Depoliticising Basquiat’s work is an insult to his legacy

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a prominent New York artist in the 1980s. Having built an identity based on his political commentary about race and money, his art work is being increasingly commercialised with disregard for his political and social context.

Basquiat is recognised as an artistic prodigy. His bold, colourful style and politically charged works captured the attention of 1980s New York, and continues to do so today. Basquiat was world famous by the age of just 20, but died at 27 from a heroin overdose.

The Barbican’s latest exhibition, Boom for Real, which opened last month, presents an incredible collection of Basquiat’s works, and attempts to demystify much of the rock-star like allure which now surrounds his identity. In both its curation of the exhibition and its response to Banksy’s two additions to the Barbican walls (murals to Basquiat), the Barbican has managed to celebrate his artistic genius and the context from which he emerged.

But what of the other interpretations of this work? In May, an untitled piece of Basquiat’s collection sold for $110 million, breaking the record of any US art work ever sold. His work — and so much of that distinct identity — has been licensed for endless commercial purposes. Beef burgers sold for $64 below his studio in New York, Valentino womenswear and high-street brands like Urban Decay, Reebok and Forever 21. His hip, cool young profile has been streamlined into mainstream consumerism with total disregard for the messages in his work.

It is clear to see that Basquiat’s work dramatically reflects his intense social commentary. The calculated incoherence and terrific graphic register still manages to display clear attacks on power structures and the historical systems of racism, and are poignantly relevant today. He emerged on the art scene as one half of the New York graffiti duo SAMO, embossing the walls of the lower East Side with slogans on race, power and money. From the age of 17, he was attacking the stark disparities of race and materialism.

The new market for his art, from sneakers to eye shadow or fast food, fails to acknowledge the racism and discrimination he faced throughout his life or the message he so clearly projects through his art.

Basquait has been cast in a romantic mold due to his premature, rock-star like death. Little does this romanticism remember the context surrounding his life. He was so often celebrated and commodified by the New York galleries of the 1980s for his black identity. But where were those luminaries when he slipped into drug addiction as a young man? The criticism he faced throughout his life slammed him for trying to incorporate messages of race into his artwork. As Fred Hoffman illustrates, when MoMA New York was offered the opportunity to choose a painting from his collection after his death, they replied that it would not even be “worth the cost of the storage.” A moral question of how the art world and society failed this young man should surely shroud these fashionable and commercial initiatives.

Basquiat’s work is laboured with the ghosts of America’s racist and unequal past. In an age of stark inequalities and continued racial discrimination, the historical and political context of such work needs to be studied and appreciated. Instead, a premature death and legacy of political commentary has manifested into a tool for mass commercialism.

Image: Renaud Camus via Flickr

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