Thursday, August 9, 2012

Was Robert Hughes Right About Basquiat?

Yesterday it was announced that former Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes passed away at 74. His perch at Time and a television series that sought to explain the development and history of modern art all served to make him better known than most art critics. L.A. Times writer Mike Boehm called him "a sometimes lacerating reviewer who may have commanded a larger audience than any other art critic in history."

Boehm's obituary tribute is packed with insight and a fitting summary of his life.

The critic rose to star status by introducing television audiences to the development of 20th century modernism in "The Shock of the New: A Personal View," an eight-hour series that ran in Britain in 1980 and the United States in 1981. Hughes became known for blasting new art-world luminaries such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, and Jeff Koons, artists he felt exemplified the triumph of the marketplace and celebrity over the modernist creative standards he cherished.

His primary complaint: popularity shouldn’t be equated with quality. Boehm's piece goes on to say...

After Basquiat, who helped spearhead the entrance of graffiti-influenced painting into the museum world, died in 1988 of a heroin overdose, Hughes' critique ran in the New Republic under the headline, "Requiem for a Featherweight." Basquiat, he wrote, was "a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of artworld promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics."

Of this I will say more in a minute.

Hughes’ series, when I watched it this spring, stimulated a whole range of thoughts that coupled with other inputs including this one from Ken Burns’ Jazz when telling Artie Shaw's story.

The basic truth, Artie Shaw concluded, is that popular music has little or nothing to do with musical values at all. “I still wanted to play music and the audience was saying, ‘Play what you’re playing. Over and over. We like that.’ They never could understand that what they liked was something I did on my way to getting better. That record that they liked… became a millstone, became an albatross around my neck.”

So one question I have is this: was Jean-Michel Basquiat doing graffiti art on the way to getting better at developing and expressing a vision? Or was it a means to another end: more cash for stash? As Basquiat biographer Phoebe Hoban demonstrates, Basquiat was exploited, and others became millionaires from that exploitation.

Hoban begins one of her chapters with a pointed Robert Hughes remark. “What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.” Quantity is what made people rich, and fast. When Picasso died in 1973 a journalist declared that Picasso had produced 4,000 masterpieces in his lifetime. Warhol retorted, “I can produce 4,000 masterpieces in a day.” Indeed, the formula was a good one for both Warhol and Basquiat, the veteran cynic and the fresh face from the streets.

The art world isn’t the only scene that got bent in the Eighties by the influx of capital. Sports had become equally corrupted. In his last book before passing Howard Cosell stated that sports gambling was a 250 billion dollar a year business. Losers get exploited to line the pockets of bookies and gaming houses.

Even collegiate sports has been stained by it. College football is big business and the schools know it. A primary reason the Penn State scandal failed to come to light sooner than it did was because so much was at stake. Penn State's reputation had to be preserved in order for the golden milk to keep flowing.

It has frequently been noted that art can often be a mirror of the times. H.R. Rookmaaker takes this premise as a given in his Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. For Hughes, the whole art scene itself served as a mirror of something bigger than itself, and his magnification lens explored every detail of it.

On the other hand, what if Hughes was wrong about Basquiat? I find his paintings fascinating, liberated, original. How important is the training Hughes references in his critique? Can training override instinct and ruin originality by firming up the lines that we’re not permitted the color outside of?

I really don’t have answers, just more questions, some of which might never have occurred to me had it not been for Robert Hughes.


Jared said...

good read!

Unknown said...

thought provoking points...

Sharon Knettell said...

I find it quite amusing that proper training is sniffed at in art- mostly by those who with even a lifetime of training could not execute a proper orange.

However, dancers are expected to have quite rigorous training even, I suspect in the most avante-garde of dance performances- although I did see a work in Boulder, Colorado about rutting walrusses which may disprove my thesis.

I hardly think any of these dance companies would allow someone to flit across the floor simply to express themselves. It would be a positive no no at the ABT or the Alvin Ailey, I would posit.

Yet, properly promoted, talentless wannabees can flood most of the major galleries of planet. Hughes is correct in saying that there is a lack of connoisseurship.

One patron of mine called me over to see her latest aquisition-a gigantic Eric Fishcl nude. The lady had split with a major sum of dineros for the hefty naked person. It was a spectacularly monumental hulk of bad anatomy that left me rather speechless. I did manage a rather weak- "Oh it is so filled with light" or something.

We expect the musicians, and actors to be trained before seeing performance or movie- unless it is in our garage- why are artists let off the hook?

Ed Newman said...

