Jean-Michel Basquiat: A misunderstood icon.

Updated: Jul 14, 2020

Today I am writing about Jean-Michel Basquiat, an African American artist from New York. From what I know and understand about Basquiat, he was clearly a highly intelligent and aware human being. He knew that he wanted to be famous and he knew how to make that happen. He is perceived as a graffiti artist and is associated alongside the Downtown New York underground art scene, yet he's nothing like them. Basquiat is not an artist who can be compared to anyone. He created a new understanding and passion in the art world. Yes, he may have painted on walls in New York and took part in the druggy club scene but still, he shines brighter and cannot be contained within any movement. Basquiat was not only an icon in the art world, but he also used his work to reveal the presence of black inequality in society. This is relevant to what is happening today with Black Lives Matter. This movement is increasingly gaining popularity and is a massive humanitarian issue which is finally getting global acknowledgement. Basquiat was one of the most interesting individuals and his life was well outside societies understanding of 'normal'.

His short career ended with his tragic death at 27 due to a drug overdose. Yet this does not shorten his legacy or devalue his works. He was an artist who reinvented and saved Modernism. He solely developed a new approach and passion in art, as the predominantly 'white room, white wine and white people' art market was losing a sense of new and exciting. After reading about his life and trying to get my head around a man who was like no other, I started to find some common misinterpretations of what I believe his art truly represented. In my eyes, Basquiat is one of the world's greatest painters and that's not because of his ability to construct a 'realistic' impression of something, but rather his ability to do quite the opposite. He had this sense of 'anti-style'. I watched a documentary on his emergence into fame called 'Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat', where all the interviewees had direct experiences in the presence of Basquiat himself. His approach to art is described as urgent and what makes him stand out is this lack of perfection in which he allows when he paints. Basquiat 'lets art be itself...[he is] not held back by anything'.

Basquiat, in my opinion, is misunderstood for a number of reasons such as his stylistic methods, his education and his genre. Now, I want you to take the term genre loosely as I do not believe that Basquiat's art can formally fit into an art historical style. What made him so interesting is his combination of art forms: poetry, music, words, symbols, figures and mediums. The use of mixed media is personal to him and he uses it in a way which he deems to be fitting. For example, in his artwork called "Santo versus, Second Avenue", 1982, he has used three different mediums (acrylic, crayon, canvas and paper).

This image has little information about it so it is, as is all art, up for interpretation. The multi-media aspect of this work seems to link into a movement which was gaining momentum during the 70s. An organisation called Collaboration Projects inc. was a new platform in which downtown artists could create their own 'art world'. In 1979 they took over an abandoned building and transformed it into an exhibition, which questioned the homelessness in New York when there were so many empty buildings. The revision of colliding materials created something exciting. It displays different techniques and shows passion and expression.

Another misinformed aspect of Basquiat's career was his style. Basquiat is constantly referred to as a 'Graffiti Artist', but why? In an interview, Basquiat himself states that "They're just racist, most of these people [referencing members of the art world and critics]...And they talk about graffiti endlessly, which I don't really consider myself to be a graffiti artist you know?" The underground graffiti movement in New York is consistently associated with crime and violence when it was nothing of the sort. The graffiti movement in the 70s was a way of visually portraying the current societal issues and extent of poverty in which New York was going through. He may have taken part in the graffiti movement but he was not a graffiti artist. Rather he was using the disserted buildings of New York as his canvas until he could afford one.

The 70s was an era of expression and creativity. The Hip hop movement emerged towards the end of the decade and the club and music scene gained massive popularity. This stimulated the use of heroin and cocaine. Another cause for the increase in drug use was nothing more than blindness. The blindness of the state to assist areas of poverty, yet instead places like Club 57 and Mudd Club became 'igloos where people went and destroyed their lives', according to artist Al Diaz. Basquiat was part of this, as were many young people, as it was a form of escapism. What this did was put a label over Basquiat's head as someone who was 'untrained' and 'constantly high'. These labels attempt to devalue a man who was way more than a drug addict. He was educated and he knew exactly what he was doing.

Basquiat, as a black artist, stood more or less alone in a white art market. His painting "Irony of the Negro Policeman" displays the harsh reality of African Americans and police brutality, which is an extremely poignant image in relation to the tragic death of George Floyd on the 25th May 2020. The irony lies in his conscious effort to show how African Americans are controlled by a white state. The uniform he wears is the very uniform which links to the oppression of black people and the injustice that they face. Basquiat was painting images of how Afro-Americans had been portrayed in society but at the same time, he was being exploited by a white-dominated Art Market.

His education is also questioned, and in many interviews, he's was asked if he's an only child and if he had a hard life. He had two sisters and his parents were together. He went to school and dropped out at 16, not because he was 'bad' but because he was disinterested. The assumptions made by interviewers are a by-product of systemic racism which has been experienced, and is still experienced, by ethnic minorities. He had spent the majority of his childhood in art galleries and was well aware and well-read on the anatomical studies, such as grey's anatomy, as well as on languages and art history in general. The idea that he was 'untrained' is formally correct but I do not agree. He may not have attended art school but he was nothing short of educated on the history of art and greatly admired masters such as Picasso and Rauschenberg. He took what he knew in history and innovated it.

Primitivism was the use of African culture in Western art. It was completely misunderstood and misused as white artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Gaugin would take African heritage and incorporate it into their works. Thus, wrongly putting the numerous cultures within the continent of Africa under an umbrella, uniting them as one sole culture. Primitivism misinforms us on this and is merely another example of the exploitation of 'African' culture for the benefit of stylistic diversity in the works of Western artists. In the catalogue 'Basquiat', edited by Marc Mayer, there is a quote:"Appropriation was to Modernism what Pop Art was to popular culture."

What you need to understand about Basquiat is that he was aware of all of this. He wanted his work to re-invent the reputation of primitivism and make it new and relevant. As an African-American from Brooklyn New York, he was very aware of his blackness and was passionate about black culture; mainly music. Charlie Parker was one of his favourite Jazz musicians and it is clear that his interest in music runs through his art as he includes lyrics and poetry on his artworks.

The words in his artworks were misspelt and childlike and some critics considered it to be lazy and ugly but it's all deliberate. The deliberate misspelling of words draws one's attention to them. The childlikeness of his work seemed to be his signature and rather than seeing it as his lack of talent its a self-conscious understanding of rejecting perfection and creating urgency. Basquiat said in an interview that when he works "[he doesn't] think about art while [he's] working. [He tries] to think about life."

So, what should we take from this individual character, who became one of the biggest names in the art world at the age of 23? He was self-consciously developing a style which differed from anything the art market had seen before. Basquiat knew that he wanted to be famous and he knew where and when to show his face. There is nothing untalented about him. His work is one of the most thought out things I have ever seen. And he will always remain up there with the big names of artists in the 20th century, even though his career ended too soon.

Links below will be to places where you can donate to Black Lives Matter and sign petitions. This should not be a trend this is a civil rights movement and remember to educate yourself and support as much as you can.

Recommended reading:

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge

Me and White Supremacy - Layla F Saad

White Fragility- Robin Diangelo

Girl, Woman, Other -Bernardine Evaristo

Flash of The Spirit - Robert Farris Thompson


Finimpact's post on how you can support and help black-owned small businesses (

The UK Government Must Condemn Trump’s Response to George Floyd’s Murder #speakupBoris (

Anti-Racism Education to be Compulsory in U​K Schools (

Teach British Children About the Realities of British Imperialism and Colonialism (

Battle Racism by Updating GCSE Reading Lists (

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