During the screening of the third installment of this year’s Ethics Film Series, Jean Michel – Basquiat: The Radiant Child, I wondered about the relationship between the revolutionary nature of Basquiat’s work and his social life. Beginning as a graffiti artist under the tag SAMO, Basquiat quickly rose to become one of the most influential artists in the 20th century. Just last year, Basquiat’s painting, Untitled (1982), sold at Sotheby’s for a record-breaking $110.5 million. Although his art critiqued societal structures, such as capitalism and socio-economic stratification, I thought about Basquiat’s engagement in the very elitist world he condemned. I wondered if Basquiat may have experienced a sense of othering as a young, black man working and socializing in a predominantly older, white sphere. In fact, one quotation describes Basquiat’s art shows as places with “white people, white walls and white wine.” I contemplated if Basquiat purposefully entered the fine art world in order for the messages in his art to reach those perhaps most in need of an “awakening.”
Following the film, Ayanna Legros, a PhD candidate in the History Department at Duke University, and co-founder of the BASQUIAT: Still Fly @ 55 project, led a discussion about the ethical implications of our remembrance of Basquiat. Asking the audience, “who gets to speak for Basquiat”, Legros challenged me to think critically about the influence different perspectives and backgrounds have in the interpretation of historical events. Indeed, the documentary opens with a quotation from Madonna, one of several ex-girlfriends who speak on behalf of Basquiat during the film. Although much of Basquiat’s artwork exalts African American history and culture, I noticed that primarily white acquaintances, colleagues, and collectors were interviewed. I wondered why certain people and not others were featured.
Next, Legros mentioned ways in which Basquiat is remembered today. While some refer to Basquiat as the Black Picasso, Legros asked us to consider the problematic connotation of this title. Why is Basquiat not known as, well, Basquiat? Finally, Legros turned to the commodification of Basquiat’s work. The iconic, three-pointed crown, often included in his paintings to commemorate African culture, now adorns many apparel lines. Moreover, the cosmetics company, Urban Decay, decorated a make-up collection with a distinctively Basquiat style. Although Legros explained that Basquiat welcomed his fame and fortune, she stated that it is nevertheless ironic that he is remembered through an industry his art endeavored to critique.
Later, I thought about the broader implications this conversation holds for the context of my project. In order to avoid misrepresenting points of view, I think it is important to provide the girls with their own platform for expression. Indeed, by providing an outlet for the girls to share their thoughts, knowledge, and opinions about the meetings we have had over the course of the year, I think my initial goal of empowerment will be achieved. In the upcoming weeks, I will be thinking more about the format for this final presentation.