What’s in the news – The $110.5 million Basquiat

What’s in the news?

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting of a skull sold at Sotheby’s auction for $110.5 million. Some consider this an incredible cultural development because a black artist most famous for the undervalued (and often considered criminal) medium of street-art has ascended into the glorified realm of art house auctions.

Michael Holman, a figure close to Basquiat and the creator of the film Basquiat, feels that this moment is pivotal:

This is an art historic moment of great profundity, now that Basquiat’s poetry and anger has been elevated to the Zenith of world culture. With the record breaking sale of ‘Untitled,’ the thorny issues Basquiat raises in his work- namely the myriad injustices one suffers living in America as a Black man – will be amplified.

I have mixed feelings. I do think the fact that this painting sold for such a high price-tag does point to a cultural shift, to a receptiveness to socially progressive art. It brings character and culture to what could otherwise be a whitewashed artworld. His paintings often reflect themes of race and social injustice, and the painting wouldn’t have sold for so much without its context.

But I take issue with Holman’s statement. His paintings have been elevated to the Zenith of world culture, he seems to be saying, not because of their socially poignant themes, but because they are now worth a lot of money.

Of course, I do think artists should make money for their work. The trope of the starving artist exists because artists are so unfairly paid. But also, Basquiat is dead. If we want to talk about injustice, maybe we should talk about how white real estate moguls (a profession that Basquiat’s paintings would likely criticise) are making $110.5 million on a painting their parents bought from Basquiat for $19,000. Of course, Basquiat’s early death also likely adds to the amount of money the painting is worth, to his mythological status as cultural icon. The world loves nothing more than the tragic death of a 27 year old.

Basquiat certainly earned the distinction that his painting selling for such a large sum brings, but we need to question who decided who gets such a distinction. The answer is, of course, the rich. This moment alludes to a greater truth about the art world: art only becomes fine art when it becomes inaccessible.

In the News: NYC re-evaluates cultural funding

New York City is reexamining its allocation of cultural funds, considering a plan that more equitably considers smaller arts institutions that cater to underserved neighborhoods. This means that while in the past the majority of the money has gone to large institutions such as The Met and MoMA, smaller institutions in the outer boroughs may begin to see the much needed funding they have typically lacked.

Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced the city’s first “cultural plan,” which could entail a redistribution of previously inequitable funding. It could also mean that in addition to underfunded museums, money will also go towards analyzing the ways in which cultural activities are distributed across the five boroughs, how cultural activities relate to social and economic well-being, accessibility to artist workspaces, and increased funding towards arts education.

During a time when arts funding is being massively stripped on a national level, such a plan could be truly beneficial. The recognition that the arts play a vital a role in urban development is somewhat radical, especially regarding lower-income neighborhoods. Of course, de Blasio is not the first person to recognize this. Underfunded neighborhoods have been reclaiming artistic space for decades and acknowledging the importance it plays in community cohesion and construction. But, unfortunately, it’s uncommon for it to be officially and monetarily recognized.

New York has long been considered the cultural capital of the world, and people often make this association due to the large-scale museums catering primarily to tourists. However, there are hundreds of recognized cultural institutions in the city as well as various unrecognized sites of cultural exchange. And many of the smaller places fill a greater community need. While the MoMA costs $25 to enter, the Bronx Museum of the Arts is free. It retains its mission as a community based institution that showcases art important to the residents. The MoMA is incredible, but it doesn’t possess the same artistic urgency that a cultural center built for its specific community does. Some of the most well-known pieces in the world have been showcased at the MoMA, or the Met, or at the Whitney. But at those smaller, outer-borough spaces that few tourists frequent, they showcase art of political and social relevance made by and for groups that are not often treated as socially and politically relevant.

 

I’m not trying to say that one place is more important than the other. I’m not suggesting that we burn down Lincoln Center along with all of its bourgeois, sherry-sipping sentiments. I’m just saying that a little recognition for the vitality behind underfunded and unnoticed spaces could have practical benefits. Of course, increased arts funding across the board is essential. Despite the seemingly massive amounts of money poured into the most well-known cultural institutions, they aren’t exactly stable either. What this alludes to is a greater need for cultural prioritization. At least this plan may be a step in the right direction.

 

Ephemeral Art in the Lower East Side

As far as galleries go, Chelsea tends to be the undisputed ruler of the New York City art scene. With over two hundred art galleries, patrons and collectors flock to the neighborhood to see and buy art of all types. This wasn’t always the case though. Before Chelsea, it was SoHo. Soon though, with the arrival of high-priced boutiques and restaurants catering to bourgeoise palates, the galleries moved to find more affordable real estate. The Chelsea scene became known as the “edgier” of the two, quickly surpassing SoHo as the more popular artists’ space in the city.

Now, with the arrival of high-priced boutiques and restaurants catering to bourgeoise palettes, galleries are rapidly opening on the Lower East Side. The LES is now known as the “edgier” of the two neighborhoods. These spaces, adopting a more experimental and bizarre approach, have come to be considered an antithesis to the “Chelsea-like” galleries now characterized by white walls and clean lines.

The LES has been famous for housing the not-yet-fully-famous for decades. Its once cheap rent allowed artists to actually pursue their art, and the dingy surroundings provided the grungy type of inspiration that often breeds bizarre and experimental new forms and pieces.

