I had the opportunity of seeing Tamra Davis’ film about her rather-talented friend recently. Jean-Michel Basquiat is, and remains, one of my all-time favorites.
I’ve written about Basquiat in the past, especially in relation to his part-Haitian background, as I feel that’s an important part of understanding and appreciating his work. But Davis’ film, with its combination of interviews, old footage, music, and visual effects, added much to my appreciation. The balance between the epic and the intimate was achieved with a light, loving touch; footage of her interview with Basquiat sang and shimmered in beautiful harmony with other footage that documented his meteoric rise in the bitchy New York art world of the 1980s. I loved the way she coordinated shots of his art with his bebop (his favourite music), a technique that vividly reflected the kind of energy that so exuberantly exists in all his work. Her interviewees (including Fab Freddy, Kenny Scharf, and Tony Shafrazi, among many others) all offer a unique insight into Basquiat’s special brand of genius.
In watching Radiant Child, I was also struck by the creative possibilities extant in New York in the early 1980s; rent was cheap and art -of all styles -was everywhere. Young people wanted to explore their contributions to the cultural diaspora (though they’d argue they were just as much out for a good time and a hot meal). Cable access shows, indie radio, zines, graffiti, DIY bands… NYC was an incredible cultural stew of punk, rap, dance, and industrial. Everything’s changed since, of course, but as Radiant Child wrapped up, I couldn’t help but think of what Basquiat, a great cultural explorer, would make of the digital revolution. Reinvention, reinterpretation, cultural appropriation, intellectual piracy: what would Jean-Michel say? How would he react? How much would he take/borrow/steal in order to create? How would the ease of digital technologies influence his output? or indeed, his input, his perceptions of the world around him?
I thought about this in reading previews of Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates (University of Chicago Press), Adrian John‘s latest book. To quote the University of Chicago Press’s description, the book “ultimately argues that piracy has always stood at the center of our attempts to reconcile creativity and commerce—and that piracy has been an engine of social, technological, and intellectual innovations as often as it has been their adversary.”
The term “piracy” with its pseudo-romantic (if seriously flawed) notions, can be just as potently ascribed to the world of visual art as to other cultural artforms. Think of the Emergency Broadcast Network, who made video work patched together from a sea of other, seemingly-unrelated clips. In Radiant Child, Davis draw clear lines between Basquiat and his influences -literally, by showing the original inspiration (say, something by Picasso) and Basquiat’s interpretation. How would he respond to the copyright claims brought about via the digital revolution?
It’s a question worth pondering as one considers the genius on display on Davis’ work, and the various threads used to weave beauty in any age. Artists are cannibals, it’s true, and often the best creations are in fact re-creations. It’s the individual artist -mixmaster, curator, interpreter -who takes the clay forms of the past and moulds them into something meaningful -for themselves and others -in the present. When it come to the greatness that touches some artists like Basquiat, they created, re-created, and inspired for their time, and forever, and their works live on, on the canvas, and online. Radiant indeed.