Reflecting on Basquiat
Iwatched Basquiat, the movie, last night. A couple weeks ago I posted some of the artist’s work on my blog. I knew about him, and had seen snatches of his paintings before. But I didn’t know the story behind his life . . . . which the movie clearly portrays.
As an artist, Basquiat interests me from the point of view of direct, unmediated expression. Whereas many artists strive for an ideal in their work, whether it is technical or visionary, Basquiat seemed intimately related with the underlying surface of the self.
This is not the projected self, the idealized version of the self, but the scars. This is not the articulate, polished meanings of the self, but the cryptic messages and uncoded symbols.
My immediate emotion after watching the film was sadness.
How is it that a certain narrative comes to define a person’s life? I am very interested in this. The person becomes defined by their story, and after their death, it seems, the retelling of the story replaces the person.
For Basquiat, it is the story of his rise to fame in the art world at a young age; his descent into heavy drug use; and the looming question of whether he was being exploited.
From a book review in the New York Times in 1998, “Hyped to Death“:
Their (Warhol and Basquiat’s) joint show at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery in September 1985 was a glittering media event, followed by a wild, noisy party at the Palladium, but the show itself drew universal pans. ”Everything . . . is infused with banality,” one critic wrote. ”The real question is, who is using whom here?”
From the second chapter of the book, Basquiat: A Quick Killing:
According to a friend, painter Arden Scott, “Basquiat was intent upon being a mainstream artist. He didn’t want to be a black artist. He wanted to be a famous artist.”
But Basquiat’s celebrity owes more than a little to an almost institutionalized reverse-racism that set him apart from his peers as an art-world novelty. Says Kinshasha Conwill, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, “Race will remain into the foreseeable future a major and usually unfortunate, issue. The fact is, it was anomalous to be an African-American and get that kind of attention for his art. Other people did exploit his race and try to make him an exotic figure.”
And so these unavoidable themes come to define Basquiat as we know him now–as we see him portrayed in movies, as we read about him . . .
The artist by nature is a unique individual. We are all “unique individuals” but the artist expresses this individuality, gives it a language, a palette, a series of recurring images.
Baquiat had the same dreams that many of us have, to be recognized for our talents, to be visible–
But in realizing these dreams, in becoming recognized or famous, your life changes, your environment changes–
I relate to Baquiat. While I lived in Spain, I took drugs every night for six months and filled pages in a notebook until my fingers could no longer scrawl sentences. I never left my room, except to buy drugs and Chinese food. I lived in a pensione in Madrid all by myself–I know what this manic drive feels like, this ambitious mania to create . . .
Some artists are able to move between two worlds. Some artists are able to live in the rational, adult world, and the realm of childhood. The later realm is where the artist thrives. The later realm is the oxygen of the artist. But oftentimes, children are destructive. They are destructive to themselves and to others. When we abandon ourselves to fancy, to the imagination, to dreams, we often lose our way back to reality.
In adolescence, for example, during the time I mentioned living in Spain, I wanted to be a novelist. If you’ve ever read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I wanted to be Miller in that novel.
This is how I would’ve turned out if I followed the manic, drug-strewn path of the artist. Of course, not every artist takes drugs; I’m drawing parallels here to Basquiat.
A writer must employ the rational mode of argument. A fiction writer is still to some degree confined by logic and the credibility of her tale. A visual artist, less so.
The writer appeals to emotion, like the artist. But she does not rely entirely on emotion just as she does not rely entirely on logic. To construct sentences one must have at least one foot in the rational universe. The painter, the poet, less so. The artist can fully embrace the realm of childhood, can totally disregard the rational, adult world. In short, the artist can become a servant of her imagination.
With Basquiat, we see the picture of a young man who was easily able to live in this imaginary world. He could create paintings that conveyed a direct engagement with the imagination. His paintings weren’t rational. They were full of emotions, color, expression, and character.
All of us have been in this realm of the imagination before. We lived there as children, and as adults, we all visit there on occasion. You follow a line and see where it goes . . . this is the mindset. You bring two or more things together onto the same page. You create new relations to things.
I loved the scene in the movie where Christopher Walken, playing the character of a journalist, interviews Basquiat in his studio. Walken asks Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat) what the scrawls on his paintings mean. He says, “Can you decipher this for us?”
Basquiat: “Decipher? Just words.”
Walken: “Yes, I understand. But who’s words are they? Where do you take them from?”
Basquiat: “I don’t know. Would you ask a musician, like would you ask Miles, ‘Where did you get that note from?’ I mean, where do you take your words from?”
The originality of a work of art does not exist in a vacuum. Art like language is reused, recycled, and reinvented.
Originality is not so much a new entity as it is old elements in a new relation.
We see something new, something original, but really what we are seeing is a new relation.
The artist is the inventor of new contexts, not new things.
Not only was Baquiat’s work original at the time, but the artist himself, as an African-American, was unique to the art establishment.
But is fame acceptance? Is recognition, the right recognition?
All of us dream of these things, we seek visibility in our own environments and in the greater environment. But to be unique is to be alone, and to be recognized as unique, is to be even more alone.
There is a yin and a yang to success. Sages have known it for centuries. Success breeds disappointment; failure is never too far away from success.
Whether you are an artist, a writer, a poet or a musician, you cannot stay popular forever. If you achieve fame in your lifetime, there is a good chance nobody will remember you after you die. Success is never a permanent deal. Even Shakespeare has been criticized as a literary figure! We are not gods. We are people.
Society either ignores the artist’s expression, or affirms it. But when an artist is living, and society recognizes them, the artist becomes even more set apart from that society than she was to begin with.
Now the artist is not only unique, but also viewed as unique. This magnification has a huge psychological impact on a person and their subsequent behaviors.
The death of Dash Snow is a just a recent variation of this theme as it relates to drugs, art, and fame.
It happens to artists who cannot separate themselves from society’s view of them. But who can? Look at how absurd famous people act; they become distorted in the mirror constantly held up to them.
Detachment under these circumstances would be a saintly thing if one could ever attain it. Many novelists, like J.D. Salinger, flee from society altogether.
When success comes, we naturally want to embrace it, to take it as the last word. But identifying with our success in one moment only leads to a more precarious existence. The minute public opinion shifted concerning Basquiat’s prowess as a young painter, he was deeply affected.
My whole life, which is thirty years, I’ve been trying to describe to the world who I am. I’ve been trying to define myself.
If I were to let anyone else define me, even if that definition were flattering, I would essentially lose my grasp on a life-long quest. This is what happens to artists who become cannibalized by their fame. They stop defining themselves; society begins to define them.
The respect we achieve from our peers, and from the world around us, is based on this simple fact. Self-definition is the highest form of integrity.
Image Credits: Untitled, 1981 (Basquiat)
I’m the editor of Escape into Life, arts/culture webzine and art auction. I’m also involved in working with an illustrator from Argentina on a graphic novel. Besides that I frequently keep up my essay-blog, The Blog of Innocence, that covers topics in the arts, social technology, and a general philosophy of life.