Basquiat Watching Telly: You Need Input If You’re Going To Create Output

The artist in 1983 at his studio on Crosby Street.Roland Hagenberg

The artist in 1983 at his studio on Crosby Street.Roland Hagenberg

‘I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life.’
Jean-Michel Basquiat

In 1967 a seven-year-old Brooklyn kid was playing stickball in the street when he was hit by a car. Confined to hospital to recover from his injuries, his mother gave him a copy of the textbook ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ to amuse him.

Years later when Jean-Michel Basquiat was an artist, the imagery that he had absorbed from that book repeatedly made its way onto his canvases - as skulls, spines and skeletons; as cross-sections, labels and anatomical diagrams. Basquiat had a special skill for translating his personal experiences into his work.

‘I never went to an art school. I failed at the art courses I did take at school. I just looked at a lot of things, and that’s where I think I learned about art.’

Basquiat, whose parents were Haitian and Puerto Rican, grew up with an instinctive love of art. As a child his mother took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as a teenager he regularly visited galleries with his mates.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982

After leaving school at 17, Basquiat joined the vibrant post-punk creative scene that congregated around the run-down streets of lower Manhattan. With a friend he began spraying surreal, witty, provocative graffiti-poetry, under the SAMO© tag, all over SoHo and the Lower East Side. With another friend he created collage-based post cards and sold them on the street for a dollar or two. (His customers included his hero Andy Warhol.) He formed a band named Gray after the book that had made such an impression on him as a kid. He DJed at clubs and parties; acted in an art-house movie; hung out with members of the burgeoning hip-hop scene. And when eventually he turned to painting, he sold his first picture to the musician Debbie Harry.

Basquiat was an artistic autodidact. He saw no boundaries between media and he thrived within a networked creative community.

Basquiat was also a sponge for knowledge, inspiration and stimulus. His paintings are filled with references to his love of music (from bebop to hip hop); to his passion for sport (Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis); to the art history books he read (Da Vinci, Titian, Manet, Picasso, Duchamp); to his interest in the African American experience. All these elements are mixed in with the planes, automobiles and skyscrapers of his native city; with birds, masks and demons; with crowns, hats and halos; with icons of popular culture; with the enigmatic political poetry that he had first expressed in his graffiti.

‘I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off.’

There’s some fascinating film footage of Basquiat in 1985 sketching and making notes in front of the telly. He was clearly processing the material from one medium directly onto another; allowing himself to respond freely and intuitively, loosely and spontaneously. Across his work there are references to the cartoons, sci-fi shows and movies he had been watching – to Popeye and Felix the Cat; to ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’

‘It’s sort of on automatic most of the time.’

Untitled 1982

Untitled 1982

Basquiat was special. He synthesized low and high culture; words, images and symbols; personal memories and public knowledge; the present and the past. He orchestrated his responses to the world, channeled and filtered them into one compelling, magical brew. And he seems to have captured something about what it is to live in these super-fast, over-choiced, hyper-connected, ethically-conflicted times.

Sadly in 1988 Basquiat died from a heroin overdose. He was 27.

So often the marketing and communications business is insular, introverted, isolated. For inspiration we consider adjacent markets, sectors, campaigns and brands; we examine our competitors and Cannes winners, popular ads and award books. But we rarely look beyond our own orbit.

Basquiat teaches us some simple lessons: that true creativity knows no boundaries; that it thrives within a Bohemian culture; that it needs constant stimulus, provocation and experience to sustain it; that if we want to make interesting work, we should seek catalysts from beyond our immediate environment.

You need input if you’re going to create output.


Basquiat: Boom for Real’ is at the Barbican in London until 28 January 2018.

No. 164




‘Words Without Thoughts Never To Heaven Go’

Bernardo: ‘Who’s there?’
Francisco: ‘Nay, answer me: stand and unfold yourself.’
Hamlet, I i.

Some have argued that the opening lines of Hamlet are entirely appropriate: this night-time exchange between two guards on the walls of the castle at Elsinore immediately establishes a sense of doubt about identity, a theme that sustains us through the play.

In a bold break with tradition, the director of the Hamlet currently being staged at The Barbican in London chose instead to start her production with the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. Too bold for some, and it was announced last week that the experiment would be discontinued.

Should one side with the purists and demand respect for genius and tradition? Or should one applaud brave endeavour, even when it doesn’t succeed?

