Basquiat, "Radiant Child"

by on Nov.16, 2010

Wanted to say something about this new movie about Basquiat that I just watched, “Radiant Child”:

I think it’s definitely worth watching for several reasons. To begin with it shows Basquiat painting, which is illuminating and inspiring, and it includes some awkward interview attempts, which is also good to see, and it offers a slew of interviews with people close to the action (the gallerists, journalists and, in an unusual move, the private collectors). It even offers a brief, radically stupid statement by the New Criterion editor (gross) about Basquiat’s lack of importance.

It also makes an interesting argument: Rather than blaming (all interpretations of Basquiat seem, somewhat reductively, to be about assigning blame) the gallerists, the usual bad guys, the movie suggests the “official art world” – including academics and reviewers – were more to blame for being unable/unwilling to understand/support Basquiat’s art. This is the art world of minimalism, or as one gallerist describes it: “white walls, white people, drinking white wine.” (I should note that as much as I like to hate on minimalism, this does seem to avoid conflict as well.)

For my purposes it is of course interesting how the movie suggests that the attacks on Basquiat tended to be by way of “kitsch” – that he viscerality of his art precluded any sophistication. Remember, the immigrant is always kitsch, and it seems his immigrant nature – or his race, his exotic name, his exotic story – was played up both in his initial entry into the artworld, and as a way of then rejecting him as a “mascot” of an art world gone haywire with money. Something fitting of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, but not October magazine, and certainly not MOMA (which rejected paintings offered by patrons).

I think the basic story Julian Schnable told in his biopic from the 90s was this Basquiat as mascot (himself as Great Artist). Which is why it struck me as woefully reductive.

In that movie (if I remember correctly), Al Diaz is shown to be a kind of genuine street culture figure, who Basquiat leaves behind when he sells out. But here he’s shown to be quite interested in selling out, and in fact sells an emotional present from Basquiat while Basquiat is still alive (“like a creep” he explains). So I think “Radiant Child” offers a more complex story than Schnable’s, admittedly beautiful, movie.

The kitsch angle is also interesting because it’s already there in his art. Most obviously in its references to Madonna, Charlie Parker, baseball players etc (ie pop culture), but, more interestingly, in his depiction of the black body, a media-sensationalized anatomy that is, in the paintings, broken down, made illegible, fragmented, cartoon character beaten to death, *atrocity kitsch*. Against this fragmentation, it offers a view of this broken body as heroic: “Royalty, heroism, and the streets.” Not a mere offering “positive images” of black people, but an attempt to go through the kitsch and violence, to a kind of “royalty” that doesn’t try to cover up the violence against the black body.

Royalty is an interesting term because Eric Santner just gave a paper here at Notre Dame about Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge (new translation out from Dalkey btw) suggesting an affinity between the homeless and royalty: both occupy a position in society that is always in danger of being rejected, thrown away. Of course the paper is about all this excess energy that manifests itself in spasms. See my previous entry about Basquiat and spasms. More about this later.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Also in lots of literature the homeless boy and the prince are twins (Prince and the Pauper– also Puddinhead Wilson?), or the prince goes disguised as a beggar (Henry the 5th– or Undercover Boss!). This both suggests that, on an occult level, the prince and the beggar ARE THE SAME and thus can stand in for each other– but with a difference. Yet in all those models there IS some difference between the middle class and the beggar/king– the beggar/king has mobility, visibility, costume, jargon. The middle class never switches places with anybody, and at the end of hte story the middle class is still in the same place no matter whatever amazing reversals have taken place. So I wonder if the king-is-the-same-as-the-beggar in most versions is really a reactionary model– after all, everyone is always restored to their rightful places at the end.

    Exceptions might be Barack Obama– if he can pass as the president, then the whole government and office of the presidency sucks, we don’t need government at all, it’s tyranny (per Tea Party). On the other hand, that might be a good comparison to the Basquiat hate. His success embodies what’s ‘wrong’ with the 80’s art scene– shallow, money-drunk, politically correct, etc. The scene’doing it’ without the academy (Conceptualism, Minimalism). The hate on Basquiat might be an attempt to return the king to the role of Beggar– but it can’t be done. Something has escaped into the culture.

    In Basquiat’s own artwork, the king/beggar dichtomy is not undone– ‘rightful’ order is not restored- the ‘carnivalesque’ is preserved in one mixed up libidinal layer… There’s no separation between before/during/after in these pictures… maybe?