Basquiat: The Unkown Notebooks

basquiat1 Jean-Michel Basquiat was a controversial and complex character, and as an artist, his work will no doubt be studied for years to come. His paintings all have an atmosphere of roughness, like wallpaper scratched by a cat. His biography, as stated in this book, places him in a comfortable middle class home in Brooklyn, from which he ran away as a teenager, living rough in the East Village. As discussed in the book Art After Midnight (Steven Hager, 1986), he was right at home among the starving artists and musicians of Alphabet City, where there was no money, but lots of life going on. It wasn’t a place to raise kids, but for a single man with no dependents, you were free to do as you liked.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, a great scholar of US history, provides a written preface in this book. He says that Basquiat was born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, which so far I know from al the other writings about him. He states that the artist grew up bilingual, which I’d assume, and that he frequented the Brooklyn Museum, which adds a bit of intrigue. His mother was often hospitalized for mental illness, and his Haitian father, an accountant, was a bit of a snappy dresser, yet as a boy he ran away from all this. Was he looking for “rougher” life? His art definitely shows a liking for frenetic things. Gates also says that the art was a fusion of influences. Was Basquiat torn between being a Haitian, a Black American, and a Puerto Rican?

The first piece of Babasquiat2squiat’s is a drawing of Joe Lewis, with “St. Joe Surrounded by Snakes.” He definitely had education in classical art, he couldn’t have drawn something like this without it. We see his affinity for African American characters, only he draws this with a little more attention to modeling than in his other works. The next artwork, “Famous Negro Athletes,” has absolutely no attention to modeling or faces. The heads are merely black shapes with eyes and teeth gouged in, like primitive African masks. From the looks of it, he must have been full of energy at the time. There is, unlike both, a funny drawing of (what I assume is) a man named Leslie, lying in bed with a cigarette. It reeks of Bohemian life, almost reminding me of Oscar Wilde. In fact, it is completely unlike anything else he drew.

The artist’s “lost notebooks” reveal a lot about this man. He was a true “starving artist,” working with whatever art materials he had, on whatever paper he had, in this case a speckled notebook. The only thing missing from this book is the artist’s own words. He died in 1988, so there’s no way to ask him to talk about his work. The book doesn’t go into his relationship with Andy Warhol, which was another unusual aspect of his life, particularly since the two artists had absolutely nothing in common with each other. Then again, the sensitive and eccentric Warhol did have a liking for rough things. In the book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (Will Hermes, 2009) the 1970’s New York gay scene fell in love with the shaggy-haired and scruffily dressed Bruce Springsteen, in his debut at Max’s Kansas City (another defunct and lost New York spot.)

Perhaps Basquiat’s “starving artist” lifestyle was what Warhol dreamed of? We’ll never know.

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City of Disorder: How Quality of Life Campaigns Transformed New York Politics

city-of-disorderIn 1990, the author Alex Vitale was in San Francisco, part of Mayor Art Agnos’ program to deal with the homeless. Let’s be frank, the program failed, and the reasons were mostly economic. There wasn’t a lot of affordable housing, skid row had been gentrified, and the Tenderloin district was full. Even if it wasn’t full, a whole lot of homeless people weren’t desperate enough to live there. Agnos resorted to letting the police scare them off, and that didn’t win him any admirers.

In 1993, Vitale came to CUNY for his graduate studies, just as Mayor Giuliani was starting his “kick-em-out” campaign. Homeless men were being forced off the streets and into shelters, which were often less safe than the streets. The citizens, even the most liberal ones, weren’t interested in what the homeless were thinking. As the author stresses, they felt that they’d done their bit, and now they just wanted to live in peace. They were fed up with crime, fed up with aggressive panhandling, fed up with being bullied every time they walked down the street. They were fed up with Larry Hogue smashing windows on 96th street, fed up with Tompkins Square Park, and fed up with 42nd street. So what if Larry Hogue was a traumatized Vietnam veteran? So what if the men in Tompkins Square Park had nowhere to go? The taxpayers were fed up, and they’d lost patience.

I appreciate this book, because the author does not blame the so-called “NIMBY” ideology for the problem. He doesn’t fault people who say “not in my backyard,” because there were the same people who fought for integration and civil rights. He does, however, fault Giuliani’s clean-up effort, because the uptick in arrests for petty offenses led to increased incarceration. He also points out that in the 70’s, a lot of Jews protested, along with the Italians, when it came to forced school busing. It wasn’t so much the idea of minorities going to school with their kids, but that that the government was forcing them to sacrifice. There was also a kind of loose alliance between the Orthodox Jewish community of New York and the conservative Catholic voters, especially when it came to the gravediggers strike.

The liberals in the city fought to bring zoning changes, brought business to Soho, and you can credit them with whatever improvements happened economically. But the homeless, they were left to the mercy of social services, which were underfunded and unready. To be fair, the NYPD busted the squeegee men, and made the city safe enough for more kids to live here. Psychotropic drugs also meant large scale discharges from mental hospitals, but there’s no way to know if they’re taking their meds. For the average New Yorker, the attitude is “I’ve got my own problems.”

From what I remember, the homeless in the 1980’s were often mentally ill, talking to themselves and screaming at things that weren’t there. Today, I see a lot of young homeless people, usually Caucasian, always from outside of the city. The parents may throw them out, others choose to live on the streets. But some of them are drug addicts from other towns, forced to leave by the local police. Rather than have to arrest and process a drug-addicted shoplifter, they simply encourage him to run away from home. With the economy in a shambles, there’s greater incentive to throw kids out of the house, and if you’re a small-town police chief, run them out of town. New York City is where they end up, and our Mayor has no provisions to deal with it.

This book raises many points in how a city deals with the homeless, but some things are missing. Vitale doesn’t write very much on the programs that worked, and while there wasn’t a lot of success, I’d be hard-pressed to believe that there was no success at all. There also aren’t a lot of interviews in this book, and I’d like to hear the views of the people who were involved with these efforts in the 1990’s. Would they do things differently now? What fallacies, in their opinions, did their ideas contain?

With hindsight, what would the author have done differently? I wonder.