The Basquiat Syndrome

Trenton Doyle Hancock benefits from the art world's peculiarly cynical twist on affirmative action

It's hell being an art-world skeptic. In many ways, the art critic's gig recalls Pascal's famous wager with non-believers. Since life is a cosmic crapshoot, Pascal argued, the pragmatist will always bet in favor of God's existence. If you're right, and he exists, you've won everything; if you're wrong, and he doesn't, well, doubtless you tried to behave, but there was all that backsliding, so you didn't really lose anything, did you?

Art history is just an earthly division of the hereafter. It will enshrine a few lucky souls and send the rest packing for that Purgatory of the long forgotten. Best of all, like the SAT, art history doesn't take off points for wrong guesses; thus the critic has everything to gain and little to lose by being kind. Besides, it's easier. Less fact-checking, plus you don't have to look that gallery owner in the face after savaging his latest enthusiasm. And sycophancy does have its rewards: the occasional box of chocolates, less hate mail, more invites to be part of the art world's promotional apparatus, which is to say a chance to make more money. Clever scribes even invent fancy rationales for being part of the hype; Dave Hickey has described his job as "writ[ing] love songs for people who live in a democracy"--art dealing and collecting being, Hickey argues (with straight face, one presumes), merely capital-intensive forms of voting.

Raymond Chandler once described the resulting machinery: "promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture." Erase the "in" from "indirect" and substitute "art" for "books," and you have a perfect summary of how institutions like the Whitney Biennial operate. You also have a partial explanation for the hype surrounding an artist like Trenton Doyle Hancock, the subject of a show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

"The Legend," a 1997 mixed-media work by Trenton Doyle Hancock
"The Legend," a 1997 mixed-media work by Trenton Doyle Hancock


Through January 20; 817-738-9215
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

At 27, Hancock is a Texan, the youngest of the local whiz kids picked for the Whitney's 2000 Biennial. Michael Auping, the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum's chief curator, was one of the Biennial's curators, hence the inclusion of Hancock and the others. Thus a bunch of incredibly green artists have leapfrogged over the emerging galleries where they belong and into the most established venues in town. Last summer Hancock, who has not even begun to pay his artistic dues, had a one-man show at New York's James Cohan gallery, garnering a respectful notice in The New York Times. In August, his show at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum opened to (surprise!) rave reviews in the local press. And this weekend, the same show debuted on the walls of Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum, normally one of the sanest and most discriminating venues for viewing contemporary art in the country.

So what gives? Easy. Hancock is the beneficiary of a watered-down version of Basquiat syndrome, the art world's peculiarly cynical twist on affirmative action. Every so often the forces of hype will pluck a young and promising African-American artist out of obscurity, extol him as an exotic and lionize him all out of proportion. The prototype was the too-much, too-soon career of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1987 of a heroin overdose. Indeed, some of the people jumping on Hancock's bandwagon are the same ones who promoted Basquiat, including the Times' Roberta Smith. Add the novelty of Hancock's having grown up in Paris, Texas, and you've got chicken-fried multi-culti, an irresistible sideshow in the art world's endless big top.

Some aspects of Basquiat syndrome can be openly and honestly defended; a little tokenism is arguably the least the art world can offer, a small and overdue penance for ignoring black artists. On the other hand, whether affirmative action is needed in the arts is open to question. No less respected a figure than Henry Louis Gates has argued that Black America's influence in the cultural sphere is so pervasive that African-Americans have entered the "cultural mainstream." As Gates puts it, "the point isn't that there are black artists and intellectuals who matter; it's that so many of the artists and intellectuals who matter are black. It's not that the cultural cutting edge has been influenced by black creativity; it's that black creativity, it so often seems today, is the cultural cutting edge."

The problem is, Hancock isn't being presented or evaluated as a black artist--a decision that seems unfair, since he doesn't look like someone whose art is likely to matter or even make sense outside that context. The Modern is trying to have it both ways, presenting Hancock as both a mainstream artist and at the same time as an exotic "other" without acknowledging all that this implies. Describing Hancock as "one of the most exciting discoveries in all my travels," Auping uses language vaguely reminiscent of 19th-century white explorers: "When you are used to looking at a lot of strange art, it's not often you can say you've come across something truly weird. Trent is truly weird."

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