So said US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when passing judgement on the film Les Amants in a famous obscenity case. This judgement is often used by some when it comes to art and, especially, contemporary art.
Chris Guest? Fine. Wim Delvoye? Sick and obscene (according to some).
All too often, you don’t know what it is when you see it. You miss the intricacies in favour of the shock factor. You ponder if you’re being tricked.
However, I know for a fact that when you see a Basquiat painting for the first time, you’ll not know what to think.
Since his death from a heroin overdose at the age of 27, interest in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork has only skyrocketed. To some, he is The most important artist of the 1980’s, emerging from the nascent hip hop culture with his graffiti tagging to take the art world by storm. To others, he is the epitome of a chancer, the embodiment of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Attending a retrospective of his work, the author bell hooks wrote that she:
…wandered through the crowd talking to the folks about the art. I had just one question. It was about emotional responses to the work. I asked, what did people feel looking at Basquiat’s paintings? No one I talked with answered the question. They went off on tangents, said what they liked about him, recalled meetings, generally talked about the show, but something seemed to stand in the way, preventing them from spontaneously articulating feelings the work evoked.
To the untrained, unfettered eye, his work can certainly seem amateurish. But a closer look reveals not only a genuinely unique and iconic style, but also laced with haunting social commentary, celebration of diversity and good old mischief.
Stephen Metcalf accurately summarised the prevailing attitude towards Basquait:
What critics seem to be striving for on behalf of Basquiat isn’t understanding but respectability, which anyone looking at the paintings can immediately see Basquiat was uninterested in. These canvases were made by a young man, barely out of his teens, who never lost a teenager’s contempt for respectability. Trying to assert art-historical importance on the paintings’ behalf, a critic comes up against their obvious lack of self-importance. Next to their louche irreverence, the language surrounding them has felt clumsy and overwrought from the beginning. What little we know for sure about Basquiat can be said simply: An extraordinary painterly sensitivity expressed itself in the person of a young black male, the locus of terror and misgiving in a racist society. That, and rich people love to collect his work. We have had a hard time making these two go together easily. But so did he…With the benefit of hindsight and some good reporting, we now know that Basquiat was being crushed under money and publicity. At the very same time, he was being asked to reinvest painting with its foregone aura of authenticity, even saintliness, because he was black. No human being could have survived that, and he didn’t. The irony of his work’s ever-rising prices is that, far from clarifying his stature, they keep alive the question he repeatedly asked himself: Am I an artist, an art star, or just another celebrity?
That’s an awful lot for anyone to be burdened with, let alone a young man thrust onto the world’s stage. And while many have tried to resolve these contradictions, sometimes it’s better to leave them.
However, this volume, produced by the Brooklyn Museum, does a fine job in offering us reproductions of his various pieces for the most part. When two pages are devoted to a painting (such as ‘Now’s The Time), the binding on the paperback version makes it impossible to see the whole painting. But, for the most part, it does a good job of capturing the intricacies and nuances of Basquait’s work.
The inclusion of various essays on Basquiat’s influences, youth, working techniques, interpretations and legacy are fine reading (if a little heavy on identity politics at times) and it can be fun seeing how various art critics do indeed try to bring a veneer of classical respectability to proceedings. Nonetheless, there is always something to keep you pondering throughout.
The more hardcore fan will have other books with better reproductions and other variations of the essays included here but, for those starting off on this journey, this is a fine tome that will get a reaction out of you in some shape or form.
You’ll know it when you see it.
Marc Mayer (editor), 2010, Basquait. Merrell Publishers. ISBN-13: 978-1858945194
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.