When I started this whole Third Atlantic thing I clearly stated that it would be a form of catharsis, figuring things out, and at times would be extremely contradictory. While I wholeheartedly respect the work put in by the artists form the late 1970’s and early 1980’s New York, sometimes you have to hate the things you love to move on from them. So. I’m about to say something that is EXTREMELY contradictory to what I’ve said before ….
It’s time to chill on Jean- Michel Basquiat, and also Haring and Warhol and everything else surrounding them.
In 2015, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto finally held an exhibition that didn’t cater to little kids and the decrepit set who make up the bulk of their memberships: Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time.
Because Toronto’s art scene is both equally conservative and is clueless about contemporary exhibitions, the show should have been renamed, About Time (zing!!!): Basquiat’s resurgence had already come and gone about two or three times by the time this show puttered in.
The truth hurts.
Shortly after the show was announced I got a phone call asking if I would DJ the opening show, before Grand Master Flash of all people…
I assumed this day might be the greatest day of my life. I had just returned to Toronto three years prior after spending two years writing my MFA thesis on the downtown New York art scene with whole chapters dedicated to Downtown 81 and TV Party. Everything I had been doing for the past 12 years was finally converging on itself into one … possible … great moment.
Everything collapsed instead. What I thought might have been the greatest night was one of the worst nights. Of my life.
I will give a lot of praise to the curator who must have gone to great lengths to convince the board members who probably sacrifice acres of maple trees to the Group Of Seven gods to even consider that people of color actually make art too.
But they just couldn’t resist fucking the whole thing up.
I showed up well ahead of my slot and was immediately directed upstairs to the conference room on the second floor. Blood draining from my face, I realized I would not be opening for Flash but would be opening for an incredibly stoic panel talk.
I am by no means a DJ diva, but seeing two lonely CDJ players splayed out on a fold out table, no mixer and a sound system only fit for toddler’s second birthday party, I wondered why would you even bother putting any DJ, amateur or pro, through this humiliation.
Having set up my equipment early I decided to take a walk through the exhibition. I had just barely walked through the entrance and there it was …
On the wall was one of Jay Z’s many quotes about Basquiat. What the fuck has Jay ever done in his life any anything about him have anything to do with the work of Basquait? If my math is correct Jay would have been about 10 -12 years old during the painter’s peak period (nobody anywhere, black or white knows anything about art when you’re this young). He spent the next 5 – 12 making bad raps, the following 10 rapping about and bragging about his drug hustle lifestyle.
But the AGO just couldn’t resist. In a very lame attempt to look relevant, the curators tried so very hard to relate to a youth audience. I’m sure the condo crowds lapped it all up especially since Jay and Beyoncé had been crowned the King and Queen of all things cool for the past 4 years.
I didn’t believe then, and I still don’t believe now that Jay gives a shit about Basquiat. For him, acquiring the late painter’s work is just another form of cultural capital that can temporarily draw attention away from his many, many, attempts at his lust for actually financial capital.
Jay has and will always be a hustler. And in that moment I realized I had been fooling myself believing in the myth of the life of Basquait. It was fitting that that Jay liked and admired the painter as well, cause they were both hustler’s.
Contrary to the belief that Basquait was a down and out artist, couch surfing, and making art from recycled material, basically living on the margins, he actually chose this lifestyle, rejecting the comfortable middle class lifestyle he grew up in.
Unlike the millions upon millions of starving artists who have been living the eternal slog, Basquiat grew up in a comfortable home, his mother taking him to exhibitions since he was a young child, something not afforded to many black kids his age.
Most importantly Basquait had a singular vision. He wanted to be famous and he attached himself to arguably the most famous artist of the time: Warhol. He had benefactor who gave him the space to work and pay his rent. He sold paintings for thousands upon thousands of dollars and showcased around the world.
As someone who hates censoring himself, I have to make it clear that I am by no means devaluing his work. I am still in awe what his visuals have conveyed and as one of the most well recognized artists of color, it’s also important to understand that he was fighting an uphill battle inside a still very racist art world. I’ve bought the books, the DVD’s, the over produced printed T Shirts from Uniqlo and music soundtracks.
Just a pretty awesome picture.
It’s always difficult to criticize someone of color who manages to move through and upend the cultural institutions that are dominated by old white people who decide on who can and can’t get access. But I also refuse to believe all the myths, stories that can or cannot uphold a belief or truth.
I’m reminded once again about the never ending discussions on the separation of art and the artist. You don’t have to like how Jay Z conducts business to enjoy his raps. You can also believe he had a rough upbringing, selling drugs just to make it from day to day. You can also still love Basquiat’s work as graf artist, painter, musician, and conduit between Uptown and Downtown.
I still believe in the spirit of the time period where he resided as the main the star, but for a minute let’s take the time to understand that the belief in myths have consequences. I’d hate for a young artist of color to believe that you can just leave everything behind without a benefactor or the support of friends, family, or even a job. The chances of success is in the millions.
This article was inspired by the following article and the link below.