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Shee-it: The Postmodern Stepin Fetchit & The Myth of Basquiat.

Today’s Guardian offers up the journalistic version of a disguised Blacksploitation film, as a postmortem jaw-shattering blowjob hagiography of Jean Michael Basquiat.

Olivia Lang, working both sides of the street, tells us that back in the dark ages of the early 1980s, in deepest darkest Manhattan, a wunderkind was revealed, and burst forth on the scene only to burn out in a haze of heroin and fame.

We are treated to the basic template of the “Basquiat” myth with a few additional flourishes. From the very opening we are provided with an attempt to configure “Basquiat” and his serial exploiters as being both in on the scam and self-aware of the racism inherent in the con. On the one hand he is part ingénue and all too willing to be used, while on the other covertly striking back against his (predominantly) white exploiters.

“In the spring of 1982, a rumour started swilling around New York. The gallerist Annina Nosei had some kind of boy genius locked in her basement, a black kid, wild and inscrutable as Kaspar Hauser, making masterpieces out of nowhere to the accompaniment of Ravel’s Boléro. “Oh Christ”, Jean-Michael Basquiat, said when he heard. “If I was white, they would just call it an artist-in-residence.”

As if “rumor” isn’t code for capital within the frame of late 20th century commodification, and as if, the “rumor” was just gossip and “gossip” is not a weaponized form of authority. As in: Have you heard? Did you know?

As if “Artist-in-residence” was not a contaminated piece of the money making machine, and thus simply another form of exploitation designed to produce the product/artist, bleach it of energy and cash, and then throw it away on a heap of art news magazines.

Thus per his own self-reference, he is being exploited because he is Black (versus White artists who are not exploited because they are White) but he is aware of it and can be freed from the taint of collaboration. And the author can be both smugly participatory in the ongoing exploitation, but casts herself as detached cool-hand reporter aware of the electrified third rail of bigotry, but hip to the jive and free to continue as stealthy great White observer.

We then get the propaganda designed to romanticize the fabricated context, which serves to assist the myth of “Basquiat” as street urchin savant.

First the head fake that appears to acknowledge “Basquiat” as being self-aware:

“These were the kind of rumours he had to work against, but also the deliberate myth he constructed about himself, part canny bid for stardom, part protective veil. Basquiat was 22 by then, and could make up out of the whole cloth of his childhood experience all kinds of patchworked, piecemeal selves, playing off people’s expectations of what a grubby, dreadlocked, half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican young man might be capable of.”

Thus he is both victim and victimizer; trickster and Jim Crow but the con is revealed in the very next paragraph:

“The paintings started coming right at the moment that the East Village transformed from a burned-out wasteland inhabited by heroin addicts to the epicentre of a startling art boom.”

As if the “burned out wasteland” arrived all by itself instead of: Predominantly (if not exclusively) White aristocrats and new money goons, fuel economic dislocation and collapse, then reap financial gain from what amounts to a massive insurance fire-sale, resulting in depressed value so “new” property can be overvalued and inflated beyond the reach of anyone who is not a member of the wealthy class, who soaked the city in financial gasoline and dropped matches on it…and at the same time predatory collaborators open galleries and go in search of a product all too willing to be used…thus it is not about exploitation based on color but rather color being subservient to the dominant strata of exploitation, which is how to skull fuck the poor regardless of color and squeeze them until all the value is spent and blood is squirting from their eyes.

But the myth machine is not done. Consider how it doubles down on its bigotry and fabrications in the service of exploitation:

“There was a marketable glamour to being a down-and-out prodigy then, but it was an act for Basquiat, as much a way of satirising prejudice as the African chieftain outfits he’d later wear to the parties of wealthy white collectors.”

Again, as with “burned out wasteland” arrived deus ex machina, we have “marketable glamour” arrived magically rather than as the result of the brute power of money – money to pay for the PR hacks, money to pay for access, money to pay for advertising and bribes, and kickbacks and rent, investments, and faux journalism pretending it wasn’t paid advertising. In other words the lube that greases the gears is transformed into a veil behind which gnomes and elves tinker in Santa’s workshop, as if Santa had a faux, oh-so-early 80’s samurai pony tail and his red suit was designed by Armani. But then while the brutal truth is elided we are given the con that “Basquiat” was making fun of the whole process; of his own exploitation and of the exploiters. But not a word on their self-awareness, or any evidence to suggest they weren’t aware that he was making fun of them and nothing to show us the depth of “Basquiat’s” perception except self-serving statements amid the money the drugs, and the wholesale rape and pillage of New York, which itself was occurring in the wider context of the reactionary corporate fascism of the Reagan (counter) revolution. To say there was “glamour” to the devastation is to ignore who was responsible for the carnage, and at the same time it means to adhere to it in a symbiosis of financial pornography.

