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On Basquiat & Other Hysterics

or The Truth About "Ain't It Awful" Art 

A Political Painter's Critique of Political Art 


I do political art, but I don't like political art.  I do not respect it--not as it has been done up until now. The major complaint I have against political art is its inability and unwillingness to be articulate, its reluctance to iterate precisely what it wishes to say, its intent to communicate nothing more eloquent than a paltry whine.  


I suggest that almost all political painters have been afraid to utter the details of what they mean.  Or they are both afraid and ignorant of that which they complain.  In either case, it serves the artist's timidness and/or laziness to be vague, incoherent and obscure. Such vagueness may appeal to some as intellectual coquettishness wrapped up in coy profundity pretending to be artistic gloom, but to those whose standards of artistic communication are a tad higher than Bubba's, such incoherence--intentional or accidental-- is a characteristic understood to be something far less than articulate.  Simplistic is not articulate boiled down to its fundamental essence; it is an argument that glosses over or omits relevant facts and presents trite, hackneyed, slogan-like statements--grunts and squeals and flustered postures.


And the critics have been complicit in the artist's tip-toeing through the tulips. Critics, gallerists and art historians are somehow thrilled when artists resort to visual euphemisms and purport them to be political art.  I suspect it is the shared inclination to polite intercourse, party pleasantries, insider bon mots and hysteric personalities that turns the critics and gallerists so quick and clever and hot of breath to provide excuse and grandiose justification for the artist's fainthearted reluctance to name names and attack any idea that might own teeth. Visual euphemisms seem attractive to such perverted sissies, especially when they are cloaked in near orgasmic color.


Marc Mayer,  a Canadian curator, who was named director of the National Gallery of Canada in 2008, churning and spinning to turn spoiled milk into cheese, says of the so-called political artist Basquiat: "(He) speaks articulately while DODGING the full impact of clarity like a matador."  


Presumably, we are supposed to accept that the full impact of artistic clarity is actually too, too frightfully dangerous.  We are to understand that clarity of message presents existential risk to the artist equal to or greater than facing off in the bullring with a 1500-pound pissed-off bull. Second, Mayer and others intend that we be satisfied knowing our celebrated artist "bullfighter" will never ever come out of the sheltered cocoon of the matador's tunnel, let alone come out into the sunlight and thrust his brush and chisel into raging, quivering bone and flesh capable of counterattack.  Apparently, we are to be thrilled that the artist screams out his infantile hysterics from somewhere deep inside the blissful basinet of the matador's tunnel.  And we oblige; we pretend to be thrilled because we too are scared.  So, we sit on the shady side of the arena and cheer when we hear the screams from the tunnel.  




"AHHHHHHHHH!!!"   "NOOOOO, PLEEEEEASE!!!  Ahhhhghhhhhh!!!"  




And then when the screaming stops for the day, we award the severed ears of fine art's very soul to the timid artist...on the lone basis of Marc Mayer's (and other art authenticator's) say-so.


Like Mayer, others of the fine art establishment tell us to be thrilled that the artist, in this case Basquiat, is screaming loudly and angrily and hysterically--about something--and that we notice a certain appealing lilt to his scream (apparently, a note or two of authentic panic would  be even better).  To that extent, and to that extent only, Basquiat, as well as other contemporary political artists, is articulate, albeit articulating something we already know. But that sort of fawning over murky expression is like assigning Pulitzer-quality articulateness to a squalling baby or a hysterical juvenile.  Just being another version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" is not good enough to be articulate, important art.


To be truly articulate, the political artist needs to have the nerve and the ability, but especially the nerve, to name names, depict recognizable faces, identify the culprit, and thrust something clever and sharp outward from his or her art that wounds the bad guy where it hurts--drive that matador's sword into the despot's underbelly of philosophy--poke and twist and disembowel the fundamental ideas that support his existence.


I also suggest the political painter add into his or her art additional layers of articulate content intended to increase our understanding not of the fearsome effect of despotic behavior, which we already know and which serve only as terrorist advertisements FOR the despot, but to inform us of the vulnerability of oppression's underlying causes.


The full impact of clarity should be the mission of all art, especially political art. It embarrasses the artist and the humanity in me to read Mr. Mayer continuing to spin heroic meaning out of Basquiat's visual timidity.


Mayer: "We can read his pictures without strenuous effort—the words, the images, the colors and the construction—but we cannot quite fathom the point they belabor. Keeping us in this state of half-knowing, of mystery-within-familiarity, had been the core technique of his brand of communication since his adolescent days as the graffiti poet SAMO. To enjoy them, we are not meant to analyze the pictures too carefully... he painted a calculated incoherence, calibrating the mystery of what such apparently meaning-laden pictures might ultimately mean."


All such euphemistic paintings should be entitled "Know What I Mean?", or "You Know? You Know? You Know?", or "I mean...I mean...I mean..." or "Know What I'm Sayin'".


That's what I'm saying.


~Larry Kaiser, political painter~










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