Miraculous cures and the canonization of Basquiat

From Brian Eno, 1993

In the 18th and 19th centuries people were ‘taking the waters’ for a wide variety of illnesses. By this time the scientific medical establishment was quite well developed, and careful records were made of the patients’ conditions, their treatments and their progress. This documentation was made by doctors of good character and reputation: their work in other areas substantiates this. They were interested to discover what special properties spa waters had, and why the cures were so often effective. They failed in this, and the search for the curative agents was gradually abandoned, on the assumption that whatever special balance of minerals the waters contained was too subtle for the instruments of the day to register.

Modern instruments are much more sensitive, but they reveal (again and again) that there is no consistent difference between spa water and other kinds of water. It’s just water, exhibiting the natural variability of that substance. The effect of this non-discovery (the repeated failure to identify any special properties in spa water) diminished interest in water cures, which anyway by the late 19th century were going out of fashion. But it left unanswered a question, which seemed to be this: ‘Were those doctors of the 18th and 19th century wrong in either their observation or their reporting, or was there really something in the water?’

A possible solution appeared a few years ago. It was discovered (a surprise result of space exploration) that prolonged periods of weightless-ness have the effect of precipitating out heavy metals from the body. Heavy metals are mostly toxic. Space travellers return to Earth with less of them (and therefore less toxicity) in their systems. Now think back to ‘taking the waters’. Remember that these cures were of very long duration: typically you might remain in the water several hours a day for several weeks or months. In water, of course, you approach weightlessness. Could it be that ‘taking the waters’ is a way of cleansing the body of heavy-metal toxicity?

I don’t know if this is how it worked, but what interests we is that it could be. It’s an answer that sidesteps the implied dilemma of the original question. The implication was this: if the doctors were right (that people were getting cured), then there must have been something in the water. If there isn’t anything in the water, then the doctors must have been wrong (people weren’t really getting cured). But now a new possibility arises: that there was actually nothing in the water, but the doctors were right. What has happened is that a new concept — depending on a property of water nothing to do with its mineral make-up — has been introduced.

Here’s another story, a relative of the first:

There was a famous Indonesian shaman who cured people by dragging bloody clumps of something-or-other out of their bodies, saying that these were the source of their illness. These healing sessions were conducted in near darkness amid great ceremony and mysterious incantations. Subsequently, the shaman was investigated by a team of Western doctors, who used infra-red cameras to reveal what he was in fact doing — of course, he was pulling those sodden lumps not from out of patients’ bodies, but from somewhere on his own. It was a trick. The only problem was that the trick worked: he had a very high cure rate. We might say that this doesn’t count because it’s all in the patients’ minds: that they have been tricked into using their own will to cure themselves. We might not want to regard such a cure as scientifically acceptable, because it demands that we accommodate the complexities of the human mind into the medical equation. And even if we do accept that patients are not people who simply have things done to them until they get better, but people who are maneuvered into a frame of mind from which a cure will proceed, can we also accept that it therefore doesn’t matter if this frame of mind is created by the most outrageous fakery? How actively will we embrace ‘placebo effects’?

Richard Williams is an English journalist who wrote for many years about music. There is a famous (and true) story from the early seventies about his receiving a white label (pre-release test pressing) of a new record by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It was an exclusive. He reviewed it at length in Melody Maker. Side 1 had a normal enough format — five or six songs — but his attention was taken by side 2, which consisted of a 20-minute-long continuous tone — a pure sine wave. This was the kind of bold experimentation that one expected of John and Yoko, and Williams, clearly impressed, reviewed the piece favorably and at some length. It turned out to be a test tone — he didn’t know that it was common practice for cutting engineers to cut a pure tone on to test pressings in order to monitor things like turntable stability and vinyl quality.

Whenever I heard this story, it was accompanied by a snigger. The feeling was that Williams had been `caught out’: that he’d shown himself foolish and gullible for mistaking a test tone, that most deliberately art-less of all sounds, for a piece of real art. I felt differently about this. In fad it was perfectly possible that J. and Y. would have released such a thing. But, more importantly, why shouldn’t Williams have had a musical experience with a test tone? And doesn’t the fact that he obviously did tell us something about the nature of art experiences in general?

It seems to me that we find this difficult to accept because it presents us with a very similar dilemma to that posed in the ‘taking the waters’ story: if the critic was right (if he really did have an art experience) then there must have been something in the test tone. But we know there’s nothing in test tones, so the critic must have been wrong: he obviously wasn’t actually having an art experience. He just thought he was — just like the Indonesian patients felt they were better.

