Disproportionately morose is the only way I can describe the feeling that lays with me now—wide awake—nearly 12 hours after leaving the Guggenheim. Still sullen and stoic that not even a days worth of Basque beauty could correct. Not the rolling pillars of pines out the passenger window or the slick teal waters of La Concha; nor the jokes of my co-travelers or the cheery Pop-heavy road trip playlist; not even the Rioja-soaked, jamón-piled-pinxto-hop. Ending a day of what should have been vacation ecstasy, I still feel inexplicably insular—and sad and mad and inspired and angered and wounded. It’s like there is a rollercoaster rattling on my head: hurling itself down into a deep valley, lurching around a bend, struggling—clickity-clacking—to pull itself up out of the depths only to barrel down to the depths once again. It’s nearing 3am, and I have nothing better to do than wrestle with my sheets and mourn with the rain splattering the cobblestone outside the window. I can’t even recall a time that art has affected me to such a degree.
The exhibit at Bilbao’s Guggenheim—“Now’s the Time”—is a collection of over 100 paintings and drawings of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works from New York City. Rife with racial and social commentary, the work itself is heavy, but I don’t think that’s the only reason for my quagmire of emotion. Basquiat’s sadness was palpable throughout the clean vast halls of the Guggenheim, but for me, I was also infuriated that 30 years after his own political outcry, the state of race in America is still eerily similar—specifically the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown. As I stared despondent at Basquiat’s work, “Defacement” (The Death of Michael Stewart), which depicted the police brutality of his friend and fellow artist in 1983, I was in disbelief that we as a nation could still facing the same inequality. “It could have been me,” Basquiat had said of Stewart’s death, who had been beaten by police for graffiti—graffiti not dissimilar from the “street art” that prompted Basquiat’s career.
I was inspired by his immense talent, but also angered that at the height of his career—with a captive audience at the bleeding edge of New York’s art scene, relationships among the 80s the most prominent (including Madonna and Andy Warhol) and an incredible platform to drive change—he could not fight his own demons. The same demons of oppression that were portrayed through his work are exactly the demons that killed him. And the cycle continues. It ignited in me a fire of anger and injustice. And then jealousy. And insignificance. I didn’t have that sort of talent and I’m pissed that he squandered it.
And this, all of this emotional upheaval and provocation of thought, is the importance of art. Will I recover? Will I return to my jovial, optimistic pre-Basquiat self? Of course I will. But what if I shouldn’t? What if something angered and saddened and inspired and ignited us each so much that things began to change. What if our empathy, our ability to see and feel and experience through the expression of others could transform us? What if, one by one, the world softened? What if instead of numbing or escaping or brushing it off…we embraced the discomfort as a way to come out stronger, more aware, empowered and emboldened—better.
Now’s the time.
“Now’s the time”—Jean-Michel Basquiat, Guggenheim Bilbao thru November 2nd.
Header image and article by Mallory Norton.