Jean-Michel Basquiat - Icon or Martyr: The Writing's on the Wall
Updated: Dec 11, 2018
On October 3rd this year the spectacular Frank Gehry designed ‘Fondation Louis Vuitton’ in Paris opened its doors to the work of a truly unique artist. Occupying four floors of such an awe inspiring architectural post-modernist edifice (twentieth century glass and steel infused with Baroque rhetorical verve) is a tall order for the work of a single artist. Yet it is a fitting venue to showcase the work of the only black artist recognised as a twentieth century master. The exhibition charts the transformation of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) from near penniless graffiti artist, rough sleeper, and sofa surfer to the ‘Genius Child’ courted by Andy Warhol. Stylistically, Basquiat is classified as a Neo–Expressionist whose output was buoyed on the crest of the ‘expressionist’ wave sweeping across the Atlantic into the USA from the European painting of Clemente, Baselitz, and Kiefer in the late 1970’s. However, in truth his practice was always more eclectic, and his success was in part due to the innate flair for self-promotion that first caught the eye of Warhol amongst other movers and shakers in the New York art world. Like all great artists Basquiat created his own unique visual vocabulary. His was a rich graphic language of pictograms, symbols, and epigrams that spoke both of the historical racism experienced by African Americans, and the plight of the poor of all ethnicities in the world’s most affluent economy. Combining household paints with oil stick drawing, his work utilises both line and colour in a powerful amalgam.
Eager to not stumble into the pitfall of reducing Basquiat to a ‘Black Picasso’ figure (2003, pg. 80), it is fair to say that Basquiat’s experience of racism in America was an inalienable part of his tragically short life’s works. “Everything he did was an attack on racism and I loved him for this,” (O. Laing, 2017) professed one of his ex-girlfriends. Born to a Haitian father and American Puerto Rican mother he was no stranger to the institutionalised racism still inherent in post-civil rights American society, regularly finding himself unable to get a cab after leaving successful opening parties and being refused entry to restaurants (M. Sawyer, 2017). Consequently, race pervaded most of his work. Whether this did stem from a desire to instigate sociocultural change or whether it was in the tradition of sticking to the age-old cliché “write what you know” is a moot point. Works such as ‘Untitled, Tar and Feathers’, whose title itself is a clear reference to brutish historical, racist methods of persecution, exemplifies Basquiat’s characteristic use of both tar and carbon as a painterly medium forcefully and simultaneously alluding to African-American identity and historical racist practices. Similarly, Basquiat comments subtly on race in ‘Hollywood Africans’. He confronts head on the experience of being a person of African heritage in New York in the 1980’s producing a stereotype-fuelled piece for a stereotype-fuelled society. The stark yellow base of ‘Hollywood Africans’ perfectly highlights the dichotomy of a vibrant and rich culture being mercilessly suppressed and shoehorned into lazy and damaging stereotypes, stripping the metaphorical colour and vigour away with harsh and damaging words: realities.
The socio-political aspect of his art is highly pertinent today as the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has brought the debate about race and multiculturalism in America front and centre prompting scrutiny of U.S immigration policy and civil policing. In 2016, the NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton resigned after his term in office was plagued with anti-police brutality protests. Critics denounced his policing strategy as racially biased, disproportionally targeting the Black and Latino communities of New York. Arguably thirty years on, the institutionalised racist tendencies that Basquiat’s work railed against have not disappeared in a society that has recently seen the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Campaign. Bratton himself said in 2013 that he had only seen such tensions or divides in society relating to race in “1970 when [he] first came into policing – [his] first 10 years were around this type of tension” (L. Mccalmont, 2014). Indeed, many current reports inconceivably claim that the issue of race is somewhat ameliorated as police shootings are becoming less common within society, there have only been 899 people shot and killed by police in 2018. Is it right to claim this a marked improvement on the 987 shot and killed by police in 2017? These figures don’t seem indicative of a cohesive and harmonious society, (Washington Post, 2018).
Similarly, here in the U.K, with the date set for Britain to officially leave the EU, fast approaching fears of an increasingly racially intolerant Britain are on the rise according to the UN’s Special Rapporteur. A further UN warning at Geneva (27 April 2018) asserted that structural racism is an inherent part of British society today. The report centred around observations gathered from data provided by the Metropolitan police indicating that a disproportionate number of individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds, particularly those of Black African and Caribbean descent, are falling victim to brute and unproportionate use of force by the U.K. police in comparison to their white counterparts. Further, the report asserts that the tendency to overlook such offences is testament to the ‘impunity with which law enforcement and state agencies operate’ (2018). Particularly young African and Caribbean men were twice as likely to die after the use of force by police officers (E. Tendayi Achiume, 2018). The report utilises this information to illustrate the deeper set structural bias against people of colour subtly woven into the fabric of contemporary society. The report touches on other socio-political issues such as the persecution of mentally ill ethnic minority individuals who ‘face multiple forms of discrimination’ (E. Tendayi Achiume, 2018). The report seems to have heralded little change, however, as explored by an article published in the Guardian in October of this year claiming that ‘Institutional racism still plagues policing, warns chief constable’ (V. Dodd, 2018). Such violence is compounded by recent figures showing how ‘London’s 40% BAME population is policed by a 14% BAME police force’ ( V. Dodd, 2018), highlighting a lack of representation of the very individuals within society they seek to serve.
