Let's begin the new decade with a lesson from the master, courtesy of YouTube: "Jean-Michel Basquiat -- Painting Live, Downtown (1981)," five whole minutes of grace and clarity.
The video shows Basquiat, dressed in an elegant if used gray winter coat with his hair pulled back, tagging a metal wall near the Con Ed station near 14th Street and Avenue D (and off limits since 9/11). The bit of whimsy in Jean-Michel's tags always invites you to look at his words sideways and fill in the blanks. Thus, he commences with BRAILE TEETH, leaving his Es open like a kind of semaphore and then, chugging his toggle and letting loose his can, moves on to ORIGIN OF COTTON. I think we can all agree as to what that means.
Basquiat moves with a jazzy fluency that is too natural to be a performance, that is, precognated movement. His half smile, so winsome and appealing, lets loose with another mildly convoluted thought: THE WHOLE LIVERY LINE, as if the phrase emerged from one of his internal organs, and, underneath that, BOW LIKE THIS WITH THE BIG MONEY CRUSHED INTO THESE FEET. The whole leaden, bloated, overgesticulated history of the art of the last 30 years is thus deftly summarized. Basquiat the prophet, before profit became the motive of art only to slip back into the horse latitudes of empty, branded greed.
In 1981, the only branding was tagging on a sleek metal wall. But there is a coda here: Jean-Michel handing a white Russian chauffeur a stack of cash, getting back two bits, then tagging a limo door with GOLD WOOD. Gold would do the trick if art couldn't and time didn't continue to slip away. As for 2010, let the children of Basquiat tag the world. All they have to sacrifice is their freedom.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).