled into the garage, past the tollbooth, he repeated that Martin Luther King quote to me: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." And it swirled around in my head the whole time we were there.
It means, quite simply, that over time progress and positive change do take place, but they just happen slowly.
He explained that right now, statistically speaking, the standards of life are higher all across the globe than they ever have been in human history. To be poor now, even in the worst areas, isn't what it was a century or a thousand years ago. And there is no longer any massive industrialized war between superpowers, not like there was. The world clearly has its problems, but as time goes on, things improve. What about technology, won't it destroy us? With such rapid advancements that take place now faster than they ever have in human history, given that our principles as a society are so out of whack? But the truth is that technological advancement has always had its pros and cons. As human beings, we'll figure it out.
I feel like in any culture across history, the art has been the pearl. For everything that's awful and unjust, there is this condensation of all of that culture's beauty and strength into this little thing, this light which can illuminate some of the darkest parts of history with meaning. Art is the ghost in the machine of human civilization, the purest distillation of that which is valuable and lasting. And every culture, for thousands of years, as far back as we can tell, has for some reason always had the drive to create it.
If the paintings which hang on those walls and the sculptures which sit on the pedestals are any guide, there is something in us which is worth remaining hopeful about.
And this adolescent stage of human interaction is only the beginning. After all, there is such a beautiful vision at the heart of things.