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.