The irony of anatomy

Basquiat’s poetics of black positionality

RP 195 () / Article

for Tanzeen Doha

Isabelle Graw Should I come to New York before I write the article on you?

Jean-Michel Basquiat What would you do if the artist you were writing about were dead?

Graw I would do as much research as possible, get together all the available information…

Basquiat Then just do it like that. Pretend I’m dead…

There are two versions of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1981 painting Irony of a Negro Policeman, very similar but with several notable differences. The first version (Fig. 1), with a red background, includes an object resembling a sceptre rising above the left arm. The policeman’s genitals are represented by a triangle and three circles in the mid-section. Two of Basquiat’s signature crowns are featured in the upper left-hand corner. In the final version (Fig. 2) the background has been whitewashed and the genitals painted over, leaving the figure castrated by a white gap running through the centre of the body. The sceptre-like object has been erased but for a few remaining black streaks, and the crowns have been eliminated. The additions to the final canvas are also notable. A foot has been labelled ‘PAW (LEFT)’. An abbreviated version of the title has been written in: ‘IRONY OF NEGRO PLCEMN’. Above that is a further condensation of the title’s significance: the word IRONY, circled in the white space of the upper right corner.

I am interested in reading the relation between additions to this canvas (a quasi-anatomical label, below; the word ‘irony’, above) and its subtraction of icons of empowerment (genitals, crowns, a sceptre) as crucial to Basquiat’s pictorial treatment of blackness. [1] His way of representing blackness, I will argue, is centrally concerned with the relationship between irony, the body and the body’s social determination. Basquiat’s representations of blackness, his way of writing its historical inscription, is driven by a very particular problem: the problem of how the relation between the interiority and exteriority of the body (between its structure and its form) is conditioned by ‘race’ as a form of social determination. It is through the relation between irony and anatomy that this problem gets figured in his work, within the complex nexus of visual and linguistic meaning that constitutes his compositional field. I want to give an account of exactly what people mean when they vaguely refer to ‘racial issues’ or ‘problems of race’ in Basquiat’s work: an account that focuses upon irony as the medium of his artistic production, and upon anatomy as a key part of its historically fraught content. That is, I want to give an analytically precise account of the role of blackness in his pictorial poetics.

Let me first step back for a moment, in order to approach a certain relation between irony, anatomy and blackness from the perspective of a different kind of poetics. Consider Kenneth Goldsmith’s now infamous performance, in March 2015, of a text he titled ‘The Body of Michael Brown’, his reading of a modified version of the federal autopsy report written subsequent to Brown’s murder by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Goldsmith is the co-editor of Against Expression, an anthology of conceptual writing. For Goldsmith, this text was a specimen of ‘conceptual writing’, which he thinks of as a non-expressive or indeed anti-expressive poetics based on the reproduction, reconfiguration and performance or publishing of already existing texts gleaned from a variety of media. [2] A document like Brown’s autopsy report, he claims, ‘speaks for itself in ways that an interpretation cannot’, and he thus insists that, in preparing the piece for performance, he ‘didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be to go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing’. [3] Goldsmith did, however, rearrange the text, altering the order of the report so that his performance concluded with the autopsy’s description of Michael Brown’s genitals.

Goldsmith’s appropriation and performance have been widely criticized for their complicity with the unchecked dominance of black people’s bodies within the persistent framework of white supremacy. In grappling with this critique, I find it useful to refer …