American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Performing Blackness at the Heart of Whiteness: The Life and Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Ethnic Studies

First Advisor

Andrew Hershberger

Second Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Khani Begum (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Irina Stakhanova (Committee Member)


Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Jean-Michel Basquiat rose to prominence as a painter in the 1980s art world. When he died in 1988 at age twenty-seven from a drug overdose, he had achieved more fame and wealth than any black artist in history; he remains today the world's most recognizable black painter. This study seeks to show how Basquiat's racial and cultural background shaped his life and art.

In its first three chapters, this study examines Basquiat's experiences in New York City in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in a variety of contexts including his neighborhoods, schools, the graffiti movement, avant-gardism, and the art world. This study finds that the artist's blackness often made him racially hyper-visible and the target of racism and stereotyping. It also finds that of all the artistic traditions that Basquiat was exposed to and involved in, his experiences with performance art had the most enduring impact on him artistically.

In its final two chapters, this study looks at Basquiat's public persona and art. Chapter Four covers the way the artist walked, talked, dressed, wore his hair, acted in interviews, posed for photographs, and behaved in public in general. Chapter Five considers not just at his art's aesthetic but also at the way he painted, talked about his art, and acted as an artist. This study finds that throughout his career from 1981 to 1988, Basquiat brought to his canvases a hasty, unfinished, and chaotic look while intentionally cementing an image of himself as rude, rebellious, and difficult.

This paper argues that Basquiat's wild behavior and equally wild-looking art represent a performance of "blackness." The artist embodied in his paintings and public persona the stereotypical image of the young black male in order to comment on and locate the casual racism and racially naïve attitudes of his predominantly white liberal audiences. Although several popular and academic discourses explain Basquiat's life and art in terms of the modernist construct of tortured genius, this study challenges this romanticized version by offering a more grounded and materialist interpretation.