Black genius: To Basquiat with ❤
An Open Letter/Essay Re-mix by Tanekeya Word[i], on “Black geniuses”
September 2, 2012
Most “Black geniuses” are recognized after they have transcended. It is not the mythological “Black race curse,” nor the lack of recognition of fame that kills them; it is, the alienation of their artistic contribution[ii] to society—while they are living—that sabotages their psyche. Unlike Sula:[iii]
In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous (Morrison 1973, 121).
Geniuses, who are also creative, have an art form; yet, they become dangerous when their art form is alienated and the focus is placed on the self—the personal life, the body. Basquiat, when you were interviewed by Isabelle Graw[iv] she stated, “You are the only very successful Black artist…” and you asserted, “I don’t know if the fact that I’m Black has something to do with my success. I don’t believe that I should be compared to Black artists but rather to all artists.” Isabelle, like many critics before, whether intentional or unintentional, continuously isolated your genius: your artistry. Instead, they focused on your body; your ethnicity and your Blackness became your supreme being. In your lifetime, your Blackness overshadowed your contribution to the world—your essence, your art—and like your ancestors; you too were objectified and treated as just a body.
The objectification process fragments the genius’s mentality into a dissociative state: the artist, the self and the genius are now playing for the protagonist role instead of working cohesively as one. This disruption causes an imbalance and situates the genius psyche into self-sabotage mode: in order to find peace and retain stability. “Questlove has a theory about what happens to Black genius—what he calls a ‘crazy psychological kind of stoppage that prevents them from following through. A sort of self-saboteur disorder.’”[v] He believes, “Black geniuses are crazy…”[vi] No, genius is selfish.
To Basquiat, making it did not just mean getting a gallery exhibition, a dealer, or even collecting big bank off his work. Making it to him meant going down in history, ranked beside the Great White Fathers of Western painting in the eyes of major critics, museum curators, and art historians who ultimately determined things. What he got for his grasping for immortality from the gaping mouths of these god-heads was a shitload of rejection, (mis)apprehension, and arcane or inconclusive interpretations…He refused to let the issue of his genius die on the spent pyre of his accumulated earnings…
By all accounts Basquiat certainly tried to give as much as he got from the American art dealers, critics, and doyens, most effectively in the end by his sustained levels of production, excellence, and irreducible complexity[vii] (Tate 1992, 237).
It is not the “Black” in genius; but, the hubris nature of an imperfect being who wants to exceed excellence and become perfect that causes hamartia. The flawed genius wants to be so perfect that the world reveres every piece of work produced by their genius. The overbearing pressure and pride to be recognized is daunting. Seeking admiration and validation from all, becomes the fatal flaw in the quest for perfectionism and thus, the tragic fall of many geniuses. Hey geniuses, what the world did not give you, the world cannot take away—focus on just the work and not the person/people. Basquiat, I wish you had realized this before you transcended. You are excellence; you are genius, without the need of a precursor.
It is imperative that geniuses recognize and own their genius before they give it to the world. Sit with it, love it, honor it, and protect it. Genius requires the majority of your time and no one else is allowed to replace it—genius is passionate and narcissistic. At it’s primary “knowing” state genius emits healthy self-love or an unhealthy self-absorption where the sense of self is disturbed. Basquiat, your genius found its narcissistic supply in the friends, the women, the early patrons and your mentor Andy Warhol. They admired and affirmed you as a human being and artist and genius. Yet, your genius craved perfection: the reverence of the art world at large and to gain your place in art history. When denied that admiration, from the gatekeepers after all of the excellence and finesse you exuberated, you detested them. Their acts re-materialized the narcissistic abuse[viii] inflicted upon you as a child causing narcissistic injury,[ix] then, narcissistic rage.[x] Like those you despised for focusing on your Blackness rather than your art, you too began to take your eyes solely off of your art and you placed your intense focus on the white-gaze. To balance your hypersensitivity to the abuse, the direct insults and the imagined insults, you found a coping mechanism—self-abuse.
Jean-Michel, it is ironic that you chose to partake in substance abuse to escape the body that was constantly being objectified, “othered” and abused by the art world. Genius, you were innately excellent and that immense feeling of greatness was warranted, it was healthy—healthy narcissism. It was the shame that disturbed your excellence and relinquished your champion nature and rendered it into unhealthy narcissism. Why feel ashamed, when you were powerful? I wanted you to love yourself and own it. When someone does not understand genius, they are frustrated and will project their sense of inferiority onto a genius. In an effort to try to minimize the genius’s mind, they concentrate on something they think they are equipped in understanding instead: the body, the self is the easiest target. Geniuses, be immensely careful of trading in your power for validation.