Now on to Robert Hughes, and something he wrote about Jean-Michel Basquiat. I like Hughes a lot — I find him a clear, intelligent thinker and articulator, and as such fairly unusual among writers about art. But I also like Basquiat, whereas Hughes doesn’t get him at all. In his book Culture of Complaint Hughes discusses the canonization of Basquiat: how he was elevated to sainthood after undergoing a sort of fine-art-as-rock-and-roll saga — discovery, drugs, acceptance, rejection, rediscovery, more drugs and an early death. Basquiat, of course, also benefited from the added cachets of being black and being presented as though from a poor family, which wasn’t actually quite true. But all in all, he was a commendably eighties figure: a victim — of implied racism and drug abuse — and a precociously charismatic outsider. Hughes looks unkindly at Basquiat’s pictures and finds them childish and simplistic. His talent, Hughes says, lay not in his ability to paint as such but in his ability to project himself (and make himself projectible, if that’s the word) as a media event — an art star.

There are several threads of thought here. Some are more clearly exposed than others. There is the criticism of Basquiat’s painting itself, with which one can only agree or dissent. I personally like his paintings. I also think, however, that `anyone could have done them’, and that in fact a lot of other people did, in some way or another, more or less interestingly, with more or less commitment. It was a feeling of the times, and someone had to come through with it. In the vernacular world this would not be a criticism: it merely says that someone is part of a scene and that, for all sorts of reasons, a lot of people get interested in the same kinds of marks and sounds and implications of lifestyle at roughly the same time. That’s what you’d expect to happen, isn’t it? Yes, but the existence of such a vernacular osmosis, so perilously close to `mere fashion’, constitutes a threat to the mythology of the art world. That mythology reties on the idea of geniuses, of people so different from everyone else that their achievements must be separated off and protected and ringed round with complicated verbiage. I’ve always been suspicious of this — as Hughes is —but now another idea comes to mind.

Is this myth-making actually the process whereby grown-up people create valuable experiences for themselves? I mean, is this elaborate polka of romanticization and charisma-manufacture, of canonization, the way that we make for ourselves experiences that are sufficiently laden with resonance and depth and authority for us to be challenged and changed by them? Are we like the shaman’s patients, cooperating with the artist in creating an atmosphere of sufficient power that a shabby piece of sleight of hand can do the trick for us? And could we still benefit if we knew how it worked? Is it necessary that we be `believers’ rather than `skeptics’ for us to have the right kind of experience? Could Richard Williams have made any use of that test tone if he’d known what it was? And what exactly is the use of the experience anyway?

Changing ourselves. Surely that must be what we’re after when we look at pictures and watch movies and listen to music. It sounds more Californian than it really is. Changing ourselves includes switching on the radio when we’re bored — to change from being someone who’s bored to someone who’s being less bored, or bored in a different way. But of course we would prefer to think that the art we venerate does more than just feed us sensations to keep us from the gloom of our everyday existence. (Why would we prefer that? What’s wrong with the opposite? I remember someone saying that all

human creativity is a desperate attempt to occupy the brief space or end less gap between birth and death.) We would like to think that art remakes us in some way, deepens us, makes us ‘better’ people. Certainly this is the unspoken thought behind the concept of subsidized public art spaces — we don’t give the same high-level cultural endorsement to public skateboard spaces, or public discotheques, or red-light districts.

Then there are the criticisms implied in the suggestion that Basquiat’, only real talent was for charisma-creation and self-promotion. Each of these criticisms is founded on assumptions which are not mentioned: that Basquiat was primarily operating as a painter in the sense that Hughes assumes; that the art world shouldn’t conspire to create ‘geniuses’ for itself; and that self-creation is out of bounds as a job for artists.

Suppose some things. Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences (Roy Ascott’s phrase). That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue about whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andres Serranos’s piss or Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ are art, because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’

Then suppose that what makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not some-thing that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you —so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art. It is then possible, within the con-text of the right expectations, for a test tone to become a musical experience. It is also possible for you to have quite different experiences from me, which says nothing about the test tone and everything about our separate perceptions of it, our different expectations and cultural predispositions. What we could then agree is that there is nothing absolute about the aesthetic value or non-value of a test tone, and that we don’t even have to consider the question of aesthetic value with a view to arriving at any single answer: it could have one value for you and another for me, and different ones for both of us at another time. It can change value for each of us. More interestingly, we can also say that there is nothing absolute about the aesthetic value of a Rembrandt or a Mozart or a Basquiat.

Suppose you redescribe the job ‘artist’ as ‘a person who creates situations

In which you can have art experiences’. Then you might accept the notion that an artist could be someone who convinces you, by some means or other, including outrageous fakery, that the test tone you’re about to hear is in fact a piece of music. Suppose now that these means can include the creation of ‘media events’, networks of spin and buzz that make you think you are in the presence of something special — the event itself is minimal, but the spin is sufficiently powerful to infect you with enthusiasm, and you have a great time. Is that going too far? Suppose that you could even think of yourself as the media event, as the experience-trigger itself, so that everything to which you simply directed your attention transmuted mysteriously into art. And suppose that people wanted that, and wanted to believe in it, and wanted to make each other believe in it. Who is then the artist? You or them? Who is making the patient feel better? The shaman or the patient? Is the value of the art experience to be found in the ‘weightlessness’, the suspension of disbelief, the floating surrender, that it produces, rather than in its objective mineral properties?

Brain Eno, 1993


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