On the Discursive Limits of Appropriation: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Postmodernism, and Critical Interventions in Art History

By: Mario Martinez

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Suzie Kim

Since his untimely death at the age of 27 years old, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s oeuvre has been the subject of countless exhibitions and art historical scholarship. A vast majority of this output has revolved around the artist’s identity as a young Black man in New York City and the 1980s art world. Recent scholarship has begun to explore the relationship between his identity and his art-making practice, especially how his lived experiences shaped his understanding of social justice issues. Overt themes of police brutality, as seen in Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) (1983), have been interpreted in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, Basquiat’s more subversive attempts at re-appropriating and re-contextualizing Black history through appropriative gestures remain largely unrecognized. His use of semiotics, particularly the trademark and copyright symbols, reclaims the history, language, and imagery associated with the Black body and inverts the discourses embodied in them. This paper postulates that Basquiat’s use of appropriative gestures to invert a given discourse is definitive of a reparative aesthetic. Basquiat is a predominant influence on the work of contemporary Black artists, such as Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley, who continue to intervene in the art historical canon. The innate subversiveness of reparative aesthetics is the result of the unique locus in which Black artists (and other marginalized groups) find themselves, within a visual lexicon overflowing with an abundance of images that represent the Black body to the effect of upholding the synthetic notion of ‘otherness’ and other hegemonic ideologies.



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