Liberal commentary resembles that band of escaped convicts in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, who break out of prison shackled to each other at the ankle and have to do everything as a group, like walking along the street and eating in a restaurant. Barack Obama is elected president, and the liberal News Brain runs in one direction, declaring that America is now post-racial, that racism has suffered a fatal setback, that we are at the dawn of a new age of racial harmony. The White House forces the black Shirley Sherrod to resign her top-level position in the Department of Agriculture after right-wingers falsely accuse her of racism, and the liberal News Brain takes off in the opposite direction, proclaiming that race is the albatross around Mr. Obama’s neck, his Achilles’ heel, the Fury at his back.
May I suggest that these pundits and commentators get themselves over to Film Forum to see The Radiant Child, a sensitive and intelligent-if carefully selective and frankly worshipful-documentary about the rise and fall of Jean-Michel Basquiat? Basquiat was a black artistic prodigy who acquired international fame by the time he was 24 and died of an overdose of heroin 22 years ago this week, at the age of 27. The fate of this gifted, mixed-race son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother is resonant with the complexity of black-to use our current shorthand term for anyone at least half-black-existence in America.
Basquiat was far from the wonder his admirers claimed he was, but nowhere near the shallow mediocrity that detractors accused him of being. Sound familiar?
Basquiat was far from the wonder his admirers claimed he was, but he was nowhere near the shallow mediocrity that detractors accused him of being. Sound familiar? If it does, it’s not because weak and emotional Basquiat and our iron-willed, unsentimental president have anything in common in terms of character or life trajectory. Rather, Basquiat was and Mr. Obama is doomed to be trapped inside a symbolic projection more than most other public figures. As Mr. Obama wrote at the end of The Audacity of Hope, “I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” How peculiar it is to equate being a fresh arrival to politics with the capacity to project back to radically different people whatever they want to believe. Truly consequential political leaders, like Mr. Obama’s beloved Lincoln, are in fact characterized by strong views that are divisive from the start. Yet Mr. Obama seems to have spent much precious time trying to retain that unifying blankness.
So, too, with the conflicted Basquiat. Leaving his upper-middle-class Brooklyn home for good when he was 17, he lived on the street and made his name as a graffiti artist. The white art world took him up and cast him in the role of an outsider who was going to liberate art from what had become arid conventions.
Having made him an iconoclastic street primitive, however, the white dealers and journalists who were crafting Basquiat’s public image became conscious of the old stereotype of the primal black man. So they emphasized his intellectual capacities. This young, college-aged man-the product of a cultivated, affluent milieu-read literature! He was conversant with the art masterpieces of the past! Basquiat’s boosters might just as well have been patting him on the head for being “eloquent,” “rational” and “deliberative.”
Basquiat played along, making scrupulously constructed paintings that alluded heavy-handedly to Western intellectual pillars like Charles Darwin and to the span of Western art history. Yet the more he presented himself as unexpectedly refined, the more he strained to shock viewers with discordant colors, stick figures and unsettling juxtapositions. Intellectual and aloof on the one hand, impassioned and emotional on the other. But never too impassioned or emotional to seem “too black.”
Basquiat seemed to be striving to satisfy two calculatedly contradictory expectations on the part of the powerful white people who were making his career. No wonder that Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The Village Voice at the time: “I would have anticipated a well-schooled white hipster behind the tantalizing pictures.” For his part, Basquiat responded to the pressure on him to play the two different roles of stereotypical black wild child and stereotypical self-taught black intellectual-Jack Johnson and Frederick Douglass-with paintings like Obnoxious Liberals with Eyes and Eggs. The picture’s black figure is a short-order cook, and you are perhaps meant to wonder whether he is the artist himself, forced to respond ignominiously to his white dealers’ requests for ever more explicit displays of visceral emotion on the one hand and rational detachment on the other.
According to the documentary, Basquiat took criticism badly, becoming furious and falling into a funk before needily coming around and catering to the critic, as he seemed to do time and again with Andy Warhol, who became his unlikely mentor and friend even as he hitched his falling star to Basquiat’s rising one and in the process pulled Basquiat down. The Radiant Child is emphatic in its insistence that Basquiat was his own man who always went his own way, even as it inadvertently presents evidence to the contrary.
Yet the most striking refutation of Basquiat’s autonomy is his face, utterly open and sweet, or nervous and uncertain yet beaming with joy around Warhol, or hard and exhausted toward the end of his young life. He had a hunger to please, and he turned with honest rage on himself because he had done so much to please so many people of vastly different stripes that nearly all of them, in the end, treated him as an exploitable object. His most powerful works are those late canvases that are not so much painted as covered with words and phrases written in a meticulous hand-almost a kind of anti-graffiti. Some of these phrases have a stinging epigrammatic power. One that occurs frequently is this: “Cowards will give to get rid of you.” They will heap money and praise on you and remake you along the lines of their own desire, and work against you behind your back when you disappoint their impossible expectations-until you are defeated, gone and forgotten.
America elected its first black president in a convulsion of outraged disgust with his predecessor, and in the sudden throes of fear, panic and confusion. Mr. Obama will not be excused for his blackness the second time around. We should think now and again of Jean-Michel Basquiat, so that when we are next reminded that Mr. Obama’s blackness is, despite our finest hopes, the most significant political fact about him, we will not be surprised.