Is Basquiat Rolling Over in his Grave

Is Basquiat Rolling Over in his Grave?

Tiffany & Co’s new marketing campaign features a long-concealed Basquiat alongside Beyoncé and Jay-Z. What would the anti-capitalist graffiti artist have thought about his painting being used in an ad?

What would Basquiat say?

For the past week, the worlds of luxury, art and social justice are crossing paths and swords on the battleground called Twitter to discuss and pass verdict on the latest marketing campaign by luxury jewelry house Tiffany & Co — a subsidiary of the even bigger luxury conglomerate LVMH since the beginning of the year — which hasn’t even officially launched. The full ad will start running tomorrow, but Tiffany has released a teaser last week, and there was enough in it to unpack to reel activists and produce accusations of racism, hypocrisy, insensitivity, unchecked capitalism and so forth. But let’s start from the beginning:

In a clever attempt of gearing to a new generation of luxury customers, the jewelry retailer has produced a massive campaign featuring the Carters, i.e. Beyoncé and Jay-Z, the entertainment (and to an extent general) heroes of many of this new generation, who pose alongside a third character, present in form of a canvas: Jean Michel Basquiat. In this well-thought-out marketing effort nothing is random, however, and that painting does not play a supporting role to the billionaire couple. Equals Pi, stemming from 1982 no less, Basquiat’s most important creative year, is permeated with many of his most common motifs, such as crowns and a skull, as well as the repetition of his recurring words and sentences, like “ten yen,” “dunce,” “Amorite” and “knowledge of the cone,” the symbolism and meaning of which range from vague to speculative. But it’s the color that all of this is set on that makes the canvas stand apart from Basquiat’s general oeuvre and what made it so interesting to Tiffany. The turquoise background, very untypical for the graffiti artist’s usually gloomy mood, very much resembles the luxury retailer’s flagship robin egg blue, or Tiffany Blue, and throughout the campaign the canvas draws all the attention of the schooled Tiffany eye as the only source of the usually prevalent color.

Does this mean that Basquiat painted this canvas for the brand? Absolutely not. Does it mean there is a connection? Alexandre Arnault, Tiffany’s executive vice president, admitted to WWD in an interview: “We don’t have any literature that says he made the painting for Tiffany,” but he maintained that “My guess is that the is not by chance. The color is so specific that it has to be some kind of homage.” Relying solely on the color to support a link between the painting and the company, or even speak of an homage, seems very very farfetched. Nothing else in the painting indicates any form of connection — on the contrary. Basquiat’s usual motifs speak of historic injustices, of racism, of poverty, of disenfranchisement, and of his opposition to capitalism. An almost 200-year old luxury jewelry retailer does not exactly tie in to those themes.

It’s also why Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been widely criticized for taking part in the ad. The singer also wears the famous 128.54-carat Tiffany Diamond, which was discovered in a South African mine in 1877 and famously worn by Audrey Hepburn (whose style was mimicked by Beyoncé in the ad) in publicity photos for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This sparked online outrage and the stars were called out for insensitivity and ignorance about the havoc the diamond trade wreaked on the African continent over the past century.

It must be pointed out that Tiffany & Co is not accused of racism or unethical dealings, but the standards companies of that caliber are held accountable to today reach beyond their direct involvement or legal definitions of wrongdoings. Twitter is a demