Masterpieces of Western Art, a many-authored survey of its titular subject published by Taschen, has the following mini-bio of Jean-Michel Basquiat in its back pages:
1960 New York – 1988 New York
Basquiat was born in New York as the son of a Haitian book-keeper and a Puerto-Rican mother. After a difficult childhood he began at the age of 17, togther with Al Diaz, to paint graffiti in underground stations and on house-fronts under the assumed name of Samo. He did casual work and played the guitar and synthesizer in a band. The art market soon discovered Basquiat; by taking part in the documents at Kassel in 1982 and the Whitney Biennale in New York in 1983, he became a media star. He made friends with Warhol. They painted portraits of each other and designed a number of works together. Basquiat introduced the graffiti art form to the world without disowning his Brooklyn ghetto origins. He constructed assemblages from waste objects; materials used as surface could range from a torn bit of paper to a fridge door. He died from a drug overdose.
You will not learn a single fact more about Basquiat by watching Julian Schnabel’s biographical film; nor will you gain any insight into what drove and motivated his art. Although you will see many of his works, they remain on the outskirts of both the film and the world of the film: “We're no longer collecting art. We’re buying people,” as says one of the characters.
Keeping with that, what Basquiat becomes is the selling of one artist (Jean-Michel Basquiat) by another (Julian Schnabel). But, because Schnabel is also an artist (his art appears in the film, painted by a silver screen alter-ego played by Gary Oldman) and, especially, because Schnabel knew Basquiat, the sales pitch is more convincing than in most other artist bio-pics.
Instead of constructing a film that is an excuse to educate the viewer by way of throwing an easy-to-digest fact at him or her every five-to-ten minutes, Schnabel focuses on the details that add up to make up a person. Instead of the “he was born in New York in 1960…” approach, he gives us: “he had this funny little habit of…”
Although Basquiat plays out much like the traditional “rise-and-fall of the big shot” story, there’s an important difference: Basquiat doesn’t change. He doesn’t become arrogant, aloof, or change his outlook on life when suddenly famous. He makes paintings with his food when he’s poor as well as when he’s rich; he paints over his girlfriend’s paintings as well as Andy Warhol’s; and the drugs that kill him are part of his life right from the beginning. It’s the art scene — the film’s villain — that squeezes him to death, not a flaw that he develops due to fame and riches.
Schnabel paints an acidic portrait of the NYC art kingdom in the eighties, a time when Andy Warhol (played by David Bowie) was king, and when everyone was beginning to “discover” art produced by visible minority artists. The film’s cast of characters ranges from affable weirdos to vile, non-artist back-stabbers, and doesn’t shy away from insinuating that most in both groups are superficial, attention-hungry, selfish, and racist. Fame, connections, and money make up the holy trinity, and talent isn’t a sure means of achieving any of the three.
“Is it still art,” Schnabel seems to ask, “if it doesn’t sell?”
“Is he still an artist if he doesn’t want to sell it?”
In the first shots of the film, Basquiat emerges from the cardboard box he’s taken to sleeping in. By the end of the film, he’s been thoroughly boxed in by the art world – caught amongst people who are as much unlike him as he is his middle-class, junior accountant father.