“Basquiat” was of course not alone. The same corporate blitzkrieg was to bring out the products labeled Jay Mcinerney, Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis – all shills, all hacks all perfectly willing to claim agitated ennui in the face of their participation in their own transformation into products, who per their advertising mantras could claim to be both participant and detached observer. Consider Mcinerney’s use of the second person in Bright Lights Big city. (“You are not the type of person who reads Jay Mcinerney…”) Innovative and thus brilliant? Or not innovative and thus a failure of nerve in the service of refusing to actually condemn the Reaganite assault on the country, by creating a vapid tone of detachment while cashing checks from entertainment empires. After all isn’t detached irony Ellis’ standard dogmatic boilerplate response to any and all criticism of his utterly shallow hack work? It is ironic, he insists and the fault of the exploiters (whose money he is willing to take) for failing to understand his satire. (A lesson he learned at Bennington, right before, or right after mummy and daddy bought him a publishing deal?) Versus: he is a shallow, no-talent collaborator whose novels burn up on reentry and bounce off the essential atmosphere of substance, because if it is satire it is shallow satire or, if it is not satire at all it is, in truth, self-indulgent and vapid and is instead “artistic” choad. Or even worse, collaborationist propaganda.*

But beyond that – beyond those figures as symptoms rather than the actual disease – the wider context is that just six years before “Basquiat” was invented by Andy Warhol, Inc. New York was on the edge of bankruptcy. With Gerald Ford’s de facto Midwestern tyrannical adherence to “fiscal discipline” and a host of antiquated nostrums about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,  (Ford to New York: Drop Dead) bonds losing value, the possibility of over a hundred banks collapsing, and a financial ripple effect that a default would have sent around the world, combined with White-flight, systemic racism, and corruption, the idea that “Basquiat” appeared out of the magical wreckage is not only a lie, it is an evil lie in the service of the gangsters who burned the city to the ground, created the wreckage and then turned a profit from the corpse.

But instead of actual and honest context we get more propaganda that ignores the truth and doubles down on its lies, prevarications and half-truths, while allowing with aristocratic lese-majeste for the possibility that there was bigotry and colonization involved in the creation of “Basquiat” but it is washed over by the tide of faux romantic dross where we get reheated 19th century tripe like this:

“A bebop insurgent, he travelled the nocturnal city with a spray-can in his overcoat pocket, attacking in particular the high art zone of Soho and the Lower East Side.”

Thus “Basquiat” as postmodern hipster Rimbaud. Heroin chic but as faux cautionary tale – yours for $19.99 (tote bag is extra).

Thus colonization followed by devastation, followed by second wave colonization, and exploitation and a hack collaborator cum product named “Basquiat” and the exploiting predatory “art” galleries now make money off his corpse, and try to thread the needle claiming he was self-aware but consumed…against yet inside the machine…they use code phrases like “nocturnal bebop insurgent” to romanticize the crimes and additional vapid art-speak that is itself a tool of the crime being committed.

This is an update on the “romantic” myth of the 19th century where the “genius” is consumed from within. Except in this case instead of tuberculous ( a disease contextualized by poverty and a lack of knowledge) the “romantic” myth is of the heroin addict savant, who tried to succeed but was destroyed by his “daemon” and the people who while recognizing his “talent” also exploited him.

What surprises here is that no one had written an opera about it entitled “Basquiat” in which every 19th century cliche is resurrected but without any sense that it is nothing more than leftovers pulled from a microwave. Or as Robert Hughes puts it in Requiem for a Featherweight:

“Basquiat’s career appealed to a cluster of toxic vulgarities. First, to the racist idea of the black as naif or as rhythmic innocent, and to the idea of the black artist as “instinctual,” outside “mainstream” culture, and therefore not to be judged by it: a wild pet for the recently cultivated white…”

In others words, a ghetto pass and a fetish for bigots and “Basquiat” as a proto Jar Jar Binks, with a cadre of defenders unable to understand why anyone would call them a bigot and “Basquiat” a hack. And just as vulgar, “Basquiat” as a collaborator looking to get a gig in the big house.

