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Circling Around Ideas 🌀
Notes and recommendations for this week.
As I wrote two weeks ago, I’m taking time off from essays until after Labor Day to focus on assignments and book edits. Regardless, paid subscribers are still getting Friday recipes, and I’m still sending out notes and recommendations on Mondays. Next week, for Labor Day, I’ll be off to see my family in New York.
In May, Israel (my husband—I say to be clear to new subscribers and not to, like, belabor the point) and I went to see the exhibit “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure” while in New York. I did not enjoy it; I didn’t like the re-creations of childhood apartments or the Great Jones loft. I find it detrimental to focus on the personal, to be so thoroughly guided toward the gift shop by slogans.
One has to be soft on it, though: This was curated by his family, his sisters, and I have a special place in my heart for those of us left behind. I also loved to see people taking their selfies—being excited, you know? I’ve been excited about his art since I became aware of it in the late ’90s, via the movie Basquiat (a problematic film, but I was 12 when I first saw it playing on Cinemax), and that excitement has never let up, never died down, only expanded and deepened. To become aware of his work was to become aware of the narratives, the deceits, the gates that govern cultural production—of the who, what, why, and the hidden.
I have more to say on all of this and will likely be circling around it forever—my favorite kind of ideas, the most generous ones, the ones that thread on and on. A related idea is that it feels gauche to admit how important a role movies on television played in my cultural education—yet the alternative would’ve been what, exactly?
Predictably, I’ve taken a specific interest in any piece where food is present—and once you notice, there are plenty; he makes an appearance in my Bitch piece on sugar—as well as any references to the tropical and Puerto Rico specifically. When the Brooklyn Museum did the notebook show in 2015, I took multiple pictures of the page where he wrote, “I feel like a citizen it’s time to go and come back a drifter.” (It was the summer I quit my full-time job.) If it’s cliché at this point to love Basquiat, with all the merch and Tiffany’s ads and shit, I don’t care. Confusing the conversation with the art is an extremely dull contemporary issue.
And so I’m always happy to see the work, and I’d shell out the $60 again. I’m the problem, for taking pictures of every time he wrote the word “guava.”
I bring this up because my recommendations this week include three essays on Basquiat, which I wasn’t reading because of any urge to write about him but because they are three of the best essays I’ve ever read, the ones I go back to most.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will feature a lemon and purple corn flour cake with a cherry syrup. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
It’s now just about pumpkin spice season and Burlap & Barrel is down to the last jars of our collaboration blend, which people have been adding to oatmeal, lattes, stews, and cakes all year round. It’s a spice-forward mix—heavy on the clove—with a touch of coriander to brighten it up. If you haven’t tried or would like to make sure you’re set for fall, now’s the time to order.
I’ve read Rene Ricard’s “The Radiant Child” more than any other essay. (And promise I will eventually write a full essay on him, on avatars, on what ends up mattering about a person.) It’s a piece more about criticism than the work: “An object of art is an honest way of making a living, and this is much a different idea from the fancier notion that art is a scam and a ripoff. The bourgeoisie have, after all, made it a scam. But you could never explain to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave that you have used God’s gift to be free.”
The best piece on Basquiat, to my mind, is this 1993 ArtNews one about a Whitney exhibit by bell hooks, which tells you why how an art critic writes about Basquiat tells you everything about them. “A dual critique is occurring here. First, the critique of the way in which imperialism makes itself heard, the way it is reproduced in culture and art.This image is ugly and grotesque. That is exactly how it should be. For what Basquiat unmasks is the ugliness of those traditions. He takes the Eurocentric valuation of the great and beautiful and demands that we acknowledge the brutal reality it masks.”
And of course, the 1989 Greg Tate Village Voice classic “Flyboy in the Buttermilk”: “Often the cerebral pleasures of his work are derived from sussing out the exquisite corpses he’s conjured up through provocative conjunctions of words and images.”
I like Genese Grill’s “Apoligia: Why Do We Write?” in Caesura, especially its echoes of the Ricard—what is freedom and how to use it: “Such theorists, in the spurious interest of freeing mankind from the discipline, authority, and standards of the old world, have contributed greatly to the denigration of so much which makes life worth living. They have aimed — when they aimed at culture — at the wrong enemy; and if today’s citizens are more free than they were two hundred years ago, we need only ask, as Nietzsche did: free for what? To go to the mall whenever they please? To never challenge themselves at all? To live lives where natural and artistic beauty, reflection, relative silence, awe, and wonder are present in only the scantiest proportion compared to the fragmented technocratic busyness and consumerism that have become the norm?”
I’m going through Joachim Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy” late, having started with the brilliant and recent The Worst Person in the World and now going back to Reprise. There is so little space in this streaming-ass world for the feeling of watching something fresh, something that’ll change your whole life (like Basquiat on TV during the summer of 1998), and I miss it, so I love to go back to old things that are new to me.