In looking for art this week, I find myself pulled toward one of my favorites: Jean Michel Basquiat. Basquiat was a painter in the 1980s whose work was infused with music. Early in his career, he was in several bands in New York’s new wave/no wave scene. Many of his paintings revered the giants of the be-bop era. Like some of those giants – the ones he identified with most – his life was cut tragically short by a heroin overdose.
One of those heroes, Charlie Parker, achieved a kind of transcendence in his music. As I understand it, Parker’s music takes known melodies and combines and reframes them as an improvisation. He takes the musical landscape and reshapes it through his own identity. There is no plan or program, just you and the music flowing through one another. Parker was also a heroin addict, who died at the age of 35. I wonder if his use of heroin and other appetites was an escape from or a search for that transcendence outside of music. Perhaps he looked into the face of God and saw no other way to live.
Basquiat’s intense appetites had a different character. Like Parker, Basquiat took the culture around him and sythesized it through his own identity. The interesting thing was that Parker’s life was a part of that culture and identity. That is, Basquiat’s identity included ideas from the culture at large about the tragic artist and what it means to be black in America as well as a consciousness of that identity. His slow heroin suicide was, in part, a program – a game of sorts – for the art world. That is what they expected of a young black man with talent, so he gave it to them and more. His paintings were a spiral of meaning, with identity and culture and self-consciousness swirling back on each other. They were brilliant, but they are filled with a fatalism and nihilism, a tragic destiny. Basquiat won the game, but lost his life at the age of 27. There is no transcendence for him except that of reputation and history.
Less often, Basquiat painted Max Roach, another hero of the be-bop era. Roach was a pioneer on the drums, inventing ways of playing that virtually every drummer takes for granted today. But he didn’t just come up with a brilliant idea long ago; he kept going. He worked into the 21st century, embracing new forms of music that came along. Only illness and age stopped him.
I wonder if Roach represented a hope for Basquiat. He was a living hero, someone that went to the mountain top and survived. The music compelled him to make more music, to seek out new kinds of experiences that orbited that center. Imagine what great things Basquiat could have done if he had not given into the expectations of the world and, instead, patterned his life after Max Roach or Dizzy Gillespie or Art Blakey or any number of others.
As we continue looking at centering practices this summer, I hope that will continue to look for those practices that sustain us and around which our lives as individuals and as a community can revolve.