How Jean-Michel Basquiat Keeps Getting Short-Changed

Jean-Michel Basquiat Legacy

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fake Art

On February 12, 2022, the Orlando Museum of Art opened their Exhibition, Heros & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection, to a large and excited audience, as the museum reportedly saw a 500% increase in attendance for the event. 

As the story goes, the works, all painted on cardboard and said to have been produced around 1982, in the early days of Basquiat’s rise as a prime gallery player, were never shown publicly before, having been bought for $5000 only to be tucked away in a later abandoned storage unit. The contents of this storage unit were eventually auctioned off and the new owners seemed to have struck gold, buying for pennies on the dollar 25 Basquiat works valued at over $200 million. 

The paintings were authenticated prior to the Orlando Museum of Art’s exhibition, however, since their release into the public domain, there has been a shroud of suspicion surrounding their authenticity. The primary Red Flag which fuelled much of the skepticism centers on a FedEx shipping font found on one of the pieces of cardboard which hadn’t been used before 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death. In response to the controversy, and to an FBI investigation into the alleged fraud, the museum will prematurely bring the show to a close at the end of June 2022.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Beginnings

The first time I was introduced to the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat was through a newfound fascination with Andy Warhol and the 1996 film Basquiat.

The film painted the picture of a grungy but charismatic and opportunistic artist from the streets making it in the New York art world in the 1980s. The film also portrays the friendship and collaboration that Basquiat and Warhol develop and eventually shows Basquiat meeting his tragic end in isolation and disillusionment following the death of Warhol in 1987. Less than one year after Warhol’s passing, at the young age of 27 Basquiat, a millionaire at the time died from a heroin overdose.

Jean Michel Basquiat
Photo by Lthomas2. Grave of Jean-Michel Basquiat at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. 2015.

It is true that during Basquiat’s short lifetime very few African American artists had managed to gain much success or notoriety in the arts. The film even makes ironic mention of Basquiat being the ‘Eddie Murphy’ of the Art World, signifying a kind of token role of a ‘black artist’ masking the blatant and racist exclusion that was pervasive before and still during Basquiat’s professional career. 

Basquiat always seemed to be painfully aware of the double standard placed on him as an outsider and as a ‘black artist’, rather than simply an ‘artist’. But although Jean-Michel’s work was paraded for its urban, yet novel edginess, many biographies of Basquiat seem compelled to qualify Basquiat’s success in the art world with a narrative of how he learned his techniques, including the re-telling of how he was hospitalized as a child, given a book of Gray’s Anatomy, and somehow became a genius artist in the rough who liked to draw skulls. 

So How Does Jean-Michel Basquiat keep getting short-changed?

  1. Through Condescending Labels

With labels such as Street Art, Graffiti Art, or Outsider Art, Basquiat seemed to be an exception, not only in his inclusion in the art world but throughout his early life. Though soft-spoken, his anti-authoritative antics got him kicked out of school and out of his father’s home at the age of 17. Well educated with a middle-class upbringing, Basquiat found himself on the streets of New York with an ax to grind, and city walls, especially those near art galleries and the School of Visual Art, served as his ax. 

Far from typical self-promoting styles of vandalism, under the pseudonym SAMO (short for same old sh*t), Basquiat moonlighted as a notorious graffiti artist who used words and subversive, tongue-in-cheek texts against advertisement, pop culture, and big money. 

And although his provocative style raised his Lower Manhattan Profile, and even as he later repurposed his curious texts onto his canvases, he couldn’t seem to shake the label of ‘graffiti artist’ or ‘street artist. While these titles may highlight the visual qualities of Basquiat’s work which made him stand out on pristine gallery walls, they also erroneously tagged Basquiat as an uneducated outsider to the art scene.

2. By Describing his work as ‘Child-like’

Words like crude, raw, and child-like (as opposed to refined, delicate, painterly) are often used to describe Jean-Michel Basquiat’s visual style. However, these descriptions can reinforce ideas about limitations and restrictions concerning his work. 

Are the works of Basquiat not refined, not delicate, not painterly? Is there something about his style that speaks to his intentions? 

One of my favorite scenes in the film ‘Basquiat’ is when Christopher Walken plays the role of an interviewer asking Jean-Michel why people in his works are so crudely drawn. Basquiat’s answer in the film, “ Most people tend to be generally pretty crude. I really don’t know that many refined people.”

While some fixate on the surface of Basquiat’s style, his eclectic visual language incorporates powerful symbols that speak to a glossed-over history of notable Black Americans and their lack of recognition. He would crown his crude figures to challenge and raise their perceived status. He would place a copyright symbol on seemingly random words and images in his work to challenge ownership and authorship. Skulls and Masks would harken back to Basquiat’s Haitian roots, and text dominated his compositions, referencing a vast encyclopedia of influences while mirroring other societal hypocrisies. 

3. By Continuously Getting Knocked Off from Copy Cats

There are artists who become defining characters in a larger art movement, think Warhol and POP Art or Dali and Surrealism. But then there are artists who Occupy their own movement, where their unique visual language and immediate impact on the art world becomes the start of a new era, and the style itself becomes synonymous with a single artist.

While Jean-Michel Basquiat belongs to the elusive and exclusive latter group, and though ‘they’ say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, with time Basquiat’s legacy has often been reduced to its own caricature representation.

Postcards he originally sold on street corners for a meager sum have exploded in value.

A quick search on Ebay will reveal a plethora of supposed ‘originals’. Buyer beware.

But if dishing out thousands on a postcard that could likely be a knock-off is not your cup of tea, you could opt for a new Basquiat ‘Inspired’ postcard instead. There is apparently no shortage of artists willing and able to offer their own Basquiat-styled interpretation.

But if these renditions still leave you unfulfilled, and if you don’t have 10’S or 100’s of millions of dollars to get your Basquiat On, you may have a go at it yourself, in 7-Easy-Steps no less.

The Real Worth of Jean-Michel Basquiat

One major problem we have when considering Basquiat’s body of work is that we only have a thin slice of his development. Although we’ve been blessed by his prolific output in the decade of his rise, fame, and death, we were robbed essentially in his passing by the work of his future self. How would Basquiat’s style progress with time? How would he have reacted to the changes in society, in New York, in the art world? These open-ended questions leave art enthusiasts only hungry for more. 

Even mainstream consumerism had to get a piece of Basquiat. Even the Gap, a famous jeans and clothing company, recently came out with its own Basquiat line of fashion.

Reducing Basquiat to a style is to reduce him to a Meme, but style aside, what makes Basquiat’s work so special and so valuable? 

It is possible that at the time of his fame and success, Basquiat was the art world’s introduction to Black America and at the same time, his embrace from the art world became its penitence for its long history of black exclusion. While Jean-Michel Basquiat himself never wanted to be seen ‘only’ as a black artist, his role, though flawed, represents an over-due opening of arms and doors to all marginalized artists.

If you ever stood in front of an original you would know and feel the authenticity and power of his work. You may marvel at the originality of the strokes, you may contemplate and try to decode the text, and you may even get lost in the composition. But what if his work wasn’t real?

When the authenticity of works like those 25 in the Orlando Museum of Art, now under a dark cloud of potential fake-newsery, becomes questioned, does it discount the experiences of the record number of viewers who attended the show? Do his original paintings increase in value for being original or decrease in value for apparently being so easily reproduced? Having not seen the show myself, I cannot comment if the works on display radiated as brilliantly as other works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but his legacy continues to shine nonetheless.

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