THE SAD SONG OF “THE RADIANT CHILD”
When on that day in 1988 he did not wake up, Jean-Michel Basquiat joined the pantheon of artists who died young and thus passed into legend. Although there is a fairly definitive biography by Phoebe Hoban, the beautiful young man that was Basquiat remains a mythic figure and the image of a doomed artist looms over the truth of his life. Despite its title, this film, based on a short interview Tamara Davis did with Basquiat, does nothing to shed light on the artist. Instead, twenty years later, it continues the hagiography and the white washing of a black artist in this tale told mainly by white people. For the cynics, Basquiat was a “head on a pole,” a warning sign to any minority brash enough to attempt to breech the all white walls of the art world. This film does nothing to discredit the notion that Basquiat was an exception to the all-white rule in New York’s art institutions.
The problems with this documentary begin with the title itself. “The Radiant Child” comes from a 1981 article written for Artforum by Rene Ricard (who does not appear) and the title referred, not to Basquiat, but to a famous drawing by the late street artist, Keith Haring. Basquiat was a peripheral player in the article, which focused on Haring; and yet, the signifier has somehow floated over to fix itself on Basquiat. To attach the term “child” to this artist is racist on the face of it and reflects the white art world attitude towards the young black man. The chic SoHo crowd thought of Basquiat as a “wild” “primitive,” not because he was a street artist, but because he was a young black man in dreds. To label him as a “child,” radiant or not, is close to calling him “boy.” During his entire career, Basquiat was raced and marked.
The implication of this linguistic marginalization is that Basquiat was an innocent child adrift in a smart and savvy art world, which ate him up and consumed his art for fun and profit. But the record indicates that Basquiat was a shrewd observer of the SoHo scene, in which he had been operating for years as the street poet, “Samo.” Like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf (both white men), Basquiat positioned himself and his work in the midst of a burgeoning East Village SoHo scene that combined art and music. It was the last seventies and early eighties and a new generation had drifted into town. Cindy Sherman and Pat Benetar and Ross Bleckner and Robert Mapplethorpe and Madonna all became part of the new vibe. Beyond the exchange of ideas and innovation that could take place among the artists in such an atmosphere, there were the up and coming galleries and the gradual gentrification of the loft district. New artists, new galleries, new ideas and new opportunities—Basquiat was smart enough to know where to place himself. This artist was never an outsider artist; he was always an insider artist.
There is a naïveté to this movie towards a very sophisticated and complex subject. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child assumes an outmoded myth of the artist as genius who is “discovered” and finds sudden fame. This myth which, destroyed the artist, badly needs to be deconstructed. Basquiat was smart and ambitious and focused on making a name and a career for himself. Built around a short interview with Basquiat done by the filmmaker, this documentary vividly portrays another asset that the artist was well aware he possessed. Besides being smart and well educated, Basquiat, who was from a middle class family, was a beautiful young man. “Radiantly” good looking, he attracted the admiration and support of both men and women. If this film has any merits, it is that it captures the physical appeal that allowed the artist to stand out among the contenders in the art world. The loving, lingering close-ups of the obviously smitten cameraperson show the artist in the last moments before he began to deteriorate from drug use. The same qualities that made people want to take care of him were the precise qualities that made people want to use him. His career became a run away train, fueled by the desire to make as much money as possible before the ride was over. But there is nothing unique about Basquiat’s story. We here in Los Angeles see it played out again and again—-sudden fame, sudden flame.
The tragic arc of the career of Jean-Michel Basquiat parallels that Vincent van Gogh or of Jackson Pollock, other doomed and damned artists. But unlike van Gogh or Pollock, Basquiat became wealthy in an unprecedented art market, and, after his death, his estate passed to his father who also profited from owning art that was now iconic. Although Andy Warhol developed the notion of the artist-as-celebrity, Warhol was an older and more seasoned player whose detached cynicism protected him from the consequences of fame. Basquiat was arguably one of the first Hollywood-like figures in the New York art world. If the artist lacked the armor, the art world lacked the resources to deal with his sudden ascendency. A review of his career reveals that no one was responsible. No one was in charge. The sudden and massive influx of money and the overwhelming demands on Basquiat’s time and talents would have destroyed any young artist.
