Basquiat Doc Has Lessons For Barack

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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 Doc Has Lessons For Barack