Basquiat: Poignant My Ass

19 May 2017*

When the world of art collectors creates a price of $110 million for a Basquiat painting, something he’d just as soon have painted on a broken wall, it deforms the meaning of what a painter does, why he does it, how he does it. (Or she, yes, but not in this case; and indeed are any of the $50+ million painters women?**) In the end the underlying, unconscious impulse is to subdue art, to disempower it, to turn Aphrodite into a gaudy hooker. I’m sure the collectors believe they love art but what they love are themselves owning art, and their money alters everyone’s relationship to art, in the largest sense of that word. Thus you go to the Metropolitan Museum, already something of a robber baron mausoleum, and wander in the modern painting sections, from one room to the next, each named after some thuggish billionaire and his wife, truly awful humans: it poisons you to see their names and to some detectable degree it poisons for you every work in the space. Art has always had rich patrons, yes; and the artists that the rich patrons chose to support delivered not merely artistic talent but social cachet. The ones that didn’t have that cachet to deliver tended to suffer, underfed and under recognized  — in this context I think of Andrea del Sarto, in Browning’s poem of that name, whence comes the line, ‘less is more’. Less is never more for these guys, only more is more. Rich patronage is one thing; one hundred million dollars is something else altogether, enough money that the earnings on it as an investment alone could feed the poor of a small country for years and years, theoretically forever. Basquiat sold the painting in ’84 for $19,000; that’s rich patronage. One hundred million is an assault. Satan comes to a fasting, delirious Jesus, takes him to a mountaintop and shows him the glories and riches of the world, sweetness, comfort and beauty: all this is yours, Satan says, if you but bow down and worship me. Would Basquiat bow? Would Van Gogh? Cezanne? (Picasso, you never know: he might just do it for the laugh.) Of course it doesn’t take long to figure out what Satan does when you bend over. The NY Times reports today that Basquiat’s price “perhaps poignantly” exceeds the highest price paid for an Andy Warhol’s work (only $105 million don’t you know) . Poignant my ass. I think of Basquiat, whose work I loved when I began seeing it on those broken walls downtown, and I think of the kind of angry drive to express, in terms native to the downtown New York City streets of the late 70s and early 80s, expressions that even in their anger frequently evoked certain deep traditions, particularly of classical sub-Saharan African art — the masks, the heads, warding off evil while depicting it. The Japanese billionaire who bragged out his buy, on Instagram, minutes after completing it, plans to house the painting in a museum he’s building for his collection, in Chiba. He should call the place Ozymandias House.**

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*The painting shown here is “Dustheads”, 1982. It is not the untitled head that brought $110 million last night. I couldn’t bear to add to its newly-acquired, falsely iconic status by reproducing it here but you can find it all over the ‘net.  Indeed, currently, if you google “Basquiat”, that’s what shows in the images. The photograph of the two figures are from Malawi, this century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo by moi.

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**Answer: no. Not by a long shot. As you’d expect.  Since the whole enterprise is about commodity and not art, of course the men are worth ten times more. See https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-highest-price-ever-paid-for-a-work-of-art-by-a-woman-artist . As of 2013, says that  site, it was Berthe Morisot’s Aprés le déjeuner, 1881, which at $10.9 million was top among women painters, followed by Natalia Goncharova (Les fleurs, 1912).  Louise Bourgeois was very close to Morisot, also over $10 million, but for a large iron sculpture. I’d pay a lot more for the huge spider than for the picture of the window and flowerbox and l’ingénue insipide digesting her café au lait et croissant avec confiture de fraise, but that’s just me.

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***Just for fun, the Shelly poem, thanks to the Poetry Foundation website:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

One comment

  1. Hi, I loved this essay and also your photo. So true — there is just a serious commodification of art going on, and it doesn’t seem to have an kind of a ceiling or end to it, because I think we are in a scary time of recycling everything that came before, and not looking for anything particular new — or just elevating what the gatekeepers want to push. Love your reference back to the street art of the 70’s and 80’s, it was so raw and real that’s why people responded to it. My mom is a visual artist, she graduated from art school in 1960–one of her classmates went onto be a powerful gallery owner and art industry figure–one of the gatekeepers I think that created all of this. I’ve seen it over the years, as my mother a visual artist/abstract expressionist struggled to get her work out there–probably the worst burns — her rejection during the Guggenheim grant process (she made the first cut which was awful/worse than an outright rejection) & a Boston area museum critic in a rejection letter who wrote that he could not really critique her work b/c his head was full of the work of a recent artist they featured–Katherine Porter (Fairfield Porter’s daughter). To be brave and make art of art’s sake is something true, but it can be discouraging. Here in Boston, the MFA is so corporate–my mom recently saw the special Matisse exhibit, and said while she thought some of it was good, she felt like they were scraping the floor of an old gallery for scraps. The MFA took serious fear into their corporate heart, when the ICA left their former police station and set up shop down on the waterfront–I saw the spider there years ago after they first relocated, and it was great, but I fear they are also getting too commercial and gatekeeping these days.

    Like

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