Thank you, Sharon, for this insightful commentatry. Duchamp famously mocked the art establishment with his readymades, and there are some who have continued the tradition of "anything is art" whereas our gut says, "This is just trash" at times. Duchamp also said (later) that history will determine what has value (that we can't see clearly in the present).

There will always be a tension between the two ends of the spectrum and I completely understand your sentiments.

Thanks for your contribution here.\

Sharon Knettell said...

Ah, one could only wish that DuChamp had been flushed down his famous urinal. Sorry- I could not resist that!

Ed Newman said...

Made me smile. Have you seen that urinal? It's quite unusual. It's in a room in an art museum.

lvb said...

Robert Hughes was right about both Basquiat and Schnabel.

Godforge said...

Excellent argument.

Anonymous said...

Hughes contra Basquiat_"Requiem for a Featherweight" by Robert Hughes, November 20, 1988 in The New Republic_
For good or ill, Jean Michel Basquiat is in the news. 110 million dollars in the news. Just for the hell of it. I revisited the essay above. Hughes does not age well. This is difficult to read without wincing at the injustice of just about every hate fueled sentence. Hughes is in the absolute grip of an inconsolable rage. You can't call this rant, critical writing. It is hate speech from a man whose intellectual acuity has devolved into the Jeremiad of a charmless old geezer slipping sideways on a rain slaked sidewalk.
All ego minus heart. Hughes is useless agony. A geriatric reactionary waving his cane with ineluctable menace.
Or is this Savonarola in the guise of social justice warrior__with a mouth machine spouting ideological apercus that only a Bolshevik would believe ?
Hughes seems more than ever, an irony from another age. A curiosity who finds himself critically stuck on the wrong side of history.
The Requiem is embarrassing to read. The writer buries himself in his own bile.
All that negative energy focused on a kid who makes art.
Hughes merely registers as one more rage-aholic with murder on his mind.
This critic fires words at human flesh like a hit man with an uzi.
Fortunately his vision is skewed.
He can't see straight to hit the target.
If I cared enough.
I could take his argument apart word by word. But I do not respect him to the point of giving him my close attention or my time. What he posits does not cohere.
Suffice it to say. With this blanket condemnation of Basquiat. Hughes is just plain wrong.
Tossing word bombs from the sidelines is a sure sign of someone who feels powerless to mold the world into their straitjacket vision of something that will never occur.
Eden never looked so awful...

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for weighing in.

Steeevyo said...

"I could take his argument apart word by word. But I do not respect him to the point of giving him my close attention or my time. What he posits does not cohere."

This translates to the uninitiated:

"I have no arguments"

Hughes' requiem is still up to date while the phony system he decries that produced the junkie Basquiat is still in place.Bonus points for calling Shafrazi an Iranian Sleazaball.

Yossarion said...

Not true. Van Gogh suffered and grew on his own, no formal training... Just trial and error. Ansel Adams, arguably, the greatest American photographer, had no formal training. My personal experience is that the professionally trained in the visual arts (not performance, there is a significant difference in my mind) are the most elite and willing to block the untrained out. Basquiat was an anomaly, an untrained and average self promoter who was adopted not only by the moneymaker s, but the professional art community as well. Just read the mostly glowing reviews of him.... These were the trained pushing this garbage.

Unknown said...