I found that, the longer I was in business, the more I had to guard against instinctive conservatism. ‘We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work.’ Age and experience can at once enhance one’s judgement and diminish one’s appetite for change.

I saw the Barbican Hamlet in preview. Benedict Cumberbatch has a strong, charismatic take on the troubled Prince; the sets are magnificent; and the production has many good ideas.

When you revisit great works, different scenes leap out at you. This time I was struck by the passage in which Hamlet’s uncle, the villainous Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father and married his widow, tries to pray for forgiveness. At length Claudius concedes that, since he is still in possession of ‘my crown, mine own ambition and my queen,’ he cannot hope for absolution. His prayers are empty without genuine remorse.

‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’
Hamlet III, iii

Creative businesses are sadly cursed by hollow words and empty promises. We all too publicly worship at the altar of creativity without properly demonstrating our faith in day-to-day behaviour. Talk is cheap. And our belief is sorely tested when the god Mammon steps into the meeting room. Perhaps we should, like Claudius, appreciate that ‘words without thoughts never to heaven go.’


Scepticism Is Healthy for Business Too

Trouble in Paradise is a sophisticated screwball comedy from 1932, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A romance between two upmarket con artists is tested when one of them falls for a society heiress, their next intended victim.

The film is fast paced, knowing and wry. And so beautifully written. The society heiress, Madame Colet, rejects a suitor’s advances thus:

‘You see, Francois, marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together. But with you, Francois, it would be a mistake.’

It’s reassuring to discover that scepticism about advertising and business was alive and well in the ‘30s. Madame Colet has inherited a perfume business and her brand is advertised thus:

‘Remember, it doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter how you look. It’s how you smell.’

In another scene Giron, the Chairman of the Board of Colet et Cie, confronts our hero Gaston, now acting as Madame Colet’s advisor:
Giron:  ‘Speaking for the Board of Directors as well as for myself, if you insist in times like these in cutting the fees of the Board of Directors, then we resign.’
Gaston:  ‘Speaking for Madame Colet as well as for myself, resign.’
Giron:  'Very well…We’ll think it over...’

I understand that in this month’s Alphabet announcement there was a nod to the HBO comedy Silicon Valley (The Guardian, 11 Aug 2015). There’s a great tradition of comic writing about commercial culture. The Office reflected business life as it is, not as we would want it to be. Nathan Barley shone a light on Shoreditch lunacy, with extraordinary prescience and what now looks like understatement. And the recently departed comic genius, David Nobbs, gave us Reggie Perrin, the middle management mid-life crisis that is sadly all too familiar.

Scepticism is healthy. It calls business to account. It shows that the public is alert to our shortcomings.
Better to be mocked than to be ignored.


Can Commerce Integrate Art and Science?

The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon by JMW Turner shows ordinary folk dancing in a beautiful bucolic scene. A few years ago research was published indicating that Turner’s depiction of the sun in this painting was based on the latest scientific thinking of his day. (The Guardian, 13 November 2011)

It transpires that Turner, whilst studying art at the Royal Academy, also attended science debates at the Royal Society, which was housed in the same building. And in particular it is suggested that Turner attended the lectures of the astronomer William Herschel, who had been examining the surface of the sun.

As an artist Turner was comfortable with, and actively interested in, science. The scientist Michael Faraday was a good friend and he knew mathematicians, palaeontologists and chemists. Science inspired him. His commitment to observe nature first hand is captured in the myth that he lashed himself to a mast during a storm, just so that he could understand the conditions; an experience that supposedly prompted my favourite Turner painting, Snow Storm - Steam Boat Off A Harbour’s Mouth. 

I regret to say that, when I grew up, art and science were taught as polar opposites. We imagined that scientists had different shaped brains and we rarely socialised with them. This dualism extended even to our TV viewing: the scientists watched The Body in Question; we arts scholars watched Brideshead Revisited (the show that launched a thousand fops)…

It’s compelling to note that many of today’s more interesting movies, dance and theatre productions concern themselves with science. The Theory of Everything had us trying to keep up with Stephen Hawking; the great Wayne McGregor creates dance inspired by neuroscience; Nick Payne’s recent Royal Court hit, Constellations, looked at a human relationship in the context of quantum multiverse theory.

Though I’ve barely a scientific sinew in my body, I believe that the future of marketing and communications will occur at the intersection between art and science. It’s logical. It's inspiring.



No. 44