“To be race-identified race-refugee is to tap-dance on a tightrope, making your precarious existence a question of balance and to whom you concede a mortgage on your mind and body and lien on your soul” (Tate 1992, 233).
I, intentionally removed the precursor black from genius as it modifies the genius. There is no need for a change—a genius is a genius—the mind is at play and if you are a living being, it is all just pink matter no matter the ethnicity. There is no need to ‘tap-dance on a tightrope and concede a mortgage on your mind and body,’ surely, in this economy, we have come to understand the aftermaths of subprime mortgages. Basquiat, you have mentored this genius and many more through your absence and we will continue to pay homage to you. As my mother says, “Give me my flowers while I am here, while I can still smell them.” Since, you cannot partake in the beauty of your legacy now: I give these words as flowers to your prodigies.
I call you—the next generation of geniuses—to accept your flowers now and to pay homage to the many geniuses of the past, present and future, by demystifying the “Black genius” plague, and living and creating on your own terms. Geniuses: know it, own it, write it, and document it and most of all love yourselves. Somebody has to love a genius child and it might as well be the genius.
Visual Artist, Hybrid Chic, Genius + Flower Bearer
P.S. Basquiat, in the future you are a contemporary genius, renowned American artist and multi-millionaire—the fact that you are also Black is an afterthought in the art world.
[i] Author’s Biases: I believe it is imperative to have a grounded foundation—especially as a genius. A foundation supports your being without the need of validation from people, it allows you to understand there is more to the world than just what you are creating and contributing to society. A foundation gives you peace knowing that you are worthy no matter what.
[ii] This open letter/essay focuses on geniuses whose skills contribute to the creative sector; specifically fine arts and entertainment.
[iii] Sula, the eponymous character who bore the same name as the novel, in which she played the protagonist—a misunderstood and possibly misguided heroine/villian. [Morrison, Toni. 1973. Sula. New York: Plume/Penguin Books.]
[iv] Quote from the reprinted excerpt in Greg Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk. 242. Original interview: [Graw, Isabelle. 1987. Wolkenkratzer Art Journal, No. 1, January–February. Frankfurt.] Interview reprinted in: [Marenzi, Luca. 1999. Basquiat. Milan: Charta.]
[v] Wallace, Amy. 2012. Amen (D’angelo’s Back). GQ, June.
[vi] Questlove of the Roots in a March 15, 2012 interview: [The Champs podcast. http://thechampsyo.com/2012/03/the-champs-podcast-questlove/(Accessed September 1, 2012)].
[vii] Tate, Greg. 1992. Nobody Loves A Genius Child: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk. Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster.
[viii] Psychoanalysts originally applied the term to children who had endured narcissistic, authoritative and/or controlling parent[s]; Basquiat, could be considered the child of a narcissist as he craved the validation of his father who wanted Basquiat to take a different career path, amongst other commands. Karen Horney, characterized the term as: “the character disorder – particularly the compulsive striving for love and power—resulting from the childhood hurts bred of parental narcissism and abuse.” Note: Even if Jean-Michel Basquiat had not endured narcissistic abuse during his childhood—as a genius—he had a larger dose of the narcissistic “selfish” trait that surpasses normal narcissism. [Sayers, Janet. 1991. Mothering Psychoanalysis: Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. London: Hamish Hamilton. 18.]
[ix] In 1923 Sigmund Freud suggested: narcissistic injury is a perceived threat to a narcissist’s self-esteem or self-worth. [Akhtar, Salman. 2009. Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books.182.]
[x] A term coined by Heinz Khout that suggests narcissistic rage is a reaction to narcissistic injury and is a result of the shame being faced by failure. [Kohut, Heinz. 1972. Thoughts on Narcissism and Narcissistic Rage. In the Search for The Self. Vol.II. New York: International Universities Press. 615–658.]
Tanekeya Word is something like a Hybrid Chic: an Afrofuturist, Visual Artist, Creative Director, M.A. Arts Management Consultant, Scholar, Former “Extremely Selfish” Adolescent and Genius—with a healthy dose of normal narcissism.
“Basquiat” Photography: Andy Warhol ©1982
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