Basquiat as Folk Hero: 'Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child'

For the masses of men who live in not-so-quiet desperation, Basquiat’s fame was as ephemeral as his graffiti.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child

Director: Tamra Davis
Cast: Jean Michel Basquiat
Distributor: New Video
Rated: NR
Release date: 2010-11-09

The irony of Basquiat’s decisively short and explosive career is almost as thick as the dense noise he garnered in the band Gray, his first public outing as a ragtag, bohemian, barely still teenage New York wunderkind. I can walk five-minutes to the Menil Museum, a premier artworld destination dedicated to Surrealism and ancient African remnants, and spend elongated moments viewing his work, which seems to freeze-frame spasms of painterly intelligence, but I also am disappointed that not a single community college student I have taught in 15 years can name him. When prodded to identify a black poet, a few can muster up Langston Hughes, whose poem “The Radiant Child” profoundly frames the opening and closing sequences of the film. Also related to the baby motif used in the street art of Keith Haring, that metaphor was used in Rene Ricard’s profile of Basquiat in a winter 1981 Artforum article that helped pave the way for Basquiat’s hard-sought fame. Eerily, the same piece presciently warned of trouble en route, as well.

In this sometimes stupefying America where grown men memorize statistics about other grown men who play with balls under blaring stadium lights for millions of dollars, few men at all, black or white, know Basquiat’s work. For the masses of men who live in not-so-quiet desperation, Basquiat’s fame was as ephemeral as his graffiti. His SAMO tags were seemingly omnipresent in New York at the end of the creepy “Me Generation”. They even become the focus of a Village Voice article in 1978. Ricard likens such scripts to “the inherent pathos of the archeological site, the cry down the endless track of time that ‘I am somebody.’” They were a self-witnessing mode, as well: I am Basquiat, with the panoptic eye. They also posed as a kind of modern poetry-meets-DIY media outlet, an intrusion into the public sphere, where Basquiat could hide in the light, as cultural studies theorist Dick Hebdige once dubbed the ethos of aerosol street art.

Ricard describes this graffiti era aptly as “dyslexic development” by a second generation who were “capitalizing on territory pioneered by lost innovators” who did not get the blue-chip attention that quickly swarmed Basquiat. Indeed, Ricard forewarns, “We are no longer collecting art we are buying individuals.” Touché. When Basquiat later melded his work with Andy Warhol (who once bought small homemade art cards from pushy Basquiat at a restaurant), the radiant child was suddenly imagined as a deluded, willing accomplice to a hack. The godfather of pop might have been titular in Basquiat’s eyes, but the art world saw Warhol as a convenient straw dog – an easy target. Whereas as Basquiat’s paintings were voraciously scooped up during his first one-man shows, the film breathlessly notes, his show with Warhol was a disaster, financially and personally. He never saw Warhol again, and he was seemingly all the worse for it. He descended into his own private hell.

The film offers some rare footage -- left in a drawer, unseen and untouched for 20 years – shot by the amiable director Tamra Davis, who befriended Basquiat in California. In these offhand and loose Betacam style moments, he feels less self-conscious, hesitant, aloof, coy, and elliptical, especially in contrast to the news and interview archives that capture terribly awkward reporters fumbling through questions that shed more light on their own ambivalence towards black artists, who always somehow become mouthpieces for primitivism, than offer insight into the tactics, intuition, work ethics, and overall cosmos of Basquiat.

Davis builds up a pixilated portrait of Basquiat from several angles: haughty collectors harbor visions of him as strong as their appetites; so-called dear friends recall how they turned paintings given to them by Basquiat as gifts into cash lumps when the going got rough; fellow mavericks like Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and painter turned film director Julian Schnabel offer close-to-the-ground insight about the lower Manhattan nexus, where noise bands, outsider art agitators, and frenzied intellectualism percolated. Hence, Davis draws viewers closer to the context of his paintings. Viewers sense not only the speed of his execution and delivery (sometimes he produced work in mere hours that looks as layered and nuanced as a finessed Cy Twombly painting), they engage the range of his interests, too.

