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Ridiant Child The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

By Javaka Steptoe


Jean-Michel lives in Brooklyn and dreams of being a famous artist. He draws day in and day out, and even though his lines are sloppy and he does not color within the lines, his drawings are still somehow beautiful. Matilde, his mother, inspires him. One day he gets into an accident, and his mother brings him a book on anatomy to help him get better, but after he recovers, his mother’s mind is not well and she has to be taken from home. Jean-Michel tries to draw the sadness out. He visits his mother in the hospital and promises her that he’ll be a famous artist one day. As he grows older, he leaves Brooklyn for New York City, where he draws on street corners and on anything he can find. Soon, his art becomes recognized by many, and it moves from street corners onto gallery halls. He is now famous, yet he still visits his mother regularly and draws for her. Jean-Michel’s art is still sloppy, and not within the lines, but it is still beautiful.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Daniel Quintero and Emma Goidel

The question of what is art, what makes art beautiful, and the importance of fame is raised by Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the book, we see the transformation of Jean-Michel from childhood to adulthood, and how different experiences he had throughout his life shaped the way he drew and expressed himself. We also see the evolution of his dream and the steps that were taken to achieve this dream.

Classical definitions of art attempt to define the paradigm through a single feature. The three main candidates are representational features, expressive features and formal features. These candidates have been debated for a long time, but have recently lost popularity due to their limited natures. Not all art is representational, for example, and this can be seen in abstract and color-only art. It is also difficult to define art in terms of expressive or formal features, since many other things, like human faces, have expressions and mathematical equations also possess formal features. More contemporary definitions attempt to define art in terms of its historical and cultural characteristics and, arguably, transhistorical and transcultural aspects. Although this definition seems to hold greater promise than the others, many are still skeptical as to whether a definition of art can even be achieved. Some view art as a collection of a myriad of entities, that are not seen objectively, measured in a scale, but rather subjectively and perceived as a category, and since natural categories appear to represent difficulty in defining their boundaries, some worry that art’s boundaries can never be defined, making it impossible to define art itself.

It is within the tradition of art to talk about aesthetic qualities, but even this concept seems to be controversial. Is all art beautiful? What makes something, specifically art, beautiful? Traditional accounts attempt to tackle the question by ways of tangible characteristics, as the color scheme, the shading, the technique, and others. The problem with such definitions of beauty though is that it neglects the message, the expressiveness, and the background of the artist. In other words, it appears to neglect the subjective aspects of art. More contemporary views attempt to strike a balance between subjective and objective characteristics, but the question then remain as to the importance of one over the other, or if both are equally relevant. And if a piece of art, as those of Jean-Michel, can be objectively ugly and subjectively beautiful, and thus be both beautiful and ugly at the same time.

And as it is evident in the book, Jean-Michel strives to become famous and does end up achieving this dream. Yet, his success with fame still leaves us asking, was it worth it? He is still making the same type of art, so is the recognition of it really that important? What is the motivation behind wanting to be famous, and the different negative aspects that fame brings with it? Ultimately, we ask the question: is fame even worth pursuing at all?

Questions about art, beauty and fame are both explicitly and implicitly presented by Radiant Child. Your goal with the discussion of this book is to get children to ponder the nature of art, beauty, and relevance of fame by observing the way Jean-Michel paints and the steps he takes as he grows in age. With beauty, for example, it appears permissible to let Jean-Michel draw sloppy and not color within the lines, for he is a kid and that is the way kids draw. As he grows his drawings and paintings are still sloppy, yet people find them beautiful. Do they really find it beautiful? And is his art really art, or are there different levels of art? Some kids might feel inclined to say that it is art, but that it is bad art. Can such a thing exist?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

What is art

Jean-Michel draws and learns from his mother that art is everywhere. He learns that beyond museums and poetry books that they read together, art can be found in the style of the way we speak; in the games that children play on the street; and in the jumble of pieces that make up city life.

Show the children three different slides of pictures and repeat the question for each picture. Do you think this is art?

  1. What do you think the author means when he says, “art creates new meaning for ordinary things”? Do you agree?
  2. What is art?
  3. What makes some pictures art and others not?
  4. Are some works of art better than others? Why?

The nature of beauty

Jean-Michel’s drawings are described as not being neat or clean. He does not color inside the lines and sometimes his drawings can be sloppy, ugly, and weird but they are still described as beautiful.

  1. Do you think the drawings in this book are beautiful?
  2. If yes, why so? If no, why so? Describe elements that make it one versus the other.
  3. Is it possible for something to be both beautiful and ugly? Can you think of a time that something was both beautiful and ugly?
  4. Does art have to be beautiful? To be good art, does it have to be beautiful?

The nature of fame

Jean-Michel continually emphasizes that he wants to be a famous artist one day. He in fact does become famous.

  1. Why does Jean-Michel want to be famous?
  2. What are the benefits of being famous?
  3. Are there any downfalls that come with fame?
  4. What does it mean to be famous?
  5. What is fame?
  6. Do famous people do bad things?
  7. Do you know someone who has done something that is worth being famous for but they are not famous?
  8. What is better: 1) to not be recognized for doing great things that you love or 2) to be famous for doing something you don’t love or something bad?

This book module deals with aesthetics, existentialism, and fame. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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