We are instantly in the realm of farce, tragedy and kitsch but without any sense of self-awareness or, a total sociopathic indifference to the need and benefit of self-awareness. Thus the farce and the kitsch are also what passes for sophistication among professional cynics and fools, who are so ignorant they not only don’t know their fools but are so shallow they wouldn’t care if you told them the ugly truth. No one who isn’t a partisan hack operating in the service of grubby new money media gangsters would write “bebop insurgent” and expect to be taken seriously as anything other than a paid shill.

The use of “bebop” and “insurgent” are cultural rape in the context of colonization and an attempt to dismiss the reality of “Basquiat” as a collaborator and a hack. It is an attempt to steal the thunder of a genuine artistic genius and create a cool, easy listening (White) jazz soundtrack to wrap “Basquiat” in authenticity. Turning again to Hughes in Requiem for a Featherweight:

“Far from being the Charlie Parker of SoHo (which was what his promoters claimed), he became its Jessica Savitch.”*1

And notice that Lang does not reference the promoters because of course that would reveal the ugly truth.

Charlie Parker, from whom the phrase bebop insurgent is stolen (no doubt without any sense of who Parker was and what he represented or a vile disregard for who he was and what he represented) may have been unpleasant, he may have been cruel, but he was a genius, recognized by other geniuses and with them had to endure the genuine threat to survival represented by apartheid and Jim Crow. But he was an artist, a genuine, unique talent who transformed a genre, and died because of his addictions and because he was a Black man acting independently in a vast plantation. He was Bebop and he was a true Bebop insurgent and not a tool.

Which is more than can be said of “Basquiat” who had one talent and that was being a courtesan.

And then consider the erasing of the past and the context that frames “Basquiat” as a stooge.

“There is a graphomaniac quality to almost all of Basquiat’s work. He liked to scribble, to amend, to footnote, to second-guess and to correct himself. Words jumped out at him, from the back of cereal boxes or subway ads, and he stayed alert to their subversive properties, their double and hidden meaning. His notebooks, recently published in an exquisite facsimile by Princeton, are full of stray phrases, odd combinations.”

In other words, DADA and Language Poets and William Burroughs with his Cut-ups. But detailing the facts establishes the power of aesthetics, which in turn reveals “Basquiat” as a product and his factory handlers as conmen. In other words: nothing new nothing original. But with “Basquiat” Inc. there can be no sense of context because context robs the thieves of their ability to inflate prices.

And so this:

“Though he didn’t have a formal art education, he and his mother Matilde had been frequenting museums since he was a toddler. As his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk recalled of a trip to MOMA, “Jean knew every inch of that museum, every painting, every room. I was astonished at his knowledge and intelligence and at how twisted and unexpected his observations could be.”

But that is crucial. No formal art education and instead the myth of the natural savant – artist as man of the people, as wild man from outside of the salon, who disdains the academy. In other words, the fetish for rich White bigots, exactly as Hughes describes. And in response to the idea that the academy is fraudulent by definition – it depends on the academy and while MFAs are a fraud, even someone without access or desire to attend a school benefits from rigor. But instead we get sophistry and myth. He knew MOMA intimately one assumes because he visited it habitually, while dismissing it as a plantation. So we are to ride two horses with one ass – MOMA/Establishment must be known in detail yet must be rejected as hostile and false. But then the money shot: “I was astonished at his knowledge and intelligence and at how twisted and unexpected his observations could be.”

Notice we are offered no examples of his intelligence or his knowledge, nor are we told how or why being “twisted” is a value. Being “twisted” thus contrary or alienated from the dominant construct can produce genius – take your pick – Rimbaud, Bunuel, Ginsberg, Joyce, De Sade, Picasso, Wolstonecraft, Woolf, Baldwin, Coltrane – but instead we get a statement which requires faith or tautology or both. But we do not get evidence which requires aesthetics.

