† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Crimes of Style ~ Jean-Michel Basquiat
by nancy a heitzeg
“Most Young Kings Get Their Heads Cut Off…”
― Jean-Michel Basquiat, (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988)
There are 20 trillion pieces of text, 30 trillion more numbers to be deployed in the illumination of criminal injustice. And so, every week we do.
Sometimes, however, it is simply best to let the artists have their say- with brushes, with paint, with exploding imagery. To let them distill that universe of trouble onto the canvass.
Just bring it, as Basquiat himself would say,
” Boom! For real.”
Defacement (the Death of Michael Stewart), 1983
There is much to be said about Jean-Michel Basquiat, but all is found in One Word: Juxtaposition.
His work emerged from the margins where “crime meets style” , from the era when those who wrote on the walls could be called artists too, not just “vandals” or “gangsters”. Even as he rose to Icarus-like super-stardom, Basquiat never lost sight of the price paid by others just like him. Or of the fine and shrinking line between expression and criminalization.
Defacement, depicted above, denotes the death of fellow graffitist Michael Stewart who was beaten to death by New York City Transit Police, after his arrest for wall writing in the subway. Part of a larger effort at the criminalization of burgeoning hip-hop subculture and all of the threat of unfettered young blackness. Certainly expanding “crimes of style” has only escalated, as often brutal “broken windows” policing has extended far past graffiti to the realms of “sagging pants.”
Race/racism, blackness/whiteness was always central. Basquiat continually explored the power and peril of “Blackness” through of images of Pride, Persecution and Perseverance – from slavery to the New World griots to the forgotten Delta blues, to Jim Crow, to the hazardous of negotiating persistent white power structures in art and life, sports and law .
The Irony of Negro Policeman – who wears for a hat, the Cage – exemplifies it. Even now.
See Christopher Dorner.
That is All.
The aesthetic son of Andy Warhol and the graffiti style sibling of Keith Haring, Basquiat is literally/figuratively buried between them, undone, too soon, by despair, drugs and yes, racism. In a final irony, the work that he once feared dis-counted now continues to be exhibited at over-flow shows and sold for more than $16 million per painting at elite art house auctions.
More important, for our purposes at least, is the continued relevance of the social commentary found in his work. It is both tragedy and testament to his vision that the themes of justice/injustice remain. Barely changed. And yes, the work still calls us to remedy the same.
Another Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat, then.
” Boom! For real.”