Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’, The Royal Academy of Arts, until 10 December 2017
Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican Art Gallery, until 28 January 2018
The two exhibitions in London this week (concurrently with the Frieze Art Fair, which is just ridiculous, Frieze that is, not the week) worth seeing (though expensive) are Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican and Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy. Both employ the colon; both are blockbusters; both are American (the artists that is, in case that needed to be said); both feature paintings worth lots and lots of money. They, whether they like it or not, are major art brands.
Jasper Johns (he is, so called, the Greatest Living Artist) is about 30 years or so older than Jean-Michel Basquiat, or would have been had Jean-Michel lived. It’s hard not to think of Jasper Johns as the 1960s avant garde exemplar, collaborator extraordinaire with Merce Cunningham (avant garde dancer), John Cage (avant garde composer) and, of course, Robert Rauschenberg, his quondam lover and the brighter sun by which he was in some ways a little eclipsed.
Jasper Johns was born in 1930, Jean-Michel in 1960. Jasper Johns is white. Jean-Michel was part Haitian, part Puerto Rican, in other words, black. Jasper Johns is a very knowing, considered, educated, clever artist. Jean-Michel was a force of nature, talented, driven, a product of the 80s, just like punk banking and junk bonds. It wasn’t where you started that mattered, it was what temperature of chutzpah you brought to the table (or the canvas) that conveyed your worth. And that worth was measured strictly in dollars. In fact it still is.
It’s kind of interesting to contemplate the idea that some of the 60s subversives, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, the Situationists in France, foresaw the multiple categories of disaster that have subsequently overtaken the world, the fact that we are all in thrall to brands of one sort or another, that we live life vicariously via images rather than at first hand, that we are all living inwardly, that our only lives are our inner lives, that we are increasingly isolated as a consequence.
But, in a way too, they are to blame for this sad state. For a long time, two hundred years at least, artists have been searching for a language to describe what it’s like to be us, to be a person, to find a way of describing, recreating, our inner lives, that mysterious space underneath our skins, behind our eyes, under our clothes, inside our skulls. And the energy devoted to this search really took off for the generation, including Jasper Johns, who came of age after the Second World War. Suddenly the world was full of money and advertising slogans and stuff to buy, which meant brands. Money, slogans, stuff, brands, this was the raw material which art could employ to describe that elusive inner life. Here was the language, here the metaphors, the stage setting, the context for the revolution, the rise of the ‘Me’ generation.
For Johns, Warhol, Rauschenberg, et al, this was a two edged sword, to be wielded with devastating precision. These guys knew very well where they (as artists that is) ended and their art began. Warhol particularly had a real life, wherein he lived with his mother, went to church and volunteered at a soup kitchen, alongside his life in public, at the Factory, where he was ‘An Artist’, and, it’s pretty safe to say, had little but contempt for those who bought into (and bought) his art on face value. And this hard edge, this fundamental satiric bent, was fatal, metaphorically and truly, for those who came after, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, for whom art and life bled into each other in ways that were not sustainable then and now have us all heading straight to hell in a handcart.
In fact art (capital a) has now become so enamoured of the language of the inner life, the metaphors of consumption, the alignment of person with possessions, that there is no other language available to describe anything else. A life lived outside the personal seems nothing but quaint, unsophisticated, childish, naive, a bit soft, in no way the stuff of art. Art is gritty, ugly, real, full of feeling and impact, it packs a punch. Just like a brand. Just like a product. A Bentley might have comfortable leather seats but you better believe the guy driving it is an animal, a money making behemoth, bestriding the world, a roiling, boiling wonder, never still, on his way to make a killing on a Picasso or an IPO, whose feelings are a credit to him and his family. Only art can encompass such a giant.
Where, oh where is the outer life? The life beyond empathy, the life which says, ‘I am you and you are me’. Where is the language to describe that life?
Watching the documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat on the BBC last week, Theaster Gates, an artist whose ethos I very much admire, spoke up for Basquiat’s importance, especially his place as a prominent black artist, a trailblazer, who broke through into the white art world on his own terms. But the real (and present) danger is that the white art world has embraced him on its terms, and this embrace is sailing very close to exploitation, not acceptance.
In the 1980s I saw, briefly and tangentially, the attempt to discover an Australian Basquiat, a search for an ‘authentic’ artist of innocence and naivety but with a direct and burning connection into him or herself, who could paint with unselfconscious energy. In hindsight this too looks like exploitation; an art market scouring for the artist who wasn’t going to make trouble, who wasn’t really sufficiently self-aware to torpedo any success that may be bestowed on them. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you is the rule. (And don’t even get me started on the way Australians have strip mined Aboriginal art.)
For Basquiat to appear with Warhol, as he did, was to present himself as a brand. Warhol knew this. And, I guess, for Basquiat this was an opportunity to do something really radical, for the mentee to turn on the mentor. But maybe this wasn’t in Basquiat’s nature, which is really a way of saying he was a much better, perhaps gentler, more outward looking, more instinctively collaborative, person than that.
Jasper Johns fits nicely into the tradition of the individual genius, and more power to him. Basquiat belongs in a different tradition, with different language. Theaster Gates argues that Basquiat’s success in the secondary art market, Sotherby’s et al, is a vindication of his worth. I think the multimillion dollar price tags are simply cheapening his achievement, as much as his extraordinary financial success cheapened the work when he was alive.