Icons, Heroes, Celebrities & Deities: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rightful place transcends fascination at AGO preview show

“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” – Public Enemy, Fight the Power – 1988

“Basquiat at the AGO: Separating the art from the art star – The question remains, does the legendary, tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat fascinate because of what he made or how he stopped making it?” – The Toronto Star, February 1, 2014

Let’s discuss the idea of celebrity fascination & death, artists, heroes and deities.

Why do we afford some artists the courtesy of minimizing premature, bad deaths and not others?  Are legends made or is legendary status prescribed by those holding the copyrights, the master recordings, and the rare photograph? Is it a relic left over from the Hippie dream that Manson destroyed so easily in 1969? Should we believe the hangers-on made good? The ex-wives? The art experts?



Continue reading “Icons, Heroes, Celebrities & Deities: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rightful place transcends fascination at AGO preview show”

Most Of My Heroes Don’t Appear on No Stamps

“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” – Public Enemy, Fight the Power – 1988

“Basquiat at the AGO: Separating the art from the art star – The question remains, does the legendary, tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat fascinate because of what he made or how he stopped making it?” – The Toronto Star, February 1, 2014

Let’s discuss the idea of celebrity fascination & death, artists, heroes and deities.

Why do we afford some artists the courtesy of minimizing premature, bad deaths and not others?  Are legends made, or is legendary status prescribed by those holding the copyrights, the master recordings, and the rare photograph? Is it a relic left over from the Hippie dream that Manson destroyed so easily in 1969? Should we believe the hangers-on made good? The ex-wives? The art experts?

The Beatles are worshipped as musical deities by critics and multitudes of fans. The fact of John Lennon’s assassination is not considered to infuse their myth with greater, or even outsized, meaning. The word “assassination” is out of fashion, too powerful, too threatening to the myth it interrupts while silently cementing it in place. It seems impossible to imagine that Lennon’s murder did not jump-start the canonization of his old band that he and the rest had run from a decade before.  Generations born as The Beatles ended and Lennon was assassinated and their catalogue became an asset for millionaires to trade like baseball cards and Apple Computers was rumoured to be named for them and on and on have no choice but to love The Beatles or be damned, for it’s a dull, accepted & expected societal norm.

Like those who are genetically predisposed to be repulsed by the taste and smell of cilantro, finding it “soapy”, there are people who don’t care for The Beatles and for whom “Love, love me do” is nothing more than the tinny loudspeaker soundtrack  of now- defunct 80’s retro hamburger joints they grew up in. Right on cue, comes the craving: too much garlic and piles of real cheddar and properly grilled, light, perfect buns. This shit is perfectly commercialized, but grilled to perfection.

For them, “Imagine” is some generic commercial sounding song that is received  by The Beatles- immune with an inquisitive pause for the tag line of whoever licensed its use to sell something. “Helter Skelter” was effectively stolen by Charles Manson. “Birthday” is a reference from Sixteen Candles. “Twist and Shout” belongs to Ferris Bueller crashing, and improving, a parade.  John Hughes was of the Beatles generation and used this music in his films as a gateway to introduce new forms of music that do not owe anything to them. Molly Ringwald, his onetime muse, and ours, led him to the music that L.A. kids were actually listening to. Modern music stands against the Beatles. Punk and Post-Punk obliterate them. Electronic music (Kraftwerk, New Order, OMD) make tracks as far away as they can get from the Albatross of the Beatles. Hip Hop remixed it all into entirely new forms. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus for a while but they aren’t Jesus.

There is a pretense among the devoted, including leading music critics and corporate entities of ’80, post Lennon’s assassination and onward, that The Beatles deserve all the accolades they can get, need dozens if not hundreds of tomes written about them, and that all the other commercial products and reproductions done in their name for half a century are not just cynical cash grabs and micro fame bids from those less-talented multitudes who’d like to beg, borrow, or steal a piece of that infernal legend. This lie depends on the narrative never settling on Lennon’s death and all the darkness surrounding it, including his own politics, arrogance, burned bridges, feuds, messy personal life, money, drugs, radicalism, ego and hubris. Somehow that dreadful looking 1970’s bed-in anti-mop top long hair and beard has done its work and a trick has been pulled, transposing Lennon with Jesus in his public’s imagination.