And of course there can be no “Basquiat” Inc. without the destruction of aesthetics. The reactionary idea that art is subjective is based on the degradation of the education system, and the corollary loss of historical context – or facts. Your opinion is subjective as long as you do not have information based on facts. The issue is not liking this or that work of art, but rather understanding it; understanding what came before and what was occurring while it was being produced. But liking the product has supplanted knowledge because knowledge can’t be mass-marketed and sold as disposable product. In other words, the triumph of ifeel versus I know. Knowledge undermines the ability of the factory to produce market and successfully sell the work as product and ensure that once its value has been inflated, and then sucked dry it can be discarded as “overhyped” which then allows for the process to be repeated. This is planned obsolescence migrated from manufacturing to subvert aesthetics, and colonize art in the same way that a virus infiltrates a host and ultimately kills it.

The irony here being that both the left and the right (or their hobgoblin doppelgangers) defend this approach. The right demands the authority to ignore context, because context rests on knowledge, and knowledge of aesthetics requires an education that rests on an appreciation of rebellion and that in turn requires acknowledging what was rebelled against – usually tyrannical aristocrats and establishment thugs – in other words, the godfathers and patron saints of the right, or conversely, the puritans of the left.

For the left the knee jerk response against the establishment is based on class resentment and enforced lack of access, and so come the screams about “the elite” and the imposition of patriarchy and appropriation and dead white Europeans, etc etc. Patriarchy and limits on access are genuine issues but so is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A plague on both their houses.

“Basquiat” was a hack and a tool and a collaborator with his exploiters, who themselves were vampires. His work is shallow, repetitive, limited, and ultimately a kind of passive aggressive stance that suggests nihilism and rebellion, but doesn’t have either the intelligence or the chops to be much of anything. Which of course allows aristocrats and new money thugs the blank canvass they need to project value, which them creates a commodity they can sell and a place to launder their dirty money. The conquest of the art world by these types is not about art qua art, but about accountants, lawyers, stock brokers and their camp followers needing a place to wash dirty money. That it created a wave of niche businesses including art magazines, celebrity gossip, and manufactured scandals in what was (and is) sold as a new demi monde, says nothing about art but does speak volumes about fin de siècle American imperial kapital.

The result is that “Basquiat” is a postmodern Stepin Fetchit.



For background on NYC’s debt crisis see:

For The Guardian on Basquiat:

For an earlier and pitch-perfect exegesis of “Basquiat” Inc. see the late Robert Hughes:

*1. Jessica Savitch was a television news reporter who died in a car accident.

Update: 9/14/17

Financial Necrophilia:

*Contrast Ellis with Springsteen and Mellencamp – Born in the U.S.A and Scarecrow coming out during the Reagan regime years and in particular recall Reagan’s tone deaf attempt to colonize Springsteen and how it fell flat. In other words, artistic integrity versus being a spineless whore.

Update: 6/19/2018

Financial Necrophilia Part 2:

Not that more proof is required but The Guardian ran an article today about a documentary about Basquiat’s “early” years. Obviously just an attempt to milk the corpse for more money the documentary is as vapid as its subject. It does however have an unintended meta-significance. It is an artifact of end-phase capitalism and serves to highlight the ways in which Basquiat was commodified and how he is still a soulless product.

2 comments on “Shee-it: The Postmodern Stepin Fetchit & The Myth of Basquiat.

  1. phyl12 says:

    That is quite an eloquent essay on the Basquiat myth. I’m not sure I agree with everything you say but, in this never ending sea of glorification, for the Radiant Child’s life and work, it’s always refreshing to hear a discordant voice that will put things into perspective and reveal the imposture behind the Basquiat cult phenomenon. Robert Hughes was one of the first to see through this masquerade but the sirens of modern art, eager to celebrate its first afro-american martyr, were chanting stronger back then.

    It’s downright silly to try to compare him with such musical geniuses as Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson or Jimi Hendrix. Wether Basquiat was a gifted child or not is irrelevant, what matters most is wether his work can pass the test, once we shut down the media gibberish that blares out at any mention of his name. If you tell them it fails miserably, fans will respond by loving it even more. Seems like the gut feeling of art lovers is more important, today, than any formal knowledge or understanding about what makes art truly great. Never mind the critics, if it sells high on the art market and rock stars collect his work, it surely proves something. Get your free Basquiat wallpaper, while they last!


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