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  • Nationalizing Abject American Artists:Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Julie Codell (bio)

Across all types of artists' biopics—whether Hollywood or independent or European art films—artists are represented as abject figures. Their abjection takes many forms: extreme poverty, sexual licentiousness, drinking, drugs, and anti-social behavior. These films imply a link between abjection and creativity that generates a conflict between artistic creativity identified with unrestrained behavior and the art world of dealers, critics, and exhibitions defined by economic success and social restraint. Unable to fit into the social order of their own art world, artists are even less likely to be portrayed as representatives of national character. In the cases of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Lee Krasner (1908-1984) in Pollock (2000, dir. Ed Harris, who also played Pollock) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) in Basquiat (1996, dir. artist Julian Schnabel), I argue that Pollock's and Basquiat's biopic representations, among the most abject in films, are obstacles to national identity, which are partly overcome for Pollock but not for Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright). I consider the character of Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) in Pollock in the context of gendered national identity and the possibilities of artists' socialization. In films artists' contributions to national identity appear possible only at the psychological expense of the artists themselves, who are often sacrificed to their society which, in turn, appropriates their art as a transcendent national achievement.

These two films address different moments in American cultural hegemony, differences that affect relationships between artist and nation. Pollock, set in a time when America claimed cultural hegemony to match its military hegemony and world leadership after World War II, is filmed in a realist mode—with historical mise-en-scène and chronological sequencing fitting the 1950s. Basquiat plays with time and consciousness in a postmodern mode fit for the 1980s. Sounds [End Page 118] from one scene are overlaid on a subsequent scene; non-diegetic ("background") music comments directly on the plot or foreshadows events through lyrics on death, suicide, fame, or drugs. The art world of the 1950s was becoming American while that of the 1980s was becoming international and intensely speculative, making the idea of a "nation" seem anachronistic in a global market whose transactions required borderlessness (Pease 2). Basquiat's many international exhibitions exemplify a very different art world than that of 1940s New York, still emerging from a regional system of exhibitions. By the 1980s, the US post-war cultural anxieties of Pollock were gone. These films recognize artists' historical circumstances: war and post-war periods in Pollock, changing global economics and race consciousness in Basquiat.

Themes of Artists' Biopics

From their first biographical appearance in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550), artists' biographies have mythologized creativity and sensationalized their life stories. But, unlike Vasari's celebration of even eccentric Renaissance artists, biopics' representations of artists as unrestrained and anti-social do not suture them to an imagined national community. On the one hand, artistic creativity narcissistically looks inward for creative power; on the other hand, it threatens public bourgeois social relations in the art world of patrons, critics, and dealers. Artists' depictions as deviants deny them the cultural iconicity with which to represent the nation. Furthermore, most artists are inspired by artists from any time and any place (Picasso inspired both Pollock and Basquiat), not just from one national culture, further diluting their identification with any nation.

National or community identity is foregrounded in films about statesmen, philanthropists, scientists, teachers working in ghettoes, and social reformers—all clearly contributing to the public good (Custen 8-16). But artists' contributions are problematic—their art does not improve others' lives and contributes only in retrospect and not for their usually philistine contemporaries. In artists' biopic, then, heroics are replaced by "psychological, sexual, and pharmacological examinations of subjects' lives (sometimes to the point of sensationalism)" (Plagens 118). Biopics' artists are always oversexed, either sadistic (Caravaggio, Bacon, Picasso) or masochistic (Van Gogh, Claudel, Gentileschi, Toulouse-Lautrec, Carrington) or both (Kahlo, Michelangelo), whether homosexual (Caravaggio, Bacon) or heterosexual. Their rampant sexuality fuels their creativity; in biopics women artists are punished for their sexual freedom, men...


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