Basquiat and the Tortured Artist

     

    Because of this, the other day, I watched “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” on Netflix. To give the reader a (very) condensed summary, the documentary describes the painter’s arc from bohemian to world-renowned artist to heroin addict. In the end, an attempt at sobriety fails, and Basquiat dies from a heroin overdose.

    It’s all very tragic. Basquiat began his career as a 17-year-old barely surviving on the streets of art-crazed 1980s Manhattan. Just a few years later, he appeared on magazine covers and at international art shows. The art establishment, however, largely rejected his work. The young and rich (but rejected) artist started using heroin, and even when he tried, he could never turn away from it. He overdosed at 27, a mere 10 years after he ran away from home to make and sell art on the streets.

    Again, I was struck by the tragedy of his life, especially when I saw his work. His paintings are remarkable. They are vibrant and emotionally complex. The colors are striking, and the figures are haunting. He sometimes inserts words into his visual work, making his pieces both poems — in a loose sense — and paintings.

    At the time, the established art movement was extremely minimalist. (Imagine a blank white canvas on a white wall.) Basquiat’s work, then, completely rejected this movement. Rather than tightly bound, Basquiat made his works wild, infusing them with an almost youthful exuberance, even when he tackled serious social or personal issues. So to see such a talented artist destroy himself at such a young age felt uncomfortable.

    What was most uncomfortable throughout the movie, though, was how predictable Basquiat’s life was. Halfway into the documentary, I had a strong hunch that Basquiat would meet an untimely death. To be fair, there is a sort of inchoate sense of tragedy surrounding his life, so it might not be a surprise that I could guess the outcome of the documentary.

    Still, though Basquiat’s life falls into an almost formulaic path:

    1. Young artist gains fame by flouting established norms.

    2. Conservative establishment rejects young artist for flouting its established norms.

    3. Young artist despairs, falls into self-destructive habits, meets tragic end.

    It’s hardly a distinctive path. In fact, some of Basquiat’s influences followed a similar one. The abstract painter Jackson Pollock fought with alcoholism and died in an alcohol-related car crash. Charlie Parker, the legendary jazz saxophonist, battled with heroin addiction. As the documentary details, Basquiat admired both of these men and knew of their struggles with substance abuse.

    Which leads to the question: If Basquiat had seen the obvious dangers of substance abuse, why would he use in the first place?

    What I think I’m getting at is that part of what led Basquiat to his tragic demise, and the untimely deaths many other artists, may have been the aesthetic of the tortured artist.

    There’s a sense in which really good artists — genius artists, generation-defining artists — are almost expected to have serious emotional trouble. The list of these tortured artists spans centuries. Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Andy Warhol all fit the prototype. More recently, both Amy Winehouse and David Foster Wallace created masterworks of art while battling their respective selves.

    The underlying assumption here, I believe, is that beautiful, profound, amazing art can only come from profound suffering. And these artists, as generally emotionally troubled individuals, had deep pools of suffering to dip into for inspiration.

    In the mind of an aspiring artist, the argument goes something like this: “Many artistic geniuses have emotional troubles. I want to be an artistic genius. I need to have emotional troubles.”

    This probably sounds awful. Frankly, it is. I don’t mean to belittle emotional troubles or to suggest they are self-created. Science has shown this to be just patently false. But I think it’s a line of reasoning that a young, impressionable artist could plausibly entertain. And, even in an entirely healthy individual, that can’t be healthy.

    Is this why Jean-Michel Basquiat began shooting heroin and why he eventually overdosed? His story (like anyone’s life story, really) is far too complex to allow itself to be broken down into obvious causes and effects. But I do think his life provides an opportunity for discussing if, by exalting the tortured artist, perhaps our culture is creating more tortured individuals.

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