Elvis fans can fill their days listening to nothing but his extensive catalogue and are fulfilled and reminded of their youthful glow. This music, for the devoted, delivers time and again and no amount of collectible bric-a-brac for sale in tabloids or new permutations of the once-impossibly beautiful young Priscilla Presley’s face can trouble the ambient dream that Elvis fans enjoy. Elvis died at 42 years old. 42 YEARS OLD. What a waste, what a sin, what a crime for a man to do to themselves, their fans, their legacy. He abused his body with drugs and food, or, if we reach for some human empathy, as we sometimes do today for the special ones, he “self-medicated” his pain from (????) in this way. The amount of strain, of suspension of disbelief required to remain clear-eyed and loving toward a wealthy and beloved hero/singer/icon who died in this way at such a young age, rather than feel abject disgust and betrayal, is startling. Anyone born after ’77 knows fat Elvis, sweaty Elvis, caricature of Elvis, shadow of Elvis, country -trash indiscriminate, gaudy, money spending Elvis, Elvis-impersonator freaks Elvis, Eddie Murphy -skewering Elvis, and must look very hard to understand any other.

These dubious saints, Elvis and Lennon, sailed past their peak and were extinguished by the time Basquiat inhabited downtown Manhattan. The Clash said, rather matter-of-factly, in 1979: “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” At that moment, out of the dust rose a singular talent lyrically named Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It is a culturally relevant coincidence that Jean-Michel Basquiat hit the New York street-art, downtown and then quickly, glided into the uptown art scene about the time of Lennon’s murder nearby and three years after Elvis died.  Lennon’s image, words, protests, opinions and fame made him a target and he was silenced. There are no conspiracies about this assassination as the questions they would raise would hit far too close to home for his generation of fans and their most cherished belief systems. Yet, we minimize this death, as his image, words, ditties and music are considered bullet-proof and unkillable. He was sanctified, and in many ways, sanitized. Basquiat’s too-recent, not sepia-toned pedigree, his skin, and his work that was never cuddly, refuses any and all such hollow myth-making for mass consumption. What’s most impressive about it is that it speaks for itself and doesn’t need any help from the art scholar at all to be appreciated, as it’s visceral. It offers more than you could ever impress upon it even if a million words were written on the subject, like those 10 years of The Beatles that people can’t get enough of.

It is most definitely, always, a tragedy when someone dies young, and by young, we mean 27 or 40.  It is always a tragedy to lose an artist of any age who has much to say and has barely been heard yet, even as the outward markers of success suggest a phenomenon. It is a terrible loss, forever in the bones and nerves and heart and the brain we understand so little about, to lose someone we love. Someone we barely knew. Someone who changed the shape of the world, the space-time continuum, whether our mother, our friend, or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

But remember, we are talking about a great artist here. A visionary. An original. A wit. A brain. A cultural sponge. A self-made man. A boy with great style. A boy who lives on and on, in 1000 pieces of work spread out across the whole world, some of it destroyed, lost, hidden, and hoarded, but, through some miracle,  some of right here in Toronto for a few short months of winter. Remember the love that Elvis gets, that Lennon gets, as these figures are preserved in amber and mounted with their pale cheeks still soft, their forelocks still boyish,  good boys, loved this way, not the ways they later changed or failed to stay innocent. They look out and sing out, immortal, from those ancient pictures and recordings that their fans use as mirrors, where the devoted are forever 16 with everything ahead of them, every possible future, and John and Elvis sing, on an endless loop “love me” and you do. Tenderly.

Cat Marnell and Jane Pratt’s Bad Breakup: On Branding, Journalism, and Drugs

By Jacqueline Howell

Raise your hand if you have ever said you would “kill” to be an editor in New York City with a legendary woman who seems unusually generous and willing to mentor. It’s a career so remote, it’s like going to the moon. But one person who has been there has decided she would rather “be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust”.

Whatever your gut reaction to the quote that cemented former XOJane beauty editor Cat Marnell’s micro fame and rising brand, it’s an irresistible sound bite for the press. Acting out to a degree that Page Six is following your exploits is notable – an unrealized dream to many wannabe celebs. It’s the pop culture hall of fame, of infamy. Of terrible.

And it is noteworthy to media critics. Marnell may just be brilliant – in the brutal context of our times. It’s not for the faint of heart, this game. It’s not for those who still talk to their parents. It’s freedom without a net, requiring the coldest blood and the sharpest nails and a good supply of pharmaceuticals inside last year’s “it” bag. It has existed in Manhattan long before Bret Easton Ellis dropped his first name, and now, writers like Marnell arrive to grab at a crown that may lead to infamy, posthumous fame, wealth and acclaim; or maybe just burnout.

