Sunday, March 14, 2004

Basquiat and "Kubla Khan"

Toward the end of a NY Times article about private collections of art in Miami, the discussion of the last collection mentioned, among others, a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Something about his name seemed familiar, but I couldn't recall any work of his that I'd seen.

To Google I go; below are some links to commentary/reminiscence and images:

Emory University


John Seed

I looked hastily, I admit, but part of that haste was due to not seeing much that I liked. Basquiat objected to being called a "graffiti artist," but--and keep in mind, my eye is still in training--that seems an apt description of his work. But this isn't the Soul Train-style graffiti that, frankly, fascinates me, with its leaning tenement towers and alphabets that appear to come from a planet with beings shaped like Henry Moore sculptures. In fact, a former student of mine liked to paint in that style; I am the very proud owner of one of his diptychs. Basquiat's work is more like that sort of graffiti that looks scrawl-like, more like defacement than vision. I saw the echoes of DaVinci, Picasso, and Gray's Anatomy that you'll see the commenters mention; some of his work also aspires to political statement as well, just as the Emory U. article argues. But, aside from some striking contrasts of color in some of what I've seen, the one painting I liked was the tribute to Dizzy Gillespie in the John Seed piece; it reminded me a bit of Romare Bearden's work, with its collage-like feel and intense blue slab.
I suppose what is even more interesting than his work is how, in the space of less than a decade, Basquiat was discovered, mentored by Warhol, became very prominent in contemporary art circles, and died and became even MORE valuable dead--or his work did, at any rate. For that is the overwhelming impression one gets from reading about him: that people mostly wanted to use him. Many he dealt with didn't care about him as a human being or, one suspects, the work as Art but about the work as marketable art. It is sad. But I will look some more.

Basquiat was a heroin addict; he died of an overdose, in fact. And that leads me to Coleridge (and, I would suppose, other writers like Poe and William Burroughs) who produced great art and were also addicts of one sort or another. Just how should we approach the work of addicts? To what extent does acknowledging an artist's addiction amount to a dismissal of "strange" elements--or perhaps even the entire premise--of his or her work? And--the other side of that question: to what extent should the audience absolve the artist of his/her obligation to communicate on the grounds of his/her addiction? Probably the most famous under-the-influence poem ever is Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." A relatively new visitor to the House of Leaves message board named "gandulfthegray" (his spelling) fancies himself a poet and, in a thread he initiated called "word sex," posted a poem that he characterized as a "stream on consience" [sic] "sort of lyrical ballet" that he reveals he had written while drinking absinthe. When another member said that he might be able to understand the poem if he were under the influence "of about three narcotics," G responded by saying "no one here could understand 'Kubla Khan' without narcotics, either." It struck me as a bit early for him, not to say arrogant, to be comparing his work, however tenuously, with Coleridge's, and so I said so. But the real issue, it seems to me, is the mistaking (on the part of the maker OR the audience) of chemically-influenced effusions, in and of themselves, for Art simply because they proceed unmediated and unfiltered from mind to pen/brush etc. "Well, Coleridge wrote down his opium dream." Yes: but he was AWAKE when he wrote it down; and you can bet that, once Byron's urging had persuaded him to publish it, Coleridge edited and proofed it. "He/I was high/drunk when he/I wrote it, so it's not going to make sense." G suggests that "Kubla Khan" has no internal logic and that that is why it's beautiful. I seriously doubt, though, that if that were true we'd still be reading it, much less see it canonized. This isn't the place to explicate the poem, but I'll say that it DOES have an internal logic and that THAT, along with its incantatory--yes, even hallucinogenic--language, is what makes it beautiful.
I don't drink to excess; caffeine is the one addiction I imbibe in. But--just guessing here--it seems to me that chemicals can supply images, but they don't, in the end, guarantee Art.

Tonight: the promised observations on Flemish painting and the Field of 64.
Those wishing to read the comments from the original LiveJournal post can go here.

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