I stumbled into one such place in the summer of 2016. I still don’t actually know the name or the place, and am not entirely sure if it was in an official gallery or if an artist stumbled upon an abandoned property and considered it the perfect venue in which to debut his neon-cloaked, doll-part filled representation of consumer culture.

I also don’t know the name of the artist. We were walking through the Lower East Side late at night when we saw a purple glow emanating from a door. We stopped and a man sitting on the floor next to a ladder (presumably considering what next to add to the already full selection of signage, lights, and feathers) invited us in. He nonchalantly told us to look. The only other time he spoke to us was when I asked him the name of the exhibit. “Heaven and Hell,” he responded, never turning to look at us.

The space felt erratically curated, although I’m sure that the objects’ placements were carefully considered in order to convey exactly this sentiment. The experience felt like a dreamscape. Nobody else entered the venue while we were there, and the incessant glow and barrage of sensory eccentricities removed our general sense of reality.

Later, I tried to figure out the name of the artist and couldn’t. I could find no record of the piece, no evidence that the exhibit even occurred. The art was in the content, but also perhaps in its temporality.

While the Lower East Side has miraculously retained some of its underground character, rising rent may soon eradicate what remains. This type of art scene, just like the particular piece that I saw, is ephemeral.

Trump’s First 100 Days – A Flashback to Election Night

100 days in to Trump’s presidency, it’s time to reflect back on the day he was elected. And to examine what already has and what possibly could happen under a reign as terrifying as this one.

We spent election night in a Brooklyn venue called House of Yes. Basically, it’s advertised as being a weird place for weird people. Born from the underground arts community, It started out a “circus theatre and creative events space” that hosted “aerial classes, creative events, and circus theatre.” The first venue burnt down because of a kitchen fire, and they were displaced from the second due to high costs of rent, but House of Yes survived all of this to find a new home in Bushwick off the Jefferson L stop. And they expanded to host everything from cultural events to fashion shows to, as was their original intent, spectacle type circus shows.

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And, on election night, they had a party called “Hit the POLES! Erection Day Political Party.” That’s where we were. While some chose to stay in and watch the results roll in from the comfort of their a-political couch, we chose to go to a space in which we would likely be surrounded by a glitter fueled festival of left-leaning politics.

Here’s a full description of the event:

“Vote hard, come harder! Cast your ballot into our box! Join the POLITICAL “PARTY” Elect and erect to your heart’s delight. Hit the Poles.

In a world of lies and greed, where one option seems suspiciously promising and the worst option seems nightmarishly hilarious, there is only one thing we can really say… F*CK IT!

So, in the true House of Yes spirit, let us celebrate our last remaining bits of freedom and libido before anyone takes it away from us and F*ck everything we can, while we still can!

We invite you to HIT THE POLES and vote with your body rolls and undulating hips. We will be screening live election results, playing dirty funky hot jams, having some patriotic and cleverly themed drink specials, maybe having some pizza or something super american like that.”

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100 days. It’s an important measurement because, often, presidents do the most in that span of time. It’s an indicator of how the rest of their term is going to go and what issues they’ll focus on. Trump’s presidency so far, while some may argue that he didn’t actually do that much, has undoubtedly been filled with fear and absurdity. He’s an incessant conspiracy theorist, a crude overgrown frat boy who spends more time golfing than he does engaging politically, a self-interested social media abuser, and a blatant racist.

While he may not have implemented many tangible changes to federal policy, he’s set the stage for what could potentially be a problematic future. The confirmation of Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch and his proposals for lower taxes and less regulation, the possible disintegration of civil rights and environmental policies, and the absolute fear he has instilled in anybody on the margins of society shouldn’t be dismissed as frivolous threats.

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A woman and her daughter discuss the “Subway Therapy” sticky notes that lined the station walls post-election

When I think back to watching the election results roll in at House of Yes, I remember how wildly the mood in the room shifted when it became clear that this brute of a businessman was going to run the country. At first, I would describe the scene as amicable. People were drinking and talking and one particularly talented individual acrobatically danced on the pole right in front of the screen that showed the elections results. But soon, people shut down.

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The man who had been dancing, along with other people in the bar, stopped and put tape over his mouth as the election results grew more daunting.

People went to various places to watch the election results. I know people who stayed home because they didn’t want to be in public if the results were to turn out the way they unfortunately did. Some people went to other friends’ houses to form a sort of network of support. Some people went to gay bars to seek solace at one of the few places they felt protected. Basically, people went where they would feel safe no matter the outcome. House of Yes served as a venue for this too.

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But, I have to wonder what will happen if such places as these start disappearing? I think about where I was when this president was elected and wonder if such a place like it – a place dedicated to expression in an era in which expression could gradually become more and more dangerous – will always be available.

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A sign inside of a shopping cart reading “Don’t vote 4 Trump. No Good.” This sign, made by someone evidently living out of a shopping cart, carries a lot of implications. For one, despite having minimal access to resources, this individual felt it was essential to convey a political message. While some stake signs in their yard, this person put one up in his or her shopping cart. Additionally, it’s those who are most vulnerable who will be most burdened by idiotic changes in policy and corporate minded ideologies that will inevitably make the poor poorer .

This entire blog is dedicated to how people utilize certain places, to the ways people congregate and the vital social formations that occur when they do. Will people still feel like they can socialize in public spaces if they fit one of the many groups that Trump has deemed unfit?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that as tension within this presidential term escalates, occupying space becomes all the more important. People immediately protested for precisely this reason – taking up space is a radical political act if you’re told you shouldn’t be allowed access to it.

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