Muñoz, Basquiat, and Warhol: how bringing in comics with theory makes me wanna do art activism

I couldn’t have been more impressed and captivated by José Esteban Muñoz’s first chapter in Disidentifications, “Famous and Dandy like B. ‘n’ Andy: Race, Pop, and Basquiat.” His chapter begins with the type of statement that would do such a thing: “I always marvel at the ways in which nonwhite children survive a white supremacist U.S. culture that preys on them. I am equally in awe of the ways in which queer children navigate a homophobic public sphere that would rather they did not exist” (37). Muñoz immediately draws me into a connection between two discourses that shape identity: racism and homophobia. And where most theorists fail, Muñoz does real work by providing examples of how nonwhite children survive and queer children navigate the harsh world that seeks to destroy them with heternormativity.

His first example comes from analyzing how Greg S. McCue and Clive Bloom created the original Superman as an alternative to the harmfully normalized stigma that names a “Jew’s body as weak and sickly” (41). According to Muñoz, this take on Superman provided the Jewish community with a disidentification—someone strong who “actively strove to responding to [North American and European culture] by reformulating the myth of Superman outside anti-Semitic and xenophobic cultural logics” (40). This move performs two critical shifts of understanding. Muñoz, of course, uses his analysis of the icon to introduce the two “real-life” figures who perform the disidentification and resistant to harmful discursive control he describes in the beginning of the chapter. However, he does something else. Muñoz writes in words I can understand; he writes in my culture.

As much as I am interested in identity, I enjoy comics and art. The fact that Muñoz embraces his analysis by looking at how Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat traversed their oppression through art grabs me, and keeps me inside his text. Surely, not everyone responds to these cultural discourses in the same way as I do. Nonetheless, insight gleans from several moments in the text.

Muñoz points out how Basquiat’s Piano Lesson shows that “[t]he half-finished figures connote process, which is exactly how the process of disidentification should be understood” (42). In Basquiat’s take on comic culture, mashed with his own performance of identity, Muñoz shows me how artistic craft and social commentary do activism within identity-politics.

Piano Lesson

Such a painting looks simplistic on the outset, I felt initially. But then I read Muñoz’s description, and looked deeper, closer. The painting could be something nearly any of us could make, which is where some form of identification occurs. Yet, it can’t. This painting is also considerably all-Basquiat. He owns this image of disidentification because it’s his own identity.

Which leads to another analysis I enjoyed:

Of this, Muñoz writes, “The refiguration of the trademark on Warhol’s side of the canvas interrupts the erasure of labor by calling attention to the trademark’s very inscription, one that, when properly scrutinized, reveals the thematics of labor that the commodity system works to elide” (43). It took me a while to read that into this painting, but once I scrutinized, I saw it. With Muñoz’s analysis, I was able to then understand what he says, which I feel is additionally profound. “This image calls attention to the often effaced presence of black production. An intervention such as this interrogates the ways in which the United States is, at bottom, a former slave economy that still counts on and factors in the exploitation and colonization of nonwhite labor” (43). Yes. Even I, with all my work in discourses of racism and working class rhetoric, have forgotten such a profound and profuse truth. C’est vrai.

So what do we do? How is this activism? It is activism by addressing the concerns of how trademarks and labels seek to control us and fashion us into bodied products of capitalism. Because Warhol and Basquiat teamed up together, along with Muñoz’s analysis, I am able to notice how advertisements like this work. Muñoz quotes Lauren Berlant saying, “A trademark is supposed to be a consensual mechanism. It triangulates with the consumer and the commodity, providing what W.F. Haug calls a ‘second skin’ that enables the commodity to appear to address, to recognize, and thereby to love the consumer” (qtd. in Muñoz 45-6). Yes, again. But the Basquiat-Warhol mashup-collab rocks this outside of itself. I am not drawn to associate (and assimilate) with the patriarchal Arm & Hammer image of masculinity. Instead, I am drawn to see how such an image fails to provide identification. Consumerist images do not gain my consent; none of them “love” me.  Basquiat, indeed, performs the disidentification Muñoz names. Of Basquiat, he says, “…I see Basquiat’s practice as a strategy of disidentification that retools and is ultimately able to open up a space where a subject can imagine a mode of surviving the nullifying force of consumer capitalism’s modes of self” (47).

With this analysis, I want to paint. With this analysis, I finally understand why consumer culture’s advertisements and brands fail to give me an identity. I haven’t had enough words to write expressly on this before. And that is the power of rhetoric studies–to give people like me a space for voice. “The ways in which these two artists cross-identified, disidentified, and learned with and from each other also suggest the political possibilities of collaboration” (Muñoz 51). From this, I learn two modes of praxis: collaboration and disidentification in my art. I am moved to paint my responses to my culture in ways that feel real to me and my own struggling identity. I am also moved to work with others, possibly someone who disidentifies in a different way. Such a reading brings out the artistic activist in me, but also the rhetor. Comics and their history might begin to look new in a reframed, dialectic light. What reading Muñoz’s first chapter means, to me, is that I have a means to test the boundaries of my own subjectivity within my specific cultural discourses, and that it could be revolutionary to collaborate outside of who I am.

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