Posts Tagged ‘basquiat’


Monday, August 30th, 2010

I just wanted to quickly share one of the comments on my design imperialism post that was sent to me by a friend. Of the many I’ve received, it’s one of the more intelligent. Here’s what (s)he has to say:

“Not considering the moral aspects of the conversation it seems that architects are often at their best (most interesting, most socially useful, most poignant) when they are questioning and speculating, and that is in a sense at odds with the concept of designing solutions. I’m not sure how you interpret ‘no ideas but in things’, does it hint at a possible bias on this topic?

“The notion of architecture as an expression of power is interesting, it aligns architects immediately with politicians. This is inevitable in a sense given that architecture, like politics, resides outside of, or parallel to, the biggest force in our American lives, the economy. Because architecture isn’t bought and sold in a market of producers and consumers it cycles separately, it has it’s own peaks and valley. There is unfortunately no Keynesian theory that can explain the great PoMo bubble of the early 80′s. (Somewhat unrelatedly, Mumford’s history tracing the development of the city at the birth of the modern market economy is amazing in its illumination of the sometimes subtle sometimes overt relationship between urban centers and mercantile interests.) But I also think it’s misleading to describe architecture as a kind of politics. The differences between politics and architecture are ultimately too great to hold the two together for very long. Politics is power, explicitly. Every governmental system is an application of an idea about the holding, distribution and application of power. Architecture merely expresses power, sometimes. It’s more interesting to think about the fact that architecture has an expressive ability at all, and it has it in spades. The design colonists effect to abdicate expression for blunt problem solving (no ideas, just things), while their detractors accuse them of being destructively expressive, of in effect repressing other forms of expression (ideas over things).
“I saw Radiant Child, the new Basquiat biopic, this weekend and one of the talking heads frames what’s good about his work in a way that I like. I’m paraphrasing poorly, but he says something like Basquiat’s best work essentially says to the viewer, ‘open your eyes, the world is a complex place full of beautiful, terrible and contradictory ideas; start noticing them; here are a few hints.’ This might also be Koolhaas’s gift.”

Susan Boyle

Monday, April 20th, 2009
Photo: ITV via

Photo: ITV via

I don’t know what this has to do with anything, but there’s something I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the past week. You’ve already heard about her, probably, as she’s the viral video of the moment (some 50 million Youtube viewings as of this writing). If not, check out the video here.

A lot of people writing about her bring up the discrepancy between her looks and her voice; to me, that isn’t the issue at all. The issue is the fact that such a voice exists at all; it is “the most beautiful, pitch-perfect, goosebump-making voice,” as India Knight wrote in her beautiful piece for New York Magazine, called “Life Worth Living: Why Susan Boyle is the First Big Star of the Global Recession. ”

She sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical Les Miserables by Andrew Lloyd Weber:

“I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die”

And it really can’t be described much better than the way India Knight wrote it: “Everything terrible about these shows—everything ghastly and cheap and cruel, everything that harks back to Victorian freak shows—fell away. And the thing that’s supposed to happen but never really does—the blossoming of a person, and of their audience, through the transformative power of beauty and, yes, art, even if it’s a sappy show tune—did.”

Really, Susan Boyle is just a pure artistic talent. No packaging, no pretense, no ego, no theory. Just a beautiful voice with an indescribable depth of emotion and musical sophistication behind it.

It reminds me of the last scene in the movie Basquiat (dir. Julian Schnabel, 1996), where Jean-Michel Basquiat (played by Jeffrey Wright) tells the story of a sound that is so beautiful that it made everybody who heard the sound lift their hands to the air and weep with joy. It’s one of the clumsier scenes in an otherwise pitch-perfect movie (the clip is above), but it was one of many vignettes and metaphors about the power of beauty and art in that movie, and it’s one of the only ways I can think of to describe Susan Boyle’s beautiful sound. The first measure of “I Dreamed a Dream,” as sung by Susan Boyle, is as close to a perfect sound as I have heard.

The Art of Fame

Saturday, December 27th, 2008


Basquiat (1996) 108 minutes

Full disclosure: this is my favorite movie of all time, forever and ever. It is on an elevated plane of cinematic glory that it shares with only two other films: Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann and Groundhog Day by Harold Ramis. To me, Moulin Rouge is about love and postmodernism, Groundhog Day is about laughter and existentialism, and Basquiat is about fame and ambition.

Basquiat is a biopic on the life of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a painter from New York in the 1980s, as told through the direction of his friend and fellow painter Julian Schnabel. Julian Schnabel himself leveraged a relatively large degree of art-world success during the 80’s; he was most famous for his broken plates and bondo paintings and then later for simply being savvy about maintaining his fame. This movie is a testament to Schnabel’s media charisma—it may be the most star-studded directorial debut ever. Moreover, it is an incredibly sensitive and poetic filmic rendering of an intensely difficult topic (art about art; try renting other films about painters to see how miserably they fall short, or for that matter, other films by painters). Julian Schnabel’s next film, Before Night Falls, about the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, proved that his touch with the medium of film was no fluke [his most recent film is the similarly heralded The Diving Bell & the Butterfly].

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a painter of inestimable significance, in one flash of a life bookending the Warholian end of art history as theorized by Arthur C. Danto on one side and presaging the New York productionism that would come to define the 90’s on the other (see Damien Hirst, et al). Embodied within any discussion of his work come the first postmodern intimations of meta-art; Basquiat stands as the figurehead for the first generation of artists who were ironically aware of the machinations of the art world. In short, he was a middle-class raised Brooklyn boy who became famous in an instant for his “graffiti art,” playing upon issues of race, class, commerce and urbanity to wrestle his way into the art history books.


There are many memorable scenes in this movie, and I could talk about it for longer than anyone would have patience. One of them has to do with Benicio Del Toro and the prescription for fame (i.e., four years for fame, six for wealth). Another has to do with Christopher Walken’s eerie and penetrating interview with Basquiat. Or any scene with David Bowie’s preternaturally uncanny portrayal of Andy Warhol. Or when Courtney Love saunters into her cameo appearance to the Rolling Stone’s best song, “Beast of Burden.”

This movie has one of those rare soundtracks that captures the spirit and time of the story exactly (the zeitgeist, if you will), an eclectic mix that offers insights into both the subject (Basquiat was a huge fan of the jazz of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker) and New York in the gritty and urbane 80s. Songs by the Pogues, the Modern Lovers, the Rolling Stones, Joy Division, Grandmaster Flash, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, John Cale, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen all weave their way in and out of the staccato vignette narrative of the movie about a painter whose work was so often described as musical.

But what makes this movie invaluable is that it is the only film I know of that deals with the issues of ambition and fame in a post-Warholian media milieu. In the movie, the visual leitmotif of a surfer riding the waves intermittently cuts in, a lone surfer riding a gigantic wave collaged over the weary brownstones of downtown Manhattan. The analogy of the arc of our lives being compared to a surfer riding a wave may seem a little tired, but it feels fresh and unexpectedly apt when it is collaged over the decidedly unnatural environment of lower New York and the drug-laden art world. If our time here at Yale is something similar, a large rush of information, experience, and opportunities, I guess I should end this paper with something like: so let us enjoy the ride.

(originally written 10/9/2006)