As the resident beauty editor and enfant terrible for over a year at XOJane, Marnell seemed to enjoy a dysfunctional, if close, working relationship with EIC Jane Pratt, who once ran the revered alternative teen girl mag Sassy. Cat Marnell quit her job noisily, messily, and cruelly, burning her bridges so she could learn to swim.

Or Cat was fired.

Or it was mutual.

It was a bad break up where the person who presents an image of a broken doll, proud narcissist, Courtney Love fangirl, and quick-witted writer/ silly drug addict (writing ad nauseum about prescriptions, cocaine, and speed) is maybe, too, a sly media expert willing to shill her soul for her personal brand- who might just play the part, the controversy, the clippings, and the ideological bombing of XOJane’s image all the way to a book deal. She certainly landed on her feet at Vice.com with a new column that allows her to play her Bret Easton Ellis card all day long, now, the drug girl, the girl who fled the world of “lady bloggers”.

So what if she shit where she ate by dismissing XOJane as a site preoccupied with “fat acceptance” and vaginas in a show of her patented “amphetamine logic”? Or that she describes Pratt, in print (a woman she claims to love, in an example of this) as “Sphinx like” and “not like Slimer” but really, as like Slimer, the Ghostbusters buffoon mascot from a short-lived cartoon. Of all things. Ouch.  As Marnell is rewarded for her bad behaviour, Pratt has been cast as victim, mean girled into a corner, preyed on by a younger woman out of Sassy’s worst nightmares, a living smackdown of its frail 90’s dreams.

Cat Marnell

The confessional,  informal tone of XOJane, a bloggy version of Sassy and Jane Magazines’ successful formula is ripe for disaster in a blurry world where writers struggle to claim authority and words are devalued as just another part of content. It’s one of those sites where much of its relevance occurs in the comments; readers and writers, along with Jane herself, duke it out and define what this space is and what it means, providing lifeblood and free content along with essential blog hits. Debate, and controversy, is gold. The commenters are active, articulate, involved, exhausting.

Cat Marnell stuck out like a sore thumb at XOJane (albeit one painted in Dior Vernis Rouge Altess). Her provocative pieces played with beauty writing while weaving drug narratives and revelations about improper use of birth control, she was hotly debated at other sites: this controversy at first served XOJane very well, alerting many readers that this new site, XOJane existed. Cat was compelling, even as she used fear and manipulation and casually talked about taboo subjects with a nihilistic air. She was wickedly funny. She was a bad girl.

Marnell can write. She has a unique voice and is fearless at times, in ways that can propel some writers to greatness. In spite of her carefully (de)constructed exterior, she succeeds at times in her aim to express herself as a writer, rather than a woman writer. Her piece about drug addiction and the death of Whitney Houston was a riveting and personal analysis of a gossipy story that elevated the conversation, cutting through the often useless black and white thinking that dominates acceptable discourse about drugs in our culture. I believe in the writer’s gift for invention in times of despair. This is a talent, a tool, that is innate; it comes from somewhere deep in our survival kit.

BUT-some of Marnell’s pieces seemed like passable, if flippant, suicide notes. It would be funny if it was all drag, performance art. As a diarist, as the tormented, raw writer it was great. But the tension and the disjuncture with the rest of the site’s tone was undeniable. And she was only ironically interested in beauty, in health. Our feminism today is a P.C. minefield, where Cat was often torn apart for her opinions. Wanting to be very, very thin, and stating beauty should be aspirational was her right as much as other “normal” ideals. Cat seemed to readers to get sicker in recent months, notable for erratic behavior and long absences from the site.

Cat vs. Jane seems inevitable in the pictures of the two on the site, one that mines the staff relationships to drive its reason for being as much or more than content. See Jane, who we think we know, with her lovable, clean face, holding down her little corner of publishing: an anomaly, she seems photoshopped next to constructed Cat with her permanent smoky eyes, heavy make up and always sad smile; a Blythe doll who seems as addicted to her “dirty whites” druggy uniform as she is to drugs. Cat’s departure cemented her role  in a bizarre reverse Devil Wears Prada: as cannibalistic, acrylic hard, cold. But both images may be abstractions, projections: by-products of a shaky battleground that might exist behind the imposed family of a magazine. 


