Wide brush strokes and asymmetrical features adorn a canvas spray-painted and littered with seemingly random symbols resembling stitches and tic-tac-toe boards on a painting whose worth has since become controversial. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 piece “Untitled” is under scrutiny by some after having been purchased at Sotheby’s auction house on May 18th for 110.5 million dollars. This bid, made by Japanese internet entrepreneur and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa makes Basquiat’s piece the sixth most expensive works sold at an auction and the most expensive American work of art sold.
The high price has brought self-appointed art critics to retaliate via the Internet, commenting on articles from various news outlets regarding the sale, comparing Basquiat’s technique with that of a child or criticizing Maezawa’s enthusiasm over the painting. Those incensed by the price simply do not see the value of Basquiat’s accomplishment and the impact that he has had on the current art scene.
Beginning as a graffiti artist in New York under the name SAMO during the late seventies, Basquiat produced street artwork emphasizing the disparate treatment of African-Americans and the struggles of everyday life in poverty. He soon took to experimentation on canvas and sold his works to afford housing and his heroin addiction, only to be found by famed, pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol became both a friend and a mentor to Basquiat, helping the struggling artist to find a foothold within an art scene that was almost exclusively white.
This is perhaps where Basquiat’s greatest contribution lies: his ability to shake the art world with works that depicted the black experience, that placed artwork in museums that wasn’t created by, or for, a privileged white European. Throughout his life, Basquiat struggled with depression, brought on by critics’ inability to separate his race from his talent as an artist, and it was these prejudiced views that went on to inspire the social and political commentary that his work sought to portray.
Basquiat was a massive contributor to the neo-expressionist movement, an art form that responded to the minimal and conceptual art of the time and reintroduced identifiable objects, returning to present a humanized art. This raw emotion can be felt in the work sold for an unthinkable price to many, the heavy strokes and disjointed patches of color depicting the inner struggle of a man who refused to accept the injustice, in life or in art. While some see the careless manipulation of paint to construct what they consider an unrefined image, it is for that exact reason that Basquiat’s “Untitled” is a masterpiece.
To dismiss art that seems too abstract or lacking in classical painting skill on the surface is to reject a form of artwork that serves to subvert the standards of fine art and challenge the exclusive rigidity of the museum. Basquiat’s work merits the high praise and selling price that it garnered at Sotheby’s auction, it demands an acknowledgement of both the artist’s importance as well as his genius.