AS AN END TO
ALL THIS MEDIOCRE
This city is crawling with uptight middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have. Status symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritually, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming for people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.
—Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1978
There is a morbid but reliable joke which hinges on Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The joke is that the dead rock star would have likely killed himself all over again were he alive today. The humour rests on the assumption that whatever circumstances which might have driven Cobain to take his life have surely worsened.
At the end of 1978, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a member of a New York graffiti collective operating under the name SAMO©. Seventeen-year-old Basquiat, along with the young artists Shannon Dawson, Al Diaz, and other revolving participants, were astute observers of post-modern life, scrawling axioms upon Manhattan’s windows, doors, tunnels, trains, producing pointed commentary on the city’s new “neon fantasies,” “micro-wave existence,” and what they labelled “hypercool.” For the latter they reserved their most merciless salvos — the fine art world, which in their view was as fickle as fleeting fashion, was profoundly lacking in some palpable sense of authenticity. SAMO© rejected the artifice of the gallery walls for the urban wall’s credibility.
One particular scene in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, Basquiat, depicts a wealthy Yuppie couple, the sort that Jean-Michel Basquiat despised, on a patron’s visit to the artist’s studio. At the encouragement of New York art dealer Annina Nosei, they have come to purchase a Basquiat painting. After some gentle quarrelling over the colour of the work in question, the woman turns to her husband, gesturing toward the canvas, and says, “I like it, I’m just not sure about the green.” To which Basquiat replies, “You want me to paint it a nice shit brown for you?” Jean-Michel Basquiat craved acceptance, but he wanted it on his own terms.
The MMFA show provokes awe, wonder, and sadness — awe at the sheer volume of works Basquiat churned out in such a short creative lifetime; wonder at the meaning, the method, the madness of it all; and sadness, finally, with the tragedy of addiction befalling a generation’s best and brightest hope for a powerful and prominent Black American voice in art.
And yet there is an absurd Metterling-ish impression that every scrap of paper that Basquiat ever made a shopping list with or spilt coffee on or tore up and tossed in the trash was recovered and reassembled and preserved as if it contained some profound truth embedded in its banality. It evokes melancholy to walk among the ephemeral printed matter that once composed the entirety of an ingenious imagination before the advent of digital media. Would Basquiat’s lists be as interesting or important if they were typed out and posted online and not scribbled onto bits of looseleaf and framed under plexiglass?
Schnabel’s film is among the most star-studded movies of the 1990s. Each actor — Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe, David Bowie, Courtney Love, Jeffrey Wright — is deserving of their own biopic. In addition to contemporary songs by Public Image Ltd., Joy Division, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, its soundtrack includes a re-recording of Bowie’s “A Small Plot of Land,” and an unreleased version of Keith Richards performing the Hoagy Carmichael standard, “The Nearness of You.”
The association of Basquiat with rock music royalty introduced him to the next generation of musicians including Jay-Z, Bun B, Yasiin Bey, and the Strokes, who graced the cover of their 2020 album with the painting, Birds on Money.
Schnabel, who mentored Basquiat, understood the ambivalence at his art’s core — the romantic love and righteous wrath simultaneously present in every stroke of Basquiat’s brush, evident in every fleck of spray paint, that would have remained only paint in a can had Basquiat not transferred it onto objects and transformed it into something timeless.
Art history is comprised of legends, and Basquiat has officially achieved legendary status. He might have been the first American artist to do so algorithmically, which is what makes him relatable to today’s youth. Basquiat learnt by absorbing, by surfing, curating, and funnelling more of what audiences liked back into his works. His favourite catchphrase being “boom for real,” Basquiat made his name bombing walls; he was always keenly aware of whatever was on the cusp of blowing up. But Basquiat could neither foresee his own fate, nor change it.
Basquiat would only be 62 today. He could have been a beacon for artists like himself. Instead he exists in spirit to reinforce the myth of the solitary savant, stupid as an animal and just as wild, falling ass-backwards into genius.
Basquiat achieved the immortality he so desperately desired, but he is no longer among the living. He was robbed of the opportunity to mature as an artist and as a man, and so he has kept American art itself in a perpetual adolescent state of arrested development, conserved for the masses like a mosquito in amber hawked at a tourist trap. The Holy Grail to the Cultural Industrial Complex. Infinitely replicable youth. The sad truth is that the world against which Basquiat fought, won. Basquiat is worth more dead than alive. Had he lived, he might, like Cobain, have only further tarnished his own legacy. But what is sure, he would have aged. Nobody’s teen spirit lasts forever.
For Kurt Cobain, heroin and sudden celebrity led him to swallow the wrong end of a shotgun. And though Jean-Michel Basquiat didn’t blow his brains out, junk and fame’s pressures took his life, too. What would Basquiat do today if he could see his sprawling exhibition right now at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts? I wonder: would he just die?◼︎
Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music continues until 19 February 2023 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Cover image: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Beat Bop, 1983. Collection Emmanuelle et Jérôme de Noirmont. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.
Video: Extract from MTV’s “Art Break” : Jean-Michel Basquiat (1985) used with permission. © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved. MTV, all related titles, characters and logos are trademarks owned by Viacom International Inc.
Photo credits: Henry Flynt.