The Lasting Radiance of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Before I saw Tamra Davis’s 2010 documentary “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” the most I knew about Basquiat was that he was a painter, Black, and popular in New York City. Only after recently watching the film did I realize how deep and passionate an individual Jean-Michel Basquiat was both as a person and an artist.

One thing that especially struck me about Basquiat was his willingness to put his art before all other aspects of his life. From the time his mother gave him a Gray’s Anatomy drawing book as a child, he never stopped creating. Though Basquiat may not have lived a conventional life, he always made room for art and by 18 years old, his SAMO graffiti was making a lot of noise in Lower Manhattan. Graffiti is an art form meant to draw attention — but it’s not often that graffiti is so intriguing that people are dying to know who made it.

Today, the average 18-year old is still trying to figure out what she wants to pursue in life. I’m not implying that Basqiat had his life all figured out — he didn’t, and most of the time no one really does. But he had a strong sense of what he loved to do, and it led him to a viable and what appears to have been a fulfilling path.

“Unlike many celebrities today, Basquiat used his platform to actually address present-day issues, regardless of how his white audience would receive it. He put his truth over appeasing all of his spectators.”

In “The Radiant Child,” Basquiat’s former girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, tells a story of how when the artist moved in with her, he struggled with the idea of working a full-time job. Mallouk had expected that he would contribute to their household bills, but he made it very clear that he didn’t feel he could work a 9 to 5 job. He did try to work with a friend as an electrician, but he hated it. Mallouk says in the film that Basquiat cried as he told her about the job: “I can’t do this. I really want to help you with the rent but I can’t be humiliated in this way. We [he and his friend] went to this rich Park Avenue lady’s apartment and she was treating me as a slave. I can’t do this.” Mallouk responded compassionately, and realized that for Basquiat painting their home and creating art pieces was enough of a contribution.

Normally, I would be very against someone who wants the benefits of living a comfortable life but is unwilling to take the necessary steps to get it. Through Basquiat’s story, though, I recognize that there can be another route. Basquiat knew that painting was his job and he could not disavow that truth. In today’s world, many teenagers get caught up in working traditional jobs at convenient stores and fast food restaurants so they can buy the things they want, which is fine, but it can become a problem when wanting nice things gets prioritized over creative passion, ability and opportunities for growth. Basquiat never stopped painting, and his hard work eventually put him in a position where he could make money from his art and live comfortably.

As Basquiat’s work began to reach places outside of New York City, he was faced with a number of complex obstacles. In many press interviews with journalists and critics, Basquiat was met with questions that seemed to focus on his being Black rather than the quality and innovation of his work. This documentary included a clip of an interview with an unnamed source, where a male interviewer asks: “You’re seen as some sort of… uh… primal expressionism..” Basquiat responds: “Like an ape. A primate?” The interviewer then says: “Well, I don’t know”.

“In today’s world, many teenagers get caught up in working traditional jobs at convenient stores and fast food restaurants so they can buy the things they want, which is fine, but it can become a problem when wanting nice things gets prioritized over creative passion, ability and opportunities for growth.”

"Basquiat" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia“Basquiat” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

The recent and ongoing violent acts against Black people in America today are likely no less severe and frequent than those perpetrated against Black people during the 80s — we just didn’t hear about them as much. Although after graffiti artist Michael Jerome Stewart was killed by New York City police for spray painting a subway, Basquiat took an even more glaring stance on America’s violent racism. He internalized Stewart’s death, and illustrated his concern and anger with those who condemn Black people in his paintings. Unlike many celebrities today, Basquiat used his platform to actually address present-day issues, regardless of how his white audience would receive it. He put his truth over appeasing all of his spectators.

While the 1996 film “Basquiat” made the artist out to be very cocky and demanding, “The Radiant Child” offers a portrait of a very shy and sincere artist. He put his long-term goals of being respected creative force over short-term funds, and earned a legacy that is known worldwide. Despite his battle with heroine and depression that he ultimately lost, Basquiat made his time here on earth magnificent, and his art will live on forever.

This article was originally posted on scenariosusa.org.

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