Although Basquiat has been dead for over twenty years, there is no context or perspective from Davis. The art world he served was a hypermarket of frenzied buying and spending, one of the epicenters of greed during the Eighties, one of the last unregulated laissez-faire capital markets in the world. But this art world crashed like an over-priced stock, shattering forever the fiction that art and money were separate enterprises. Careers rose and fell and there were numerous casualties, from David Salle to Robert Longo. No art historians or art critics appear in Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child to discuss what was a very distorted era in the art world that made and destroyed many of its inhabitants. Some artists survived and went on to distinguished careers: Cindy Sherman became a major figure in postmodern art and Julian Schnabel became a well-regarded filmmaker. Although there is some discussion of the content of Basquiat’s art, the sheer novelty of a black male artist painting black history, featuring black male protagonists for white patrons remains ripe for a more considered discourse.
Basuqiat’s paintings were confrontational, political, and critical of the white world, which used and discriminated against black men (and black women). The film mentions that Basquiat identified with Charlie Parker, a black entertainer for an audience of whites, suggesting that he was well aware of what was being done to him. The writing on the canvas walls of Basquiat’s large scale paintings reinforce his understanding of his role as artistic entertainer to privileged white audiences, much like the boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson. The distinguishing feature of Basquiat’s work is that he was essentially a writer who put his literature onto canvas using a brush instead of a spray can or pen. As a writer, as a street artist, Basquiat was much closer to Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Like these feminist artists, he was a critic of the dominant society. And like these installation artists, he was able to maintain the balance between criticizing the very people who supported his art and selling his art to the establishment. There is an unstated but present subtext that Basquiat was somehow a “natural” painter, who never had to attend art school. This “noble savage” narrative uses racism to elide just how brilliantly and fluently Basquiat took up the paintbrush and how completely he made the transition from spray painting walls to painting canvases. Although it is easy to look at his expressionistic style, the obvious attraction for his patrons, his activist messages come across loud and clear for all who, in this conservative era, would listen. At a time when affirmative action was being halted, Basquiat was literally one of the most powerful and outspoken black voices in America, judging white people on their actions towards people of color.
Unfortunately, the film does not inform the viewer as to just how tragic his young life was. One deplores the lost opportunities and the missed chances over years to help Basquiat, and it continues to be astounding that no one intervened with his addiction until it was too late. His drug problems, which were long standing, are treated as a late development. His numerous love affairs are omitted, and only two of his former lovers appear on camera. His dealers, with the exceptions of Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone, did come on camera but gloss over the fact that Basquiat was a very high maintenance artist and never mention the vast sums of money he made for them. Some artists speak of him on camera, Julian Schnabel who made a very fine movie about the artist, Basquiat, provides commentary. It is worth noting that Schnabel’s film is more hard-hitting and realistic than jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Basquiat’s fellow street artists, Fab5Freddy, Kenny Scharf, and some of his earlier associates, such as Al Diaz become voices, which merely reiterate the legend and reinforce the myth.
But the film ends with telling us little we do not already know and the Hoban biography remains the best account of a life fully but badly lived. Basquiat may have been “a head on a pole,” but he paved the way for other artists of color, from Glen Ligon to Kara Walker. Watching the film and seeing the recovered interview with Basquiat, I was reminded of last year’s exhibition at Occidental College of photographs taken of one of their more famous students, Barack Obama. Like this documentary film, the photographs were taken by a young woman; and like Davis’s film, the photographs were put away and forgotten. There is a similarity of youth and promise shining out the photographs of Obama, but there is one thing missing—-the vulnerability of Basquiat. Obama came across as cool and self-confident and totally in command of his own life. So what happened to Jean-Michel Basquiat? Simply put, once he entered into the precincts of the art world, he lost control of his life. Hopefully, his art works can be removed from the dramatic story line of the doomed genius artist and will receive a hardheaded assessment as the social critique they were. This film is nostalgic and elegiac but completely without insight. Too bad.
If he were alive today, Jean-Michel Basquiat would be a year older than President Barack Obama.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger