Sunday, October 31, 2010


Talented? Yes. Exploited? Yes. Role model? No. Tragedy? Yes.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is to art what Jimi Hendrix was to music. Rare, talented, original, producing remarkable work, and dead by age 27, by his own self-destructive instability. I first heard of him through the film Basquiat, starring notables Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken and David Bowie. Something about the film was off-putting at the time I began watching it and I turned it off in about twenty minutes. But the name stuck.

As a regular reader of the ArtDaily Newsletter, the recurring themes remind you of who and what are important in the art scene. Sotheby's, Museums of Mordern Art, Picasso and Warhol all receive their due portions. And then there's Basquiat. Black. Puerto Rican. Fifteen year old runaway. Graffiti artist who lived hard, died of a heroin overdose like his heroes.

I have been reading Phoebe Hoban's uncomplimentary and thoroughly researched bio called Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art. I say "uncomplimentary" because it is essentially an honest telling of his life and of those who exploited him. There are a lot of not so pretty pictures in the mix. The book opens with his overdose, an acute mix of heroin and cocaine. At the time he claims to have been doing up to one hundred bags of heroin a day.

In order to properly shed light on a life, one must see the context of that life as well, and Hoban's work is equally devoted to shedding light on the New York art scene. Beneath all the glam is "a pressure-cooker art scene where quantity matters more than quality, aggressive art dealers push prices through the roof, avaricious new collectors speculate wildly, auction houses create instant inflation, and the media magnifies the entire circus through a hyperbolic lens."

Hoban goes on to write that "Basquiat's brief life was a little bang that attracted its own temporary universe of powerful planets, whose orbits were in every way more constant than his own."

"The players who instantly recognized the phenomenon of Jean-Michael Basquiat and knew how to market it were older, more cynical, and ultimately easier to analyze than the lonely, alienated, and disenfranchised artist whose constant need to produce -- out of his own untrammeled creativity, deep-seated desire for approval, and insatiable demand for the cash that would buy him drugs -- became their ready source of profit."

Sound like the troubled street walkers who put out only to have money for another fix. Except the latter are simply used, whereas Basquiat's name has been elevated to the theater marquis, his paintings worth millions each.

His story again raises questions. What gives art its value? If the life is ugly and the work is beautiful, is it beautiful art? If Basquiat had had a religious conversion, survived the drug scene, repudiated Warhol and stopped "playing the art dealers' games" would his work be worth less today? If Basquiat had ceased being a sexually-charged vagabond infecting women with VD, settled into a monogamous relationship, raised a family and made art for twenty five more years, would they have made a major film about him, canonizing his free spirited "life without boundaries"?

Let me say here that I think his paintings are incredible. I enjoy the vibrant colors, the bold statements, the scope of his work. If he had simply been a middle class art major and produced the same paintings, would he have been so lionized?

I remember reading about creative people who were afraid to get therapy because they somehow tied their creative achievements to their unbalance, inwardly disturbed state-of-mind. Where does this idea come from that creativity and madness go hand-in-hand?

Till next...

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