Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Conflicted Radiance A new film on Jean-Michel Basquiat

by Davey Davis
Originally Published in 15 Bytes.
Of the people who know the childlike, energy-filled, and massively busy works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, most are familiar with the orbiting cautionary tale of success and the art market which consumed and destroyed him, as typified in the 1996 eponymous Hollywood film.

The newly released The Radiant Child contributes an excellent human dimension to that story, a sad portrait of the artist which praises the depth of his work and examines the subjects of his struggles. It is crafted lovingly: bright, lively edits and grainy hand-held film give it an intimate touch, a rarity. One of the great resources of the film is director Tamra Davis' raw interview with Basquiat reflecting candidly on his situation. There's a hypnotism looking into the the long-dead artist's face: he was such a charmer and a cipher. But unfortunately this documentary is not just about the work of the artist and the artist himself, and around that issue Radiant Child is discomforting.

The problem with this film is that it is a praising retrospective of a martyred young artist by all his friends, patrons, collectors and admirers, who seem to have grown up, sleeked up, and landed careers as psychiatrists, designers and massively influential curators. Their youthful freedom and immaturity was something Basquiat didn't live through. It is not unrealistic to expect people to grow up, but the contrast between the youthful energy of Basquiat's era and the established, wealthy art world remembering it loads the film with tension.

If Basquiat's story is admirable and tragic it is because he was a fragile creative soul who was destroyed by his skyrocketing success--which he was unable to adapt to--and the art market's insatiable appetite for "the new." The film is peopled by the individuals who contributed to his success and continue to work within that market, yet they never reveal direct remorse or accountability for their role in the whole destructive process which led to his demise. Rene Ricard’s early Art Forum cover story on Basquiat, for example, is presented with little scrutiny from the filmmakers as a prescient chance for the artist’s star to rise, yet the journalist’s words -- “the next person I wrote about needed to be totally unknown, terribly young, very ambitious, I wanted to latch onto a career that I could watch and write about for a long time” -- seem more than a little bit foreboding and parasitic given the context. To this day curators like Diego Cortez and artist Kenny Scharf are quick to take credit for exposing Basquiat to the world at large, but nowhere is there a sound bite from any of these people acknowledging the possibility that their friend was destroyed by the repetitive machine that is their bread and butter. The film does an interesting tap-dance of condemning these insatiable market forces while only referring to the participants in the art game obliquely, “this artificial world,” in some cases, and anonymously in others, placing blame on a faceless "new crowd" of doting groupies that the filmmakers do not provide a spokesperson for. One is left to wonder who this evil art world is composed of, if not the artists, critics, collectors, curators, and gallery owners interviewed in this film.

To Radiant Child's benefit, it excellently portrays Basquiat's work, especially with a series of side-by-side comparisons of various visual and cultural influences to Basquiat’s pieces that literally pop with color and artistic virtue. There is some truly priceless footage of a fellow with a Ph.D. stuttering and stumbling as he attempts to interview Basquiat and backpedal from the racial implications of calling the artist’s work primitive, and the film's connection of his work to be-bop and jazz is a neat insight. It gives the viewer an honest, loving picture of Jean-Michel's rise and fall in the words of the people closest to him. What it fails to do is critique the overall consumptive art market of which they are a part. In fact, the film's treatment of Basquiat's inability to survive as heroic reinforces the mentality that destroyed him. It lapses into a predictable "good die young/'too rare for this world" kind of mantra that fails to engage with the real problems behind a system that quickly consumes a unique style and simultaneously stifles it from changing and demands that it evolve. The collectors and curators ceaselessly argue for the validity of the works in the highest language possible, and their values ever inflate. Now is it a requirement that a film looking back on the career of a young iconographic artist pick apart the mechanics of art-world capitalism? No. But by making this film at this time the interviewees and participants in Basquiat's life and career are put in a very uncomfortable, one could say complicit, position.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a film by Tamra Davis will be screened at the Salt Lake Art Center November 12 at 7 pm.

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