Police misconduct and brutality against people of colour was an issue tackled by Basquiat, all of which serves to reinforce Basquiat’s continued relevance and explain his enduring popularity. The works that brought him initial notoriety were collaborative graffiti murals completed with friend and fellow artist Al Diaz under the pseudonym SAMO. Ingeniously, these appeared strategically on the walls of trendy New York suburbs and near galleries within the visual orbit of established artists and art dealers. Biographer Leonhard Emmerling explains how by the time SAMO emerged onto the graffiti scene, the art form had already began to receive recognition - ‘Kenny Scharf, Fred Braithwaite, Lee Quinones and Rammellzee were no longer youthful ne’er-do-wells chased by the cops, but rather artists of distinctive reputation’ (2003, pg. 9). However, the risk of being a young black male caught committing an act of ‘vandalism’ cannot be understated. In 1983 aspiring African-American artist Michael Stewart, little known before his shocking death, was arrested for spraying graffiti at the first avenue station of the New York subway. The account of Stewart’s arrest and the subsequent series of events that unfolded were harrowing. Stewart died thirteen days later of injuries sustained during and immediately prior to his arrest despite the seemingly trivial nature of his crime. Despite considerable debate over the incident, the officers charged with criminally negligent homicide and assault were found not guilty by an all-white jury. However, Stewart's family insisted that their relative’s death was an act of racism and brutality. The details of his death bare disturbing similarities to that of Eric Garner, in New York, 31 years on in 2014. Stewart’s death resonated with Basquiat who remarked, “It could have been me,” (O. Laing, 2017) painting Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983 in response. The image depicts two sinister caricatured police officers with batons raised clutched in tight fists raised around their heads, a black silhouette between them, “¿DEFACIMENTO?” scrawled above. Basquiat’s potent choice of words here cleverly taps in to and poses the question, ‘who is defacing what’ (or whom)?
An eloquent claim of structural racism in modern-day Britain is made by British journalist Renni Eddo in her much-debated blog post, and subsequent book, ‘Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race’. Similarly, with the rise of far-right populist groups in all of Europe, there are increasing racial tensions emerging on a more global scale. Thus, it appears that the significance of Basquiat’s artworks potentially serves as an interesting paradigm in which to explore just how much or how little has changed in British and American society in thirty years. Recent results identify that ethnic minorities in contemporary Britain are facing the same everyday struggles that Miranda Sawyer described Basquiat as enduring, despite his rising fame (2017), British minorities being three times more likely to have been thrown out of or denied entrance to a restaurant, bar or club in the last five years (R. Booth & A. Mohdin, 2018). This blatant racism that evidently still prevails today became the inspiration for a series of works in which Basquiat made reference to high achieving black sportsmen highlighting their plight whilst heralding their genius. In his second LA Gagosian show (1983), Basquiat showed paintings such as Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson), Hollywood Africans, Horn Players and Eyes and Eggs, featuring black musicians, actors and sportsmen some of which appear in the concurrent exhibition (M. Sawyer, 2017). Within this series appeared one of Basquiat’s most significant epigrams, AARON, a reference to the baseball player and personal hero of Basquiat, Hank Aaron. Despite being a talented player and asset to the various teams he played for during his lifetime, he began his sporting career in the ‘Negro Leagues’ until the 1950s and was afterwards subject to segregation laws and racist slander from spectators when traveling with the team (2003, pg.21).
As Emmerling states, the racial bias in society was stark and Basquiat was sensitive to the jeopardy his art invoked threatening his life both as a ‘black man and a black artist in New York’. Interviewed, he once protested “I am not a black artist, I am an artist” (R. Neu, 2017). The art world was hostile and challenging for young up and coming black artists, and Basquiat found himself embroiled in a ‘push-me-pull-you relationship’ with it, subjected to the same racial prejudices typical elsewhere in society. In her article, Swayer points out that ‘some held the patronising idea that he didn’t know what he was doing’ (2017). Similar difficulties still persist today. Emmerling continues, ‘without a doubt a large part of his initial material success as well as of his later downfall can be traced to the latent racism of the New York art scene, and how its white people reacted to the colour of Basquiat’s skin’. Racism apart however, Basquiat’s critical acclaim is not universal, and all artists have their detractors. Some influential art connoisseurs still find Basquiat’s work hard to take seriously, and there was a time in the 1990s when he was dismissed as a lightweight. Robert Hughes, author of the bestselling ‘The Shock of The New’, lauded at his death as ‘The greatest critic of our age’, completely omits Basquiat from his survey of the 20th century’s significant art. Similarly, some museums rejected him as a jumped-up wall-sprayer. I believe it is this sense of vulnerability and anxiousness that adds potency to Basquiat’s work, and that it is perhaps inevitable in a climate where black, female, and minority artists still face institutional prejudice within the world of art. Lauren LaRocca claims that although, ‘black artists are finally receiving recognition in the mainstream art world, […] it has been a long uphill battle toward equality equity, and it’s one that they’re still fighting’ (2018).
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