Art in the Movie Basquiat
Walter Benjamin projected the future of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, providing the basis of aesthetic evaluation for photography, film, digital and reproducible art. In the film Basquiat, directed by Julian Schnabel and starring Jeffrey Wright, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, and David Bowie as Andy Warhol, the art world is explored in the midst of defining itself in light of the changes brought about by the technology of the twentieth century.
Benjamin stressed the Marxist democratization of art through digital reproduction, a media which allows for de-emphasizing the original work of art. Throughout the history of arts, particularly visual arts, ...view middle of the document...
In one of the opening scenes, Ricard is seen writing on a park bench, describing the “Van Gogh boat,” where we are enchanted by the idea of “the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret.” Ricard declares, “In this town one is at the mercy of the recognition factor. One’s public appearance is absolute.” As we see his personality unfold, Basquiat encounters Andy Warhol and his dealer Bruno Bischofberger (played by Dennis Hopper) at lunch and offers to sell several of his paintings. Bruno tells Jean of painting, “It doesn’t matter how much you worked on them. It matters how much you can get for them.” After a whirlwind of recognition and apparently instant success, Jean sells the painting “Rene 5:11” to Bischofberger, enraging Ricard, who bursts into a dinner scene and scornfully states “We are no longer collecting art, we’re buying people.”
Basquiat is propelled further into the 80s spotlight, dating Madonna, producing and recording several rap albums, and celebrated as the golden child of the art world. In a poignant scene where Christopher Walken plays an interviewer, Basquiat denies the labels he’s beset with, responding to being called a “primal expressionist” with “You mean like a primate?” Later, when asked about being a black painter, he says, “Oh I use a lot of colors - not only black.” Throughout the film, critics, buyers, fellow artists, gallery owners, dealers, and personal friends of the artists continue to try to define and contain Basquiat’s work and personality into a gimmicky label or ploy for celebrity. Eventually he self-destructs, collapsing under the racial, social, and artistic pressure into exhaustion and a drug overdose. Close to his death, his art boomed in value as members of the art world anticipated suicide and a renewed interest in posthumously-sold work.
Basquiat’s artistic career is shown parallel with his friendship with Benny, played by Benicio del Toro, who picks him up from a street corner after learning Andy Warhol died. Benny nags Jean about band practices, negates the importance of the art world, and speaks reason and common sense about Jean’s life, saying his fame or international reputation means nothing if he doesn’t feel like himself and enjoy what he’s doing. In the beginning of the film, Jean collaborates with Benny to create a series of short films and performance pieces, which we catch glimpses of. At one point Jean describes a looped film of a man running down a street as a “moving painting” and alludes to the promise of film as an artistic medium accessible to anyone with a camera and editing equipment.
Benjamin described the “aura” attached to work that we know has been in physical contact with the artist. We envision a painter leaning his head against a canvas in frustration, his sweat mixing with the pigments that dry with his breath. At a microscopic level, flakes of skin and mucous probably come in contact with the paint and remain in the texture and surface of the canvas. No...