Portrait of the Artist as Brat

This morning as I was leaving home, I noticed that the Basquiat was playing on STARZ. Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of Jean Michel Basquiat (he stole every scene as Peoples Hernandez in the remake of Shaft and he is perhaps one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood, but that’s another blog.)

Basquiat was a Caribbean genius who was exploring his identity through the medium of paint and whatever else he could lay his mind and hands on. Yet, in some ways, Basquiat also reminded me of Pollock, especially the scene where Pollock pisses in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace.

I was appalled at the scene. If Pollock or any other genius has pissed in my fireplace, I would have made sure he wouldn’t be able to do it twice.

My children tell me I’m getting old. But I don’t think age has anything to do with it.

And it has nothing to do with normality or intolerance. For as one of my most trusted friends always says, “If you can’t love the mad people, you can’t love yourself.”

So, it has to do with the kind of behavior that we should (?) expect from gifted people. Peeing in my fireplace is unacceptable.

But there is a broader question here of genius or artistic giftedness and society. There is always a danger in using generalizations, but we need to start somewhere. Artists are usually more sensitive to certain stimuli, and it is usually this provoking (Give thanks to Rex Nettleford for reminding us to use this word in the fullest Jamaican sense) that spurs creation. So given certain circumstances that would seem normal to everyone else, an artist may be a bit more agitated. And if by definition, a distinctive perspective/point of view is the mark of artist (s/he sees/hears and is able to convey this perspective/point of view that everyone is unable/unwilling to see/hear) then we should expect a certain amount of alienation from the rest of society while it clings to a notion of proper behavior and normality. Or until a new equilibrium is achieved. Witness how Bob Marley and Rastafari have changed the world to where dreadlocks are now fashionable.

But where do we draw the line? Should a line be drawn? Can a line be drawn? How do we draw a line when we haven’t defined the crease or boundary? And if South Park can draw a line, “Dude, you have sex with children,” why can’t I?

I suspect the line is being drawn individually, but we haven’t reached a cultural consensus. We’ll be flying blind until we reach a cultural consensus (hence a lack of synergy) because the universal artistic impulse is one of those things that is shaped by culture. A culture uses threats and rewards to encourage and discourage behaviors, and to say what’s good and bad. Culture also draws the line between the thinkable and the unthinkable. For example, the behavior of black shock jocks is different than their white counterparts. 

And black shock jocks, I don’t think, would ever approach the level of a Howard Stern (talent aside, who does?). But would we ever want a Caribbean Howard Stern? Is such a thing possible? Are we too conservative to think such things? Because if we don’t think about those things or refuse to think about those things, are we any less free? Ideas about freedom are not idle thoughts in the Caribbean.

Is there a bedrock of decency or ethics: how we are in the world, our internal integrity/values, and how we operate in the world? Do these values apply to the gifted people?

Genius will always obey by its own rules and will pay the price for following its own rules. That’s the price of individuality, vision, and courage. But how do we ask these important questions within the Caribbean while the culture is being changed so rapidly? How can we ask these questions when the European and African view of the body are so different, and we have not fully explored the philosophical implications of the works of the NDTC thrusting those black bodies through and against time and space? How do we ask these questions when the more conservative members of our culture remain locked into European ethics and aesthetics that see genius as something cloistered, locked away—a study in hermeneutics?

For the West African view of the poet/griot/artist is much different than the European. The expectations are different even though the poets in both cultures are playing with the same raw materials: perception and memory. The griot functions as the lightning rod for transmitting the invisible into the realm of the audible/visible. The role is also different. The word griot may derive from the French transliteration "guiriot" of the Portuguese word "criado," which in turn means "servant." In the West African tradition, the loner artist as a dysfunctional entity is unthinkable for he creates within a circle of call and response. The audience completes the circle that extends the discourse into infinity. Both audience and the poet and the poet and audience to come have been changed by the experience.

Our artists have been telling us for a long time that we are closer to Africa than we think/ or like to behave. Thinking is linked to well being, individually and culturally. And we still look to our artists for answers, “Though I try to find the answers, to all the questions they ask, I know it’s impossible, to go living through the past, I won’t tell no lie” (Natural Mystic). It’s how we know.

A Caribbean aesthetics (a branch of ethics) or a Caribbean/Creole epistemology for that matter will have to examine the actual behaviors in the Caribbean with the European and African models as guides. Again, these are not idle questions because they have real implications in the lives of artists. How do you evaluate a work of Caribbean genius? What criteria do you use to say this is good? What do you publish?

Certainly we can’t rely on the European, American or African models anymore than we can depend on editors in London or New York to define what is good in Caribbean fiction. Many of them have never lived in the Caribbean or if they have spent time, it was at an all inclusive club drinking rum and Coke and probably smoking a spliff to get a taste of the “the islands.” The rest have usually gone from high school to college in Oxford or Ohio where they got an MFA that made them supremely qualified to become gatekeepers of what gets published as Caribbean fiction. Meanwhile, there are those editors in the Caribbean who are still so preoccupied with European ideas of decency and Proper Subjects (Give thanks, Annie Paul) that they continue to publish work no one wants to read. There must be a meeting ground somewhere.

We know things and how we know things in the Caribbean has always been a mystery to me. But are our ways of knowing valid? I still don’t trust only raw data because I know no matter how much I study the information, there is always something undisclosed. And given the history of Anancyism in the Caribbean and the congenital distrust of authority these questions have implications because choices are being made for us and by us that affect our well being.

And how we validate our ways of knowing is also affected by racism and how much we trust ourselves. Caribbean Court or Privy Council? Do we trust ourselves to make these decisions that will affect generations?

There are wide open fields for our genius to flourish and for us to develop models/methods of evaluation that will fit our tastes of what is good and proper in life and art. For just as Jamaican tailors always have to make adjustments to our ladies dresses that come from foreign, so too the models we develop in the Caribbean should fit us, should take into account the shape of our minds and genius.


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