Film Critique: Basquiat, directed by Julian Schnabel

Assignment for ARTH-412 Contemporary Art

Basquiat is a crude and antagonistic account of the life of an artist far more complex than the film’s director, artist Julian Schnabel, would like anyone to remember Jean-Michel Basquiat as. Schnabel’s film can only be described as an attempt to soil his contemporary’s legacy and demean his character eight years after the artist’s untimely death, thus silencing Basquiat’s voice and ability to defend himself even more so than he does in the film’s characterization of the artist as an incomprehensible mumbling destitute. In its attempt to slander Basquiat to the utmost degree possible, Schnabel’s film lacks any tangible plot and instead incorporates an excessive number of scenes entirely irrelevant to any consistent storyline. Further, its treatment of Basquiat’s experience as a young Black man is hyper-scrutinized through misinformed and decidedly racist interpretations by a privileged white male. 

Schnabel goes so far as to insert himself into the film, thus declaring his own importance and legacy in the art world. However, unlike the film’s other characters belonging to the art world, all of whom were based on actual figures (including Andy Warhol, Rene Ricard, Bruno Bischofberger, and Mary Boone), he represents himself as the fictional painter, Albert Milo. In every way in which Basquiat fails, Milo excels. Milo is trusting, wise, accomplished, attractive, and clean; Basquiat does not trust easily and is naïve, unstable, physically deteriorating, and addicted to drugs. Milo’s refined, doting parents cannot fathom missing an important showing of their child’s art; Basquiat’s rejection of his relationship with his father and stepmother is unexplained while his mother is shamefully locked away in a mental institution. Milo lives in a beautifully elaborate apartment that is filled with worldly treasures that flaunt the artist’s cultural and intellectual superiority; Basquiat goes from sleeping in a box to crashing at his girlfriend’s apartment, to apparently a wandering transient. Milo has a beautiful family and is part of a social circle of like-minded artists; Basquiat repeatedly remarks that he has no friends, usually out of the blue.

Schnabel’s contempt for Basquiat is perhaps made most apparent as the film nears its end. Milo has just fluffed his feathers and shown Basquiat through his apartment and given him sage advice on, ironically, the media’s portrayal and public’s perception of the young artist. Basquiat is shown drawing the portrait of Milo’s young daughter. After he leaves, Milo enters and tells his daughter that she is much prettier than the drawing Basquiat has made as he places his arm tenderly around her shoulder. When he chases after his “friend,” he finds Basquiat relieving himself in the stairwell. Milo chuckles to himself as he turns back to his daughter and, amused, informs her that his fellow artist is pissing in their hallway, then proceeds to lead her in dancing around the room as the camera pans away from this perfect father with his perfect daughter, surrounded by their perfect art.

Schnabel’s script fixates on inessential elements of Basquiat’s experience that are largely products of his own fiction in a sensational mockery of the deceased artist cloaked in the disguise of a docudrama. The artist’s clichéd romantic relationship with “Gina,” as well as his brief affair with an improbably less attractive streetwalker played by Courtney Love, is one such element. Schnabel goes to great lengths to showcase Basquiat’s status as an outsider in the definitively white art world. Basquiat’s uneducated, incoherent, and vernacular responses under the pressure of the racist and demeaning questions posed in an interview by Christopher Walken (character unknown) deny the young artist a place in the canon of high art, in both his lifetime and through his legacy as depicted in the film after his death.