I once heard that there is no use talking about art. Someone should have told me that before I minored in Art History. Studying and talking about art prepared me to talk about film, and I have always found the two fields remarkably similar. In fact, I think that a single shot constitutes a single frame in art. While I have grown quite comfortable talking about film, I am terrified of certain art genres, not just for their uncomfortable subject matter and form, but because I worry about getting it wrong. Modernism, for instance, has this reputation as an intimidating art genre. That is mainly because people feel compelled to understand art the ‘right-way’, a way that makes them seem educated and perceptive. Or at least not stupid.
No one wants to feel stupid, especially when they are surrounded by work which is purposeful abstract, even confusing. This fear comes from a long tradition of elitism and patronage in art, but that continued right into the modern age. The sense of pedigree and industry stems from figures like Andy Warhol. He was a genius, a revolutionary, and a sexist asshole who took advantage of a lot of people during the post-modernist period. I want to talk about one of those people, but to do so, I turn to his 1996 biopic.
I can’t adequately describe Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work without doing it a disservice. I am probably still going to get it ‘wrong’. Suffice to say, he was a neo-expressionist artist who focused on dichotomies between self and society, materiality and mentality, in addition to race, class, and violence. He worked with Warhol during the later part of his career, and some have suggested that Warhol used Basquiat. What is certain is that the two inspired one another creatively, something which this 1996 biopic highlights.
The Trapped Prince
The final scene in the film is arguably its most heart wrenching. We follow Basquiat and his friend Benny as they walk down a sidewalk in New York. Basquiat starts talking about a story his mother once told him, although he is not sure if it was from her or if it was a dream. It is about a young prince, who, trapped in a tower, begins to smash his crown and head into the wall, hoping that someone will hear it and rescue him. However, because the sound is so beautiful, no one stops to wonder where it is coming from, so the Prince never escapes. After he finishes the story, Basquiat changes the subject and tells Benny they should go to Ireland on holiday. Then we cut to black, and a title card informs us that Basquiat died from a heroin overdose in 1988.
There are so many things going on in this short clip. At surface level, the story mirrors Basquiat’s creative life, as he keeps making art which everyone loves, but no one is willing to help with his addiction and self-destruction in case he stops making art. The crown is a common feature in Basquiat’s work, and he even used it in his signature. It represents glory, skill, prestige, but in a new and modern sense. It’s like a distant symbol, removed from the old and idealized version of the past, and placed in the 20th century in an abstract form.
In the story, the prince doesn’t take off his crown, but bashes his head with it. The connections between pain and beauty, mental state versus physical, and glory with self-destruction are evident. But why is the Prince stuck in a tower? Why does the warlock shut him away? One reading is that the Warlock represents the art industry, Warhol, and fame, but there is also a more nuanced reading. Basquiat mentions that when the Prince was locked away, the warlock took away his voice. We could read this as a symbol for addiction, the inability to say no or to ask for help in a direct way. This would mean that the tower is another metaphor for the conflict between Basquiat’s mental state and behaviour.
The Art Versus the Source
There is also a subtle commentary on the art industry throughout the scene. Its first shot includes the word ‘Titanic’ on Basquiat’s clog. While this was an actual shoe, its presence in the film signals that something glorious is about to sink. By including it in the last scene, the film implies that both it and Basquiat are about to end.
Although Basquiat is literally walking on the word ‘Titanic’, not exactly stable ground, no one is paying attention. Like the people in the story, those around Basquiat appreciate his work without considering where it came from. This contrasts one of the main issues in Modernism: the ready-made. Much Modernist art incorporates objects and phrases which people are already familiar with, specifically those which were made by some unknown worker, placed in a artistic environment.
By putting these objects into an art gallery, the artist draws attention to our expectations of what ‘art’ should be and where it should come from. In other words, it asks us to consider our environment in a new lens, and to consider the people and forces which constructed this ‘art’. We see the paint strokes, the lines, and the work. The image is not meant to be perfect or divine, but rather, created human hands which are still visible on the work. So, it is ironic that in and amongst modernism, the industry and people around Basquiat no longer want to know about Basquiat. By just focusing on the art, they remove him from his work, just as the people in the story love the sound but don’t track down its source.
Basquiat begins the story by mentioning that he heard it from his mother, or from a dream. By comparing the two, he implies that these spaces are essentially the same. This means that his understanding of the world and story comes from a creative womb-like space. It additionally suggests that the story is for children, but has an important moral, one which Basquiat should have learned as a child. The dream and Mother warn Basquiat that people don’t care about the individual so long as it benefits them. But, at the same time, even as Basquiat tells the story, he knows that he cannot change this. Like the Prince, Basquiat is trapped in a tower, but one he constructed himself through his addiction and this toxic environment.
The last moments in the film are especially difficult, as Basquiat seemingly changes the subject to talk about holiday plans. But, like everything else in the scene, this move has a symbolic function. It returns to Basquiat’s inability to ask for help. Right after he tells Benny that the Prince never escaped, Basquiat notes “It’s definitely time to get out of here”, although he never does. Benny is too preoccupied with the groceries just behind Basquiat (again, the object but not the person who paid for them), and so the implication is that, like the Prince, Basquiat will never be rescued from himself and will never be heard. The heartbreak in the scene is the dichotomy between his need and desire to escape versus his capability and expression, and that is the real tragedy underlying the biopic.