Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Jean Michel Basquiat


--Amalia Mesa-Bains

On August 12, 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat, was found dead in his NoHo apartment from a heroin overdose. Basquiat, aptly nicknamed the radiant child, began as a graffiti artist (SAMO), and rose to prominence in the 1980s in New York City, during a time of economic and political instability. Born to a Haitian father and a Boricua mother, Basquiat’s paintings shook up a stuffy downtown art scene—an art scene that was at once dazzled by the vibrancy of his canvases, and yet disturbed by how the paintings directly confronted the colonialist, racist, and classist social systems that they were privileged in. Despite Basquiat seeking out significant white people within the art world in the beginning of his career, it was this troubling, unhealthy dynamic as a Black painter within this primarily white art world that led to the demise of one of the greatest painters of the 21st century.  

 While the white art world in general professed to adore Basquiat, the “adoration” they emphatically felt often failed to be based on a deep emotional connection to the actual paintings. Due to the challenging nature of the work that Basquiat produced, white viewers who could not allow themselves to be moved by the canvases’ confrontations with white supremacy and capitalism imposed a kind of false intimacy with his work. To truly be moved by him would be uprooting the very tangible racial and social hierarchies that the art world clung to. (Right: Fallen Angel, 1981)

Writer bell hooks remembers her trip to the Whitney Museum in the early 90s for a retrospective of his art:

“At the opening of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work at the Whitney Museum in the fall of 1992, I wondered through the crowd talking to folks about art. I had just one question. It was about emotional responses to the work. I asked, ‘What do you feel looking at Basquiat’s paintings?’ No one I talked with answered the question. People went off on tangents, said what they liked about Basquiat, recalled meetings, talked generally about the show, but something seemed to stand in the way, preventing them from spontaneously articulating the feelings the work evoked. Those folks who are not moved by Basquiat’s work are usually unable to think of it as ‘great’ or even ‘good’ art…this response seems to characterize much of what mainstream critics think about Basquiat. Unmoved, they are unable to speak meaningful about the work. Often, with no subtlety, or tact, they diss the work by obsessively focusing on Basquiat’s life or the development of his career, all while insisting they are in the best possible position to judge the work’s value and significance.”   

These specific type of responses and the barrage of anti-Blackness by his peers flourished while Basquiat was alive, and were mostly likely responsible for his growing sense of isolation and depression during the latter part of his life, despite being a so-called darling within the art world. White art critics who interviewed and spoke of him frequently chose to focus on Basquiat’s rumored playboy status, his turbulent relationship with Madonna, the friendship between him and Andy Warhol, and his cavorting with Fab 5 Freddy in the downtown scene, while rarely taking his dedication to the nuances of his craft seriously.

​To the majority of white bohemians who latched onto Basquiat, the draw was less about being moved by the political, economic, and historical meanings of his paintings, or understanding how he articulated the harsh realities poor working class Black folks endured in the subject of his work. The draw for them was about Basquiat’s image as the “voice of the gutter”, which he deeply, and rightfully, grew to resent. Despite Basquiat seeking out significant white people within the art world, and his insistence that he wasn’t a Black artist, it can be inferred that these associations with them gradually took their toll on his psychological well-being. 
Despite Basquiat’s attempts to rub elbows with pretentious whites in these art circles, it became increasingly clear that they would never come to terms with realizing how important his art was to the greater Black community, who rarely saw themselves reflected in mainstream art galleries:

“Designed to be a closed door, Basquiat’s work holds no warm welcome for those who approach it with a narrow Eurocentric gaze….rarely does anyone connect Basquiat’s work to traditions of African-American art history. To bear witness in his work, Basquiat struggled to utter the unspeakable. Prophetically called, he engaged in an extended artistic collaboration of a politics of dehumanization. In his work, colonization of the black body and mind is marked by the anguish of abandonment, estrangement, dismemberment, and death. To see and understand these paintings, one must be willing to accept the tragic dimensions of black life.”

Basquiat is not the first painter of color whose work the white art world has depoliticized and deracinated. Frida Kahlo, who is hailed by white Western women as a feminist icon, is rarely celebrated for how her political beliefs, rooted in anti-capitalist, pro-indigenous, and pro-working class struggles, informed much of her art. Like Basquiat, white viewers uncomfortable with the political elements of Frida’s work erased these aspects that directly confronted their privileges. While Frida relied on her ties with close friends, family, and turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera to balance these acts of violence within the scene, Basquiat turned to heroin, continually withdrawing deeper into himself, away from a world he previously sought to be accepted into. (Left: Frida Kahlo, Mexican Vogue Magazine)

Despite Basquiat’s legacy being celebrated across cultures in the 21st century, it is clearer than ever that his work is not for the wider mainstream audiences who avidly refuse to confront their own privileges, only caring about how marketable is image is. It is those who experience deep levels of socially inflicted pain who will understand why black figures in his paintings are dismembered, appearing to cry out from the canvas to be recognized. Perhaps it is only those who experienced unspeakable levels of invisibility to society who will resonate with grotesque figures wearing three pointed crowns upon their heads, symbolic of their struggle against erasure. For those folks, Basquiat is at a haunting reminder of our deepest isolation and our deepest humanity. Through Basquiat’s paintings in art history books, for once, I, and others like me, finally saw that we mattered.

Pinder, N. Kimberly. Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History. “Altars of Sacrifice: Re-remembering Basquiat." New York City: Routledge, 2002.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Davis, Tamra. Arthouse Films, 2010. Documentary.

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