The Basquiat Syndrome

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.

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."

Actually, Hancock's half-baked narrative and imaginative cast of characters are the only aspects of his work that are truly original. As Hancock explains it in a handout titled "The Life and Death of #1," the story begins "about 50,000 years ago" when "an ape jacked off in a field of flowers," giving birth to "strange, furry heaps residing in wooded areas around the world." These heaps are known as "Mounds," and one of these mounds, alternately known as "the Legend" and "#1," seems to be the last survivor of that once-noble race--a race with which Hancock "shares a psychic bond." "I am ground control, and they are my satellites. I see what they see. I remember things that they did and things that they saw even after they are dead...I will be taking a dump and get a crystal clear image of tree bark."

The story unfolds in a series of drawings featuring not only "#1," but a host of supporting heroes, including "Loid," "Painter" and a character called "Torpedoboy." All of these heroes are the artist's alter egos, who go about the work of rescuing mounds and avenging slights inflicted upon them by a series of villains. The villains, in turn, resemble white simpletons and cracker farmers, one of whom bashes in The Legend's skull "while out hunting for edible varmints."

In short, Hancock has created an interesting variation on a venerable artistic genre, the African-American self-portrait. His multiple personas and imaginary world are a sort of new New Negro--in the words of Gates, a "coded system of signs, complete with masks and mythology." Like W.E.B. Du Bois' creation, Hancock's heroes are creatures of dignity designed to combat negative racist stereotypes. At the same time, they are a means of exploring the fragmented self-identity, the conflicts inherent in being black and American. As black intellectuals from Du Bois to Patricia J. Williams have noted, the African-American history of slavery, dislocation and discrimination has resulted in a sense of disunity, a feeling that one's black self has been torn asunder, fragmented, left in pieces.

Hancock's work reflects this disunity, in form as well as in content. The content is easy to spot: His heroes are literally both black and white on the surface, and like all humans, pink underneath. Figures like "Frosty" and "Loid" deal with issues such as skin color and loss of pigmentation; both "Torpedoboy" and "Loid" deal with questions of race-obligation, through the business of saving and avenging mounds. In some drawings like "Pure N" and "The Legend," Hancock toys with racial stereotypes; in "Rememor with Membry," he plays with ebonics. Likewise, in form, Hancock relies on a number of traditional black narrative strategies, including "signifying," which Gates has defined as "a technique of indirect argument or persuasion, a language of implication...repetition of a form and then inversion of the same." In Hancock's work, the presence of characters is implied through their absence and through the repetitive use of symbols--Torpedoboy's handprint, Loid's repetitive words.

These are, of course, traditional African-American aesthetic strategies, employed by painters from 18th-century slaves to Jacob Lawrence to Basquiat. Though the Modern is careful to avoid invoking his name, Hancock's work is eerily reminiscent of Basquiat's: the sign system, the comic-book heroes, the imaginary cast of characters, the idiosyncratic and largely made-up version of history, the fascination with double entendres and puns, with word games, and with deconstructing language in general.

Like Basquiat's work, Hancock's is all about being black in America. The problem is that, outside this context, the work is difficult if not impossible to understand. The disunity makes for a pictorial awkwardness; the work is visually overwhelming, even impenetrable. Yet the Modern is bound and determined to treat Hancock as a mainstream artist. It is a determination that makes little sense and in fact does Hancock a grave disservice, since it is his very exoticism that earned him this show in the first place.

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Christine Biederman