Variations on a Theme: Looking at Basquiat Online

The Arts

Context matters. A work of art cannot be judged in a vacuum. It matters, for example, that Christo and Jeanne-Claude hung their orange curtains in Central Park, New York City: "The Gates," as the show was titled, would have a different (and equally valid and powerful) effect had those orange banners been strung across the Great Wall of China or the Sonoran Desert.

Similarly, it matters how a show is put together in a gallery space. What works in an Art Basel booth does not work at Pace Gallery. Said the art critic Jerry Saltz about a recent Jeff Koons show at the Gagosian gallery in NYC:

The three balloon sculptures—a yellow rabbit, a blue swan, and a red monkey that I still think is a snake—are lined up like cabin cruisers at a boat show. You’re forced into a march past them. You’re discouraged from circling, so you can’t determine if they transform into something more abstract and uncanny—as I think the monkey-snake might, if seen on its own. (It could even be better than his top-of-the-line red "Balloon Dog.") Here again, the potential for a Pandora’s box of perceptual-psychological convolution is lost, and the sculptures turn into colossal baubles bound for Beverly Hills and Dubai atria. ... If I learned anything here, it’s that Koons desperately needs a curator to mitigate displays like this.

Ouch. Saltz sung a different tune for the concurrent Koons show at the David Zwirner Gallery, because the space was differently curated. Still, the art in both contexts was for a moneymaking venture. Gallerists are interested in selling as much as they are showing off their taste-making (king-making) abilities. 

A work of art, in its time and space, has as much intellectual and emotional elements as it does obviously contextual. Art in a museum, like an ancient sculpture, cannot be enjoyed as the Greeks once saw the work in its original context. What once decorated the hall of a temple or the entry to a plaza now adorns a multimillion dollar wing in a metropolitan museum thousands of miles away from its homeland. One placement confers a distinct meaning over another. What was once rich or functional decoration becomes a foundational (classical) art piece.

What about the museum experience of contemporary art, though? The work of David Hockney, Jackson Pollock, or Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, have never adorned a realm as lofty as a theistic temple. If they decorate anything before they enter a place like MoMA, it’s the salon of a wealthy patron who has gifted the piece for posterity. Less often the piece serves a semi-public service—in a corporate lobby perhaps—and even less so in a truly public atmosphere, such as an installation in a park.

So what is the public to make of a work that essentially goes from the studio to the museum? That is to say, what of the works that go from artist to (wealthy?) private owner to museum? In this instance, the viewer sees the work in an original context of sorts, which is to say, with as little context as possible. The piece exists in a time warp. It goes from Point A (artist) to Point C (museum-as-time capsule) without there really ever having been a stop along the way. In this instance, what meaning is conveyed by the artist? Is meaning created for the wealthy patron? For a higher, artistic cause? Is meaning indeterminate?

The museum, by virtue of its air of legitimacy, places the piece in an authoritative, artistic atmosphere. At the same time, however, the museum wishes to remove itself from providing context to a work of art—to be a neutral, timeless space. The museum, therefore, seeks to decontextualize the work. The art is supposed to simultaneously be a part of and apart from the museum.


Works of Jean-Michel Basquiat at Gagosian Gallery, Feb. 7 - April 6, 2013

If the museum seeks to decontextualize the artwork, the gallery space demands that the art be elevated, economically speaking. The primary interest of an established gallery owner is not to introduce innovative, avant garde work, but rather to profit off of the labor of the artists it "supports." The availability of the work demands visibility from a moneyed crowd. The art serves not an aesthetic purpose, but an economic end. For the public, the work does not exist in time because it goes from the studio to the gallery to a private home (mostly to the wealthy) in a matter of weeks or months. Art is not sold for art's sake, but for money's sake.

What, then, is to be said of art that is viewed online? The work exists only as a visual pleasure, because in a sense the art doesn't actually exist at all. The work is a reproduction (unless, of course, it is a piece of Internet art). Instead, the image of the art exists as pixels, bits, and bytes in a digital ether.

Because the art appears on a computer screen, the viewer’s emotions are affected by what surrounds the person in their viewing space—the office (with a phone ringing off the hook?), the home (with a family portrait displayed above your computer?), the university (with a discussion about art theory at the lectern?). 