Basquiat tirelessly churned out 1,000 paintings, and another 1,000 drawings, often with two TVs blaring, cash dropped like candy-wrappers around the apartment, and non-stop visitors worming their way through his life. Like Hughes, Basquiat was no simpleton, either. His work focused firmly on social and ethnic justice, the reclamation of a proud and distinct African culture, and cohering the scattered bitmaps of tumultuous pop culture. He offered homages to finely etched anatomical drawings, soul-stirring be-bop, and apex art of all periods, like Picasso, whose Guernica made an indelible impression on him at a tender age. His work was a resplendent product of diligence, almost bar none. His ambition alone could fill trucks, and yes, he did covet fame, from magazine centerpieces to catwalk exposure to Madonna’s kisses, but he also coveted time. Time to work, work, work.

People continue to ply the life and times of Basquiat because he has become mythic. Professor Daniel Wojcik once penned a wonderfully canny and lucid overview titled “Pre’s Rock: Pilgrimage, Ritual, and Runners’ Traditions at the Roadside Shrine for Steve Prefontaine,” (Shrines and Pilgrimage in Contemporary Society: New Itineraries into the Sacred, 2008), which re-imagines the mustached icon of Nike as an outsider runner-cum-folk hero. Basquiat is equally parts folk hero, as well. Don’t doubt me here. In fact, run with me.

Both Prefontaine and Basquiat were wily, tough, and ambitious. Prefontaine was a gawky runner who endured and pushed through pain. Basquiat was by no means a learned painter, he was a self-styled autodidactic, equally tempered, who pushed through boundaries and conventions, enduring his own pain. Both were the sons of immigrants. Prefontaine's mother was a German war bride, Basquiat’s Haitian father’s love eluded him even as his son became one of the saviors of the art world. Each man engendered energetic fans that still flock to their heroes, drawn into a cult of personality profoundly shaped by the perceived charisma, magnetism, and rebelliousness of the folk heroes. Each was an underdog who challenged assumptions, authorities, and agencies of their cultures, from Manhattan magazine and gallery gatekeepers to track and field bureaucracies. Nike wholeheartedly broadcasts Prefontaine as mythic, with no end in sight, and in turn the runner’s myth has been shaped by two film biographies. Iconoclast art bad boy Julian Schnabel gave Basquiat a belated ode in 1996, a full-color romp through cinema featuring David Bowie and Willem Dafoe, and documentaries such as this carve his myth more permanently each year.

Both figures rose up from the pedestrian and workaday worlds of common people; each embodied a special, coveted kind of fluency and power in their fields, seemingly unmatched even today. Each lived wholeheartedly, boisterously, with gusto and panache. Each dared to push and shove when needed but were also known to be earnest as well. Each seemed almost martyr-like, willing to suffer for their art, let alone endure the weird media blitzes and the difficult navigation of friends, cohorts, and fans in a suddenly changed world. Both died far too young. They were extinguished quickly, mysteriously, and as unsettlingly as a candle snuffed by a bruised, bare finger, quick as a Polaroid sprung onto the world or a baby’s contagious cry.

Fans of both continue to construct meanings from their deaths, re-affirm the ethos and genius of their heroes, and flock to their residual materiality. In the case of Basquiat, the paintings and drawings call us back, again and again. The site of Prefontaine’s death in the wooded hills overlooking Eugene, Oregon, provides solace and sanctity. Such journeys become a kind of pilgrimage, a way to observe and pay homage, a way to experience the last physical traces of such heroes. At the rocky outcrop where Prefontaine’s car overturned, he lingers, invisibly. Meanwhile, paint-smeared canvases house the imprint of America’s radiant black child, a friend to Blondie, Fab 5 Freddy, and us, as well. Still, we must listen to Basquiat’s lessons, rendered visible by the lesions on his face. The moonscape of such loss and confusion can be seen in Davis’ “lost” video footage, which truly narrates a tragedy about the hyper-mediated age. Inside the devouring belly of this culture, people are disposable commodities, eager to burn hard, and destined to crash even harder.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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