the white art world misuses basquiat’s work to define what’s expected of black painters

August 3, 2018
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By Shaun La*, AFROPUNK contributor


It goes without debate that Jean Michel Basquiat’s art work serves its purpose in the capacity of being a visual road into the mind, emotions and soul of a talented artist who died at the young adult age of 27. There are the contextual childlike shapes in his paintings that depict a 1980’s artful New York City filled with youth that had a lot to say about a society that was some 25 years away from the Civil Rights Movement. Outside of the contextual childlike shapes and uncommitted colors in Basquiat’s artwork, there are strenuous racial overtones that could have been a way for Basquiat to ask himself, a Black artist who was friends with Andy Warhol, some profound questions such as, “Why me? Why does fame and fortune come to my art-work, a Black painter who does originate from this mainstream art world of New York City?”

Civilizations have experienced many Black artists who were geniuses that were inventive, bold and original. Black artists do not need to be compared to one another, past or present. However, white American and white European definitions of what is artful, pop-art, successful and commercially viable for their standard of cultural progressiveness has been the measuring stick for Black artists for as long as oppression has guided the Atlantic slave trade. Oppression is more complex than just the enslavement of a race of people: it is the power to redefine an entire system of thinking, the cultural significance that can control the creativity of the artists within a race of people that are being oppressed.

Basquiat’s artistic abilities do not belong to the discovery of white critics, agents, curators, art dealers or collectors. His work is gaining considerable value with the prices of pieces increasing with every appraisal. A Japanese art collector dropped hundreds of millions on some of Basquiat’s paintings, adding to the hype, promotion, prestige that amplified the intense life that he lived, displaying the power of an art world that can make anyone a celebrity – the hype however is completely different than the measurement of artistic talents. At times, Basquiat’s deep art work is overwhelmed by the struggles that he endured during his fame. Typically, when this happens, we are reminded of how white art dealers or white artists tried to save him from his own struggles.

The Black artist has been historically trivialized. As the photographs of Gordon Parks have been accepted by white appreciation, the same kind of appreciation can be seen in the applause of Jimi Hendrix who was considered the greatest guitar player to ever live because a white publication like Rolling Stone said so. Basquiat’s artistic wonders on canvas or sketches on paper can become a regression for any future Black artist, but this would not be from his skill as an artist. It’s because the discovery of Basquiat’s artistic wonders are placed into a mainstream narrative, burdening the next chosen Black artist to fall right into the same footsteps as he once walked because the comprehension of the Black painter is defined by the apex of praise of a commercial mainstream world which does not always include people of color unless it’s a Black artist who has a talent or gift that can be exploited commercially. White America and white Europe decide how the next Black prodigy should be elected by their own standards of what is artful enough for their check-books, galleries and wall space in their mansions. This sort of division can prevent the Black artist from showing any new cultural advancement from their own immaterial originality.

Race through the lens of painting that is only based on the white world’s dharma will always place Basquiat’s paintings as the conceptual truth for the entire understanding of paintings by Black artists in general. This is why mainstream art experts, historians, curators, art dealers and collectors can speak the same language of seeing his work as a testament to some form of racial harmony, despite his paintings suggesting revolting against the mainstream, commercial white art world that places high value on his visions on canvas. The wealthy white art world will always devalue the conceptual diversity of Black artists, because the system of oppression consolidated the expectations of cultural significance on the basis of white thinking. The standards of Black artistic minds are expected to look at Basquiat’s works of Art as a sort of blueprint whereas other Black artists exposed to the mainstream art world that he was swept up in, are often rejected or ignored because the white mainstream crowd that praised their own beliefs, think that they can spot the successful genius of Black artists without help from people of color. This kind of sole power does not want pluralism of any kind; it enslaves Basquiat’s art work, placing his memory in gilded cage that was reinforced by him becoming the first Black painter to sell a painting for over $100 million. There is also a book and film about his struggles in the pipeline, giving the Black community and its Black artists an excuse to look up at the “Black Castle up in the air” and if this or that Black Artist was the first, you could be the second or the third Black artist to meet the oppressive standards that always wanted to capitalize off of the Black creative.


Shaun La is a photographer & writer. Starting off with the medium of photography at the age of 18 (20 years ago) with a Minolta Hi-Matic & 135 film. His photography extends into fashion, street, photojournalism, landscape, still-life & candid realities — still utilizing film cameras only, 135 & medium-format film. As a writer, he has penned numerous essays on various topics, which has been published by the Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Sun, Afro-Punk, Camera Obscura & other media outlets. Currently he is working on his book, “The Perpetual Intellectual View Called Photography: Essays,” & putting together the building blocks for an upcoming exhibition on his Photography. His work can be viewed at