December 8 2023
Deaths, despair, individuals, groups, and the four Bs: Beyoncé, Berger, Baldwin, and Basquiat
In the beginning of 2019, when it was cold and I had become fully suicidal rather than recreationally so, I imagined I might kill myself by getting a cop to shoot me. Problems of the individual and group arise here. My feelings about cops, as a group, led me to believe that individual me could get an individual cop to use a gun in a way that might prove fatal to me because of that individual’s predominant group tendencies. My idea, rarely indulged sober, was that I would jump over the fence into Tompkins Square Park and thereby enrage the police. This is not a strong plan. Tompkins is rarely closed. Who would be mad about me jumping the fence? Nobody in the East Village, not even a cop. Provoking a police officer to shoot me was complicated by my being a white male in his fifties with a wiggly and avuncular beard. The chances of a any cop being provoked to violence were slim, unless I was waving a gun, which was still not a reliable provocation (because of the white and avuncular status). I don’t own a gun nor did I look up, at my lowest, how to get one, legally or otherwise. I settled on the idea of tying a big stone to my leg—again, having done zero research about tying stones to legs—and throwing myself into the East River.
When I was sent to the Westchester Medical Center in May of 2019 and installed in the psych ward, my roommate was someone who had twice tried to kill himself. He never told me how he did it but he said, often and without theatrics, that he was going to do it again. His teenage son had already killed himself. I stopped thinking that I was part of the suicidal group. My suicidal ideation (as it was written in my medical record) was an agitation of the mind lacking active expression.
When I was sitting on the ground with other comrades as part of the JVP action at the Manhattan Bridge in November, I saw the cop who had arrested me the month before at the Grand Central Station action. His name is Officer Bizhiko and he is Ukrainian. My arrest buddy at Grand Central, Dave, did not like me saying anything nice about Bizhiko the individual because of how we feel about cops as a group. Though I had no objection to Dave’s principle, I was touched by Bizhiko’s decision to put our personal items in his car so that the property room wouldn’t lose them.
At the Manhattan Bridge, Bizhiko and his colleagues disappeared from view after a few hours. The group and the individual had found themselves a new relationship. After three hours of sitting in the rain, we dispersed, victorious. The cops, qua group, had given up. I felt like a superhero as we walked along Canal Street in the rain. I waved to the bootleg bag salesmen and the food cart jockeys. We were all one cohort, in my mind. I have no reason to believe the salesmen were having the same thought.
There is an exhibit called Basquiat x Warhol up now at the Brant Foundation in the East Village. It’s a free-standing building with the personality of a townhouse and the bones of an industrial building. (It is described by Blake Gopnik the New York Times article linked below as a “repurposed substation.”) The heir to a paper mill business, Peter Brant became connected to Warhol in the ‘80s. He was the publisher of Interview for years and has been investing in various Warhol films and projects since the ‘80s. He married Stephanie Seymour and is now 76.
The Brant could be described as “beefy surveillance classicism,” with its chonky security guards and bossy interns who direct you to exit in the back, all the way through the gift shop, even if you’re standing two feet from the front door. Such a curious relationship the rich have to buildings and walls and doors. But we benefit from their clenched love when they let us in. Often, the Brant is close to empty and you can look out across the backs of the tenements of the East Villages where the other people live. (You can almost see our house.)
The day we went, the galleries were packed with tourists. As much as I think I care about these artists, and know that they were friends, I did not know they had made a bunch of art together. The works are big—canvases several feet wide, punching bags—and they feel quickly made, with enthusiasm. Warhol does his GE logo or his Zenith logo and Jean-Michel works all of his figures and lines in and around it all.
It is hard for me to think of people like Peter Brant and Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat—individuals who have little in common—as forces distinct from their group status: rich people who are also avatars for richness. Basquiat has become a leading symbol of Black wealth, in no small part because of how many times Jay-Z and Beyoncé have presented him as such. Basquiat is now a commercial product to be knocked ostentatiously off the wall—suggesting the art is interesting only insofar as it can be used as a measure of exactly how disposable that disposable income is now for Beyoncé—as much as he is a person who used to be a living artist.
We saw the Renaissance movie a few weeks after we saw this exhibit. Because we both love Beyoncé, we saw it as soon as tickets were available. (Heidi saw the live show but I did not, sadly.) I am thinking of the movie less now than I am thinking of this brilliant review by Angelica Jade Bastién. Two sentences have been swimming around in my head all week: “For there is no star of such magnitude who more cunningly positions themselves as apolitical than Beyoncé” and “Renaissance is a testament that Beyoncé is a brand that stands for absolutely nothing beyond its own greatness.” Beyoncé the individual is apolitical primarily because she refuses solidarity with any group that demands she sacrifice anything as an individual. It is at this point that the spiritual and political meet. In this short piece for The Nation, written in 1979, James Baldwin writes that he is “speaking as an ex-minister of the Gospel, and therefore, as one of the born again.” He says that he was “instructed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison” and that he has “not forgotten these instructions.” And then:
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. That is a hard saying. It is hard to live with that. It is a merciless description of our responsibility for one another. It is that hard light under which one makes the moral choice. That the Western world has forgotten that such a thing as the moral choice exists, my history, my flesh, and my soul bear witness.
It is strange to think that moral choices have become an esoteric concern, a niche thing, if you will. Black capitalists are no more or less guilty here—Beyoncé’s choices are so common, in fact, that Bastién’s noting them earned her days of internet grief. I am fairly sure the same observations 30 years ago would have been taken as nothing more than empirical.
John Berger wrote an essay about Francis Bacon in 2004 called “A Master of Pitilessness"?” It is included in a book called Hold Everything Dear, which I was reminded of by my friend Catherine and her recent, exquisite essay. As with Warhol and Basquiat’s collaborations, this book was something I knew of but had never read. Though my emphasis is slightly different, I am quoting much of the same section Catherine quoted. It is not immediately clear, without context, what this has to do with Francis Bacon. I encourage you to read the entire Berger piece, and the book, which is short and contains one of his greatest essays, about Palestine in fact, “Undefeated Despair.”
Everywhere the walls separate the desperate poor from those who hope against hope to stay relatively rich. The walls cross every sphere, from crop cultivation to health care. They exist too in the richest metropolises of the world. The Wall is the front line of what, long ago, was called the Class War.
On the one side: every armament conceivable, the dream of no-body-bag wars, the media, plenty, hygiene, many passwords to glamour. On the other: stones, short supplies, feuds, the violence of revenge, rampant illness, an acceptance of death and an ongoing preoccupation with surviving one more night—or perhaps one more week—together.
The choice of meaning in the world today is here between the two sides of the wall. The wall is also inside each one of us. Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves which side of the wall we are attuned to. It is not a wall between good and evil. Both exist on both sides. The choice is between self-respect and self-chaos.
Berger closes that essay by quoting Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish but I think the real conclusion comes from Berger himself, in the essay that comes next in Hold Everything Dear, “Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls.”
“The multitudes have answers to questions which have not yet been posed, and they have the capacity to outlive the walls.”
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