by John Linton Roberson
The 1980s were the final death knell of "gallery" visual art. Thanks to lots of freely-flowing cash and yuppies & businessmen with walls to decorate, art prices jumped ludicrously, a Van Gogh commanding millions, sometimes into the billions. The critic Robert Hughes decried this as a way art was being removed from the public, not only increasing its cultural irrelevance but making it exclusively for the wealthy, which has since had nasty consequences for younger artists, in that they go into other venues. "Museum" art, if it ever had any true ties to the world we live in, has died completely now. Is that good?What helped destroy contemporary art was a trickling down of this to younger artists. In fairness, the fact that younger artists in New York, and elsewhere, were being accepted more quickly and finally making far more than a living--the "starving artist" idea is a horrible one, true--and that the only people they were fleecing were yuppies--these aren't bad things. But far too many, such as Jeff Koons, distilled the Warhol sentiments of art as commodity down to the con. When you look at a Jeff Koons, a kitch item not even made by him, you're being dared to make him stop. He mocks you, saying, "For all your pretensions to culture, this is what you really like--isn't there more of this than anything else?" The oily tricks of the salesman turned into art, or vice-versa. Then there were the truly bad artists who elevated the mere fact they'd done the stuff into comparisons between such people as Giotto--or Van gogh, most importantly.
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Van Gogh was ignored and driven to madness and suicide during his lifetime, so the grossly inflated prices put on the work in the modern day are almost karmic justice. And those with the bucks to buy the art were now told, how if you'd been on the ground floor of that?
The film begins with overt mention of that--"The Myth of Van Gogh's Ear," it's called, by Rene Ricard, an early supporter of Basquiat and about the only character close to the reality in it. He wrote of the idea that you never know if you're looking at another Van Gogh, and you don't want to be remembered as one of the ones who ignored it. Two artists most notably, and successfully, played on this insecurity--the director and subject of this movie, matter of fact. Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Basquiat's art was noted for its "primitivism." He himself initially marketed it as "bad art." The racism of the rich white yuppies who bought his paintings, thanks to the massive hype surrounding him, before they were even dry was fully taken advantage of, as the buyer was encouraged to think of themselves as investing in a "noble savage." Basquiat himself was anything but, his mother having become rich from a very successful hair-straightening product(a fact not once mentioned in the film). Basquiat lived awhile homeless, in a box, this is true, but this was much the same thing as suburban kids coming here to Berkeley, dressed in their weekend punk clothes, asking for change on the sidewalk of Telegraph Avenue. Basquiat also was a rather severe junkie(by the last 6 months of his life he was doing a hundred bags of heroin a day), a fact not once overtly mentioned(but very confusingly hinted at) in the film either. But then, this film has almost no facts about Basquiat.(to get some, check out Phoebe Hoban's recent and excellent RASQUIAT: A KILLING IN ART)
Julian Schnabel himself having been part of the scam, I find it both bizarre and informative that this was his film, because though you never see any ugly info about Basquiat's heroin addiction(which eventually claimed his life at 26; hardly an insignificant fact). he's quite bald-faced about the confidence tricksterism of his and Basquiat's sort of art, that the art could be really lousy but was still important because, simply, as is put in the film by a dealer played with a hilariously bad European accent by Dennis Hopper, it costs a lot. "Its value is in how much you can get for it." (He says this in a scene, by the way, which also never occurred.)
Now once it gets to that point, art has no right to exist. But Schnabel approaches this as a wonderful thing, without the slightest sense of humor or trace of irony. What you have here is a clumsy attempt to romanticize a scam, and incidentally the murder of art and auctioning of its guts and heart.
But not to tell the actual story of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who could be an utter shit--not really pointed out. But Schnabel barely knew him, as the excellent Jeffrey Wright(who plays Basquiat and well)has pointed out.
Sometimes it's quite funny unintentionally, particularly Bowie's incredibly bitchy sendup of Warhol, all whining and mincing; as Bowie really knew Warhol one can take this as possibly an accurate portrait.
What we really have here is both a telling story of the scam which unwittingly exposes its most revolting aspects, and a look into the banal, cliche-packed, shallow head of Juilan Schnabel.As it's the only film about this perversely interesting subject, watch it once. You could watch this movie to get pissed off at him and the rest of his charlatan kind once more, or you could do the proper thing and ignore it altogether. Without fame, he withers away.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=613&reviewer=151
originally posted: 09/05/99 16:17:38