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!

Lynne van den Berg 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?

ENNYMAN 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!

ENNYMAN 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.