Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

To be honest, there is little in Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat that improves on the longer, 2010 documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. In fact, the film provides almost no background for the three years (1978-1981) it covers of the artist's very short life (his childhood, his middle-class family, his education). The young Basquiat appears as if from the head of Zeus, walks around, sleeps around, joins a band, attends parties, borrows money, dreams of fame, does drugs, paints on everything, and finally hands a small piece of art to Andy Warhol. The end. But because it is impossible for any documentary about Basquiat and his times (the twilight of the affordable and dodgy Manhattan) to be uninteresting, the time spent watching The Late Teenage Years is far from wasted.

The documentary also happens to reveal something that I somehow missed in other films about the last super-famous artist of the 20th century. This is the nature not only of Basquiat's genius but of all genius: It can't be dissociated from the element of fraud.

Basquiat had real talent and a sharp wit but he was a bit of a fake. This feature is not only in his personality, but his art. And that's to be expected, because true genius breaks with the hardened support of a cultural or scientific continuum—a known past and known future—and enters a void from which a wholly new line of imitation might extend. French philosopher Alain Badiou calls this condition "the event." Because the artist is making something new, he/she is also in a state of making up stuff.

Or think of it this way, think of fraud as Schrödinger's cat. Only when a work of art is done can the genius appear. Before it is done, however, the fraud is there as much as the genius. It's one or the other. And one or the other is not possible without being one or the other simultaneously in the creative process. This other way of thinking about Basquiat occurred to me while watching the new documentary.

For more information about Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat and other films opening this weekend, visit our Movie Times page.