Years late to the discussion but I’ll make a few notes for the heck of it.
For a certain type of thinker the ideas of “proper” training and technique are the defining qualities of an artists skill, and the quality of the work. Arguably, there have been periods in history when more emphasis has been placed on learning the craft of a medium than is typical today, but it’s hard to make the case that excellence in craft has ever been an end in itself of the works that came to be considered great. We may be impressed by, aspire to, and be inspired by examples of great craft, but we are always seeking something more in the work. The comment by Yossarion mentions Adams in contrast to Basquiat. Adams is a good artists to mention in this context, as he is an example of something that we don’t often want to talk about. He was a technician of the highest order, obsessive about exposure and the formal qualities of his images; he created many wonderful images but he made a lot of bland and pedestrian images too (Hills and Clouds South San Francisco 1936, Tree and Clouds, Tucson AZ, and many others in his book 400 Photographs) Being great at the craft of photography meant that he created many images that were technically well executed but that were nothing more. They don’t contain ideas, concepts or emotions capable of sustaining interest in the work over time. To a certain extent Basquiat provides a different type of example. While I doubt that Basquiat was as naive and untrained as many claim, I am comfortable with the idea that he didn’t have Adams level of technical mastery nor did he consider traditional notions of excellence in craft to be central to his work. Nonetheless his work does contain the ideals, concepts and emotions that sustain interest in it over time. It is absurd to claim that the work would have been better if it had conformed more closely to norms of painterly craft. In addition, to claim that he lacked craft or training is to say that he wasn’t producing exactly the lines, forms, colors, etc that he wanted to, that he felt were necessary to the work, but that’s a question only the artist himself can answer. If a critic or viewer is looking at Riding with Death or Irony of Negro Policeman and lamenting that Basquiat didn’t draw so well, they are missing the point. At the same time if a viewer or critic looks at Basquiat, or Adams, or any other artist and doesn’t feel anything or doesn’t “get” the concept that’s ok because art isn’t universal. The Problem with a critic like Hughes was that he saw his job as being to judge works of art and artists, imposing himself as a false universal. All critics who take this approach end up being fools of their belief in either their own higher standards or the objectivity of their criteria. There are no “objective” standards for assessing the “quality” of an artwork. I think this is why we hold on to notions of craft and training, because on a superficial level it seems like they might be objective, which feels right in some ways, but this “objectivity” doesn’t hold up well under critical examination. Myself, I’d rather spend my time asking questions, trying to figure out what an artist is up to and learning from it. This process isn’t always rewarding, and I don’t like a great deal of the art I see, but It’s far more interesting than what Hughes was up to.

Ed Newman said...

Thank you, Unknown. I agree with your assessment of Hughes. I myself appreciate the abstract and innovative work. There is often more than meets the eye. Some of my work is here on my art blog which does not get much attention lately.
My bigger issue with Basquiat was the way he was exploited.... a different story.
I enjoyed the collaborative pieces I saw at the Warhol museum last spring in Pittsburgh.
No time to elaborate here... But thanks again for the comment.

Barbara Balzer said...

I love Basquiat’s work, both the “scrutable” and inscrutable. What he fit into 27 yrs was impressive. RIP Huges.

Sharon Knettell said...

To the unknown Unknowns here, plus the Anonymous, quel courage in presenting your opinions, behind a curtain of anonymity.
Picasso forged among others of his era a whole new vocabulary of art, after extensive training. Matisse's "Carmelina" is a visual figurative treat of considerable deftness.

Yes it is cheap and easy to call someone a "geezer" at the end of their lives, "Anonymous" and "Unknown" will find themselves at that part of life's spectrum more rapidly than they expect. Bob Hughes was an intensely handsome, magnetic and brilliant man. Probably "Anonymous" and "Unknown", I wager, not so much. And judging from their florid prose, they are jealous of his brilliant wordsmithing. "Anonymous" and "Unknown", the two posters here, will remain forever, "Anonymous" and "Unknown", while Mr. Hughes's books will continue to be read well into the future.

Cavortext said...

What exactly was Hughes' training in Art, Art history or anything relevant? I don't detect anything but poisonous bile in his rantings.

Sharon Knettell said...

Rather curious coming from an obscurity. You did not try enough to "detect" anything, if you had you would have found that he had had an extensive education in art and architecture in Australia. You just added nothing to this discussion but an unfounded opinion. Thank-you.

Ed Newman said...

I do not know Hughes' training, but I have seen a few art critics who make more money by being controversial. If people like it, they hate it.
And there are probably critics and historians who are so enamored of themselves that they think anyone ignorant who does not agree with them.
I do not know Hughes' motivations, but do feel badly about the manner in which Basquiat was exploited.
thanks for the note, Cavortext

Anonymous said...

Basquiat was not original. All his work is copied from Twombly, Raushenberg, Picasso et al.

Anonymous said...

Why can't some of JMB's work be good and some not why the generalization that he is either one or the other?

Anonymous said...

Hughes was right

Anonymous said...

Hughes was right and all you have is accuse him of hate. Being a critic can mean to be brutal. Brutally honest. And that’s all he did there and boy is he correct in the assessment of Basquiat mediocrity and why it was elevated to something that it is not.

Ed Newman said...

Grateful to have produced a but of writing that stimulated discussion. Not sure who the last anonymous was, but curious who you are referring to who accused Hughes of hate. I certainly found his film series most illuminating.
Reading the comments here brought to mind a dialogue that took place in 2011 as part of a collaborative show called Red Interactive (with John Heion). For those interest, the issues here were at the center of a brown bag lunch discussion.
Dialogue on Role of Art in Society Was Both Surprising and Engaging
More Notes from a Discussion About Art
These discussions are definitely not the last word on the matter.

Anonymous said...

I find Basqiat to be a genius really

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