There’s a kind of serendipity to an instrumental version of Rihanna’s “Work” playing as the viewer waits for the Basquiat program to load. Within days of Rihanna (icon and role model for many 21st century queer boys of color) dropping the track a week ago, young queer male fans had all but flooded Vine with ass-shaking performances set to it. They were flaunting queerness in ways unapologetically flaming, playful, sexual, and specific. Basquiat’s queerness, by contrast, when spoken of at all, is usually in broad strokes and academic vernacular, stripped of sex and sexuality. A kind of masking, or at least elision, occurs under the guise of unflinching intellectual examination.
There’s a weird way in which even critics who are pushing the envelope of thought and analysis (or claiming to do so) turn squeamish or disingenuous when speaking of Basquiat’s queerness. They make it clear they’re not talking about same-sex attraction and acting on it, but a more esoteric, existential quality of otherness. That’s important, of course, because Basquiat’s queerness isn’t just about sex or sexuality; it’s potent because it’s so multi-layered. But at the same time, as Phoebe Hoban outlines in her book Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, the artist’s life was practically a cliché-ridden queer narrative: beaten by his very religious mother when he was a young boy because she was afraid he might be or turn gay; tossed out of his home by his father after being caught in a sexual act with a male cousin; turning tricks with men to support himself after running away from home as a teenager; an affair with Klaus Kinski. All of that is important not for prurient reasons, but to get a more fleshed out, nuanced perspective on the psychology, perspective and politics of a man celebrated for wading into the choppy waters of cultural production and identity, a man applauded for raising questions about historical and social factors of bigotry, oppression and resistance that go into shaping identity.
The panel of thinkers and artists recently assembled to speak at the Schomburg Center in Harlem bypasses all of that (a couple of the panelists actually don’t seem all that well versed in Basquiat’s life – or even work – at all,) and the omission is glaring and telling. Instead, some panelists speak at length in the familiar language of the professional speaker, referencing their own lives and experiences more than is truly interesting or illuminating. But Kimberly Drew and Dr. Jordana Saggese are fantastic, making clear just how and why Basquiat merits serious consideration in conversations about art, history, and the future as Black History Month kicks off.
Drew wonders what Basquiat would have been and done if he were an internet kid, given his facility with massive amounts of information across the spectrum of interests, and the way he wielded it in his work. She also poignantly queries what it means to go viral and have no agency (as is the case with countless black kids whose Vines and memes travel the internet while they rename nameless and stripped of context.) Dr. Brewster’s compelling, substantive insights historicize and contextualize Basquiat in such a way to really grapple with the importance and influence of his work and legacy. After watching her, you may well want to dash over to Amazon to buy her recently published book Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art. Check it all out below.
Cover image: Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984. Photograph by Lee Jaffe. Courtesy of LW Archives