Drugs are key to the story of Cat and Jane, since Marnell made it that way. As in life, they threaten to obliterate everything else.  Over time Cat’s arguments about free will gave way to the slick con of an addict at work, lying to you all the time. Marnell’s few stabs at writing in recent months led devoted readers on a wild ride that ranged from blackest humour to razor-sharp jabs of contempt at her employer, funny/childish rants about the shallowness of writing about eyeliner (her chosen profession) and back to little gems of insight that would quickly be negated by the most immature photography: Her fridge, empty but for pill bottles (a shtick unfortunately carried on at Vice). Druggy self pics that were valueless except to shock or flaunt the impossible: Not arrested. Not fired.

The infamous quote in full reads:

“Look, I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book, which is what I’m doing next.”

This represents Marnell’s image, her fledgling brand, one that has lately enjoyed unprecedented press clippings. It would be a great statement if it were a joke. Marnell has fallen up, moving swiftly to a job at Vice.com where she is finally able to express herself freely on the subjects that interest her. Curiously, for someone who talks about always being on drugs, the enjoyable, less fraught columns at Vice come regularly and coherently, with a renewed sense of pride. Marnell has a flair for descriptive prose and a fine memory (or imagination) that she ought to believe in, one that is not due to drugs (as she claims to believe, also that they make her superhuman). It’s a good fit, a woman with guts in the boys club she longed to crack. Stepping on her sister’s back. All of this noise has earned solid column inches in the New York press. Marnell must have a good publicist, or good advice. Maybe a plan, maybe even back when she started with XOJane. Before Jane and Cat became codependent faux family. Before Jane introduced Cat to Courtney Love.  

The entitled don’t know and don’t care how obnoxious they are. Certainly a woman of 29 has to spin her wheels very hard to pretend to be happy in the drugged out scene of lazy privilege and clubbing. Marnell’s scene is jaded and dried up – otherwise they wouldn’t need so many drugs. But all the nonsense that puts her ass next to Lindsay Lohan’s in a booth, friends of friends, even: now that has some currency. Marnell now writes for Vice.com with beauty product references sprinkled in absurdly, a funny Marnell signature. “Amphetamine Logic” her new column, is a welcome change from the aggregated gossip that dominates online. But yet.

Anyone can say they are writing a book. Drug addicts love to have big plans to spin over. The difference is that writers work hard and are disciplined especially with fewer real writing jobs left. Dorothy Parker and even good old Hunter S. Thompson are gone and so are their expense accounts (never trust fund babies, I think). Christopher Hitchens was famous for drinking and still producing insightful, perfectly composed work while drunk. His obit in Vanity Fair makes special mention of this. Kerouac for all his benzos worked on that goddamned manuscript for On The Road for over ten years, carefully crafting something to look spontaneous. They are all dead and lived hard, but left a legacy, too. The proof of our intentions is in who we aspire to be, our real daddies: are they writers? Or Olsens? Or Lohans? And it’s dangerous to perch too close to a Lohan. Marnell seems to forget that if she is, indeed, a writer, then she requires distance; should want to be anything but a toxic twin. Use Lohan as fodder, but don’t aspire to be. To thrive as a writer, not as a celebrity, is work and involves one set of muscles to be realized. To be devoted to drugs comes from somewhere else, it doesn’t share. It’s wishful thinking that both can happen concurrently (or ever did). They were always more truthfully one or the other.  Just ask Robert Downey Jr. :An honest survivor of the 80’s party. A grateful one.

The problem with Marnell’s departure was not censorship or abuse, she was indulged beyond all reason, and behaved ungratefully- it’s there for us all to see. And if she prefers to live her life using drugs, it’s her life. But you can’t have it both ways- one is either a functioning addict who can work and spin that shit into gold, or in a crisis and needing/accepting help. Or addicted to something else- lying? Attention? The disorder of our age. Marnell was way more committed to her brand than her paid gig and did not perform her job – she did not produce much writing at all for XOJane, but got to stay under Jane’s wing, on her masthead, for a long time. Got attention, infamy, maybe fame. Maybe a book deal. Choosing a fatalistic drug love affair and calling it a party is a risky and unsustainable brand. There might me much more to the story, or much less. It might have just been a bad fit. Leaving a job gracefully, with gratitude for a mentor, is not Cat’s color. It wouldn’t make for a swag story.

Sources: XOJane, Vice.com, Jezebel.com, New York Post Page Six, The Atlantic Wire, New York Magazine

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