The Rape of Basquiat
Eventually, they take what they want.
Fame is a devil's pact.
In life, we couldn't keep him alive; in death, we turned him into a Funko Pop.
He's all brand now. All merch. Can you find me the people that did this?
Each of us is blessed with different magic.
Some of us can create out of thin air. Others are good at transformations.
Somewhere down that list is the magic that turns talent into money. Blessed with the decree of IP, these accountant-magicians have strip-mined dead Basquiat for his cultural kudos; every little ounce of afro and New York.
I would love to meet them!
Cause you can buy a Basquiat wristwatch now, a bedside lamp... and yeah, his masterpieces still get the numbers —
— but Basquiat also believed that when he painted, he was imbuing the work with mystical power, supernatural energy.
And so in his honour we have also inscribed his work on items sacred to our culture: phone cases, and doormats.
We've printed crowns on teenagers' jackets, sure they will be scuffed and vomited over; rugs too, so City of Angels can grace the floor the dog shits on.
The awkward pieces — Defacement, say, about the police killing of a black youth — well, don't worry about those, they don't make the cut. Blanding is a necessary part of democratising his work; you have to buff the edges a little, get rid of anything with too much opinion.
Because to demystify art, to make it easy, for everyone, we made it product-like. Instead of truth that's elusive, given people bullshit that's just highly available. Package punk as something dependable, like a Ramones t-shirt.
So let me meet the people that did this, so I can marvel at their incompetence first-hand. I want to feel their cold banality in person, let their try-hard lack of wisdom wash over me. The scale of their acquisitive greed, the scattershot, lowest-common denominator choice of partners.... If they were managing a brand that was close to me, I would fire them, laughing the whole while. That they possess a piece of our shared cultural heritage is an insult.
Some of us only have the magic of want.
Andy Warhol said: Business is the best art.
And it's hilarious that he won. I love that we did that to Basquiat; it means that money always conquers, commerce has no soul and Basquiat's worry about being a black artist instead of artist or whatever is irrelevant, because he's not even an artist, really, just a bit of abstract brand equity; a cool dead guy with some fluid devices.
Reproduction and recreation indelibly changes the meaning of the work (just ask John Berger). Seeing art splashed on disposable consumer items can't help but diminish its potency; for all the salience, its rawness is sapped.
And there's a rub at the heart of this — you can treat art as a product, I guess — Basquiat the brand. But the way his estate has been handled has been with neither respect for the art, nor care for the brand.
They just fed him into commerce the way we load art into an image model. Think of what Dall-E will do with his work, how Midjourney will recapitulate him. What AI will spit out will be so pleasingly commoditised, hit familiar bliss points, make the man behind it all even more of a gesture, an image.
The relationship between money and art, corporate and culture is messy and complex; maybe it should be. But even our spreadsheets can have a little decorum; in business we can do things beautifully and with grace.
It's impossible to respect the canon when it's treated like this. Now it's time for new techniques and voices, new systems and models.
But still, shed a tear. This isn't malice, just malpractice. To batter a body of work, shatter an interesting voice.
A man who terrorised every city wall has been turned into wallpaper.
Originally published on jamalcassim.com