Looking at a Basquiat piece on the on the MoCA website

Viewing a single piece of work online provides space for the viewer to consider the work by itself. One can zoom in or out of the piece, but high, flat resolution renders the piece sterile. One cannot see the three dimensional bumps and knots of layered, goopy paint, nor can we see the cuts and scrapes left by a knife or even the artist's fingernail. The paintbrush bristles left behind become non-existent. And of course, we cannot fathom the scale. In the image above, Jean-Michel Basquiat's piece is as nearly as tall as me, and yet I can "take in" the entire work on a small computer monitor.

There are some advantages to seeing work online, but this probably falls into the realm of research rather than art appreciation. We can read some information about the provenance and history of the work, for example. And of course, there is the advantage of being able to see the work in the first place; who knows when—if ever—I will visit MoCA to see this piece in person.

Authoritative weight is also added if one views the image on a museum website (as above), rather than, say, someone's personal blog. Seeing the art on a museum's website (i.e., not in the museum itself), however, further removes the piece from the the edifice and idea of the museum, and therefore at least one mission the museum is accomplished: the decontextualization of the work.



Looking at Basquiat on Wikipedia

Meaning of the work becomes jumbled when it appears alongside a bunch of text, especially if that text can be edited by anyone around the world. In the above snapshot of the Wikipedia entry on Basquiat, the viewer is told what to think about the art. The Wikipedia page serves a similiar function of a descriptive museum placard, and can be just as narrow or misleading. If the selected artwork—in this case "Untitled" (Skull) (1984)—had been presented without textual references, one could draw any number of conclusions and dream up an infinite array of psychological hypotheses: Basquiat was obsessed with death; Basquiat was fascinated with human anatomy; Basquiat created this while in prison; this is a late piece; this is early in his career; he was professionally trained; he was an outsider artist; he was a master colorist; each compartment in that skull reflects his home life; and on and on.

About his style one could declare he's a primitivist, a street artist, a neo-expressionist, existentialist, and/or a tachist. The Wikipedia page, for what it's worth, lets the viewer know that Basquiat was influenced by Leonardo, that the work is infused with numerology and symbology, and that his work reflects the history of both the ancient Egyptians and black Americans.



A Google image search for "Jean-Michel Basquiat"

The above image shows what appears when one conducts an image search for "Jean-Michel Basquait" using Google. Most of the pictures that appear on the first page reflect a certain aesthetic that runs through much of Basquiat's work, as well as some photographs of the artist himself. Why these pictures appear and not others depends not only on relevancy (everyone of them is in fact related to Basquiat; i.e., they are all relevant), but also on Google's algorithms, which not only reflect my personal searching history, but also the geographic location from where I searched (Queens, NYC). Run the same search from Milwaukee, Lagos, or Beijing and you are bound to see different results. Even time dictates what I see on the Internet. I took the screenshot above in April of this year; when I run the search now I see a similar, but certainly different set of pictures on my results screen.


The context in the Google image search

What do the image search results say about Basquiat? For one, we cannot tell anything about the artwork that appears. We know nothing of dimensions, whether the pieces are held in museums or private homes, or how much money was paid for the works and by whom (hedge fund billionaires? rap moguls?).

What I find to be more interesting are the image results that are not works of Basquiat's art. In this search, related elements appear, which assist (or prejudice) the viewer in making inferences as to what kind of person and artist Basquiat was. We see, for example, in the green circles, pictures of Basquiat by himself. He is posing with his work or he is alone. He wears a suit, but he looks casual and cool. He never smiles. He is young, he is black. Is he troubled.? The blue circled images are even more revealing, for we see the commercial importance of his work: Basquiat with the pop art giant Andy Warhol (Basquiat must be important!), a movie poster (important enough to at least make a movie about him), and his work in a gallery... or a museum, we can't tell. It doesn't matter, for we know his work hangs some place important, and not in some old lady's living room in a middle class suburban home.

The Internet today presents the same problems that photography wrought on the world of oil painting (see my related essay here). The photograph became the preferred medium by which meaning was conveyed, whether it was social or economic status, or political ideologies. Now, the Internet poses the same threat against photography and physical pieces of art. The master sculptor Isamu Noguchi said this of the photograph's impact on his very real, very three-dimensional sculptures:

To understand our changing perceptions of reality, I might add that now photographs seem to have superseded actuality in that they are more accessible than the real. Visual information has taken over and sculpture becomes reduced to validation, no different from photographs.

One need only replace photography with the Internet in Noguchi's lament to replicate the consequences on the physical art world today.  

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internet, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Variations on a Theme