Giddy-up horsey

by Yule Heibel on January 16, 2006

I wish I could say that I’ve been furiously scribbling away at some fabulous essays these past ten days, but alas, that would be an untruth. I have instead been yoked, harnessed, steeped, and stewed in various real-life (i.e., not virtual) community commitments that involved much face-to-face and even in-your-face contact spread across many late-late evenings and some days, in addition to all the usual domestic duties that befall those who raise families. Much fun was sometimes had by all, even me, and so it has by no means been grim, just busy, with too many things I consider off-limits for blogging.

Such as, you ask? Well, I get some of my best insights simply by observing patterns of interaction amongst my fellow naked apes, but I can’t uncover my conclusions so shamelessly, with such immodesty, that those who were observed could recognise themselves in their nakedness. Instead, I wait until something in the patterns distills into a less specific, but perhaps still trenchant portrait. Then I can tell.

In the meantime, let’s talk about me. (!) During a recent foray to my local library, I picked up a copy of Basquiat, the 1996 film about Jean-Michel Basquiat made by fellow painter Julian Schnabel. The film is difficult to follow in places, partly because of all the “star personalities” it allows to proliferate on screen — stars played by stars: for example, Andy Warhol played most creepily by David Bowie — and partly because the 1980s were a money-hyper decade that was difficult to get a grip on in any sense. Quick, there’s Bruno Bischofberger! And yikes, isn’t that Henry Geldzahler? Cool glasses! Wow, look at Mary Boone! What an eye! …And so on and so forth. The scenes are operatic in the sense that you need a program guide to follow along.

But that was the 80s, right? See and be seen? So why bother viewing this film?

Well, aside from the fact that Schnabel & Co. found an uncommonly good-looking actor (Jeffrey Wright, who also played the lead role of Al Melvin in the 2004 remake, The Manchurian Candidate) to star as Basquiat, the film in spite of itself — at least, I think it was in spite of itself — pinpoints the Achilles heel of mid- to late-20th century art, a weakness that even the grotty efflorescence of so-called neo-expressionist painting couldn’t erase.

Before Jean-Michel hits the big time, he asks his buddy what it takes to become famous. His friend, a deliberate, I’m-a-loser-on-purpose nobody, answers that first you have to find your “shtick,” so to speak (he doesn’t use that word, but it was along those lines); then you have to push that sthick at people, over and over and over again. And then, once you’ve gotten noticed, you have to accomodate yourself to what the people want, and what the people will want will be more of the same. You have to repeat yourself, over and over and over again until the day you die. To keep the fame you so ardently aspired to you have to become what I think of as the dreaded One Trick Pony. Basquiat’s “nobody” friend has seen through the whole circus, and he doesn’t want to canter in that ring. But Jean-Michel decides he has to go for it. And he makes it, he does become the circus’s newest Big Act, with a vengeance. He also becomes, as predicted, a One Trick Pony: what people want is more of Basquiat, cast in stone. The trouble is, however, that he is far too intelligent and obviously too highly talented to remain happy in that role. There’s also the small issue of mental illness in the family, which Schnabel exploits to predictable effect: the film starts with a scene right out of Vasari’s Lives (genius recognised as such at a young age, blah, blah, blah), and then the tortured artist theme is elaborated on with numerous references to Van Gogh and his blasted ear.

I actually thought, after seeing the film, that Schnabel may have been suggesting (knowingly or not) that Basquiat (re)found his mother (or a new mother) in his collaboration with Warhol: the film makes such a big deal of Basquiat’s breakdown in the wake of Warhol’s death, underscored by his visit to the asylum where his mother lived (whether the latter really happened or not I can’t say). Losing Andy, the film suggests, was for Jean-Michel like losing his mother all over again.

Mothers, women. Where were they in the 80s? (Where are they now, for that matter…) The Eighties: a potent, virile, indescribably masculinist epoch in art, with money flowing like there was no tomorrow. The money’s still flowing. The One Trick Ponies are still dancing, too. Neo-expressionist virility has (thank gods) died down a bit. No one really believes any more that there’s just One Big Thing out there. And so we have seasons and fashions in art, just like we do in haute couture: raise the hemlines, drop the hemlines. If you’re smart, you keep your ear to the ground so that you know what everyone else is up to, but then you make sure that you do your own thing. Uniquely your own thing, you and several hundred thousand other aspiring artists. Everyone’s gone off on their own rails, sometimes just gone off the rails.

….And yet, the insiduous One Trick Pony idea continues to infect people, enthrall them, imprison them. Once you’ve made it, it’s nearly impossible to change. You have to keep repeating your own greatest hits. What a nightmare: successful people repeat themselves. “Nothing succeeds like success.” Watching Basquiat, I realised that I’m pretty stable: I will not die of drug abuse or overdoses. But I also saw that with the “I’m a nobody on purpose” loser dude, I share this unstable horror of repeating myself, which unfortunately doesn’t bode well for my future success. The fields or careers I’ve always been interested in are filled with One Trick Ponies: academics who repeat the same old stuff over and over and over again, for years on end (how can they face themselves, day after day??); artists who don’t really change; designers whose concept of change is as “deep” as the fashion industry’s; politicians/ activists/ leaders who harp on the same idea over and over and over again, seemingly incapable of synthesising new insights or information into their worldview or ideology, to the point that only the simple-minded have any interest in what they have to say. Perhaps the One Trick Pony is saddled with terminal individualism: ego gone into orbit. The One Trick Pony doesn’t collaborate or teamwork with others. The One Trick Pony prances in place. Poor pony.

{ 1 comment }

maria January 17, 2006 at 1:36 pm

You know, I just watched Basquiat a few months ago, and I think that on my blog I said something about it having been pretty to watch, but I did miss these levels that define the race course for that One Trick Pony.

I suppose, it is easy to become a One Trick Pony as soon as the focus from curiosity about the work and process (or the world) turns inward toward the self — at which point the process and the work becomes the shaping and maintaining of the ego. One becomes one’s own work … which is why we had the great succes of self-help books, followed by reality TV. We — as in ourselves, and not as the collective of a human community — are the last frontier, the gold mine, and the oil well.

Okay, that’s probably enough rantning for one morning … and I don’t want to go off the track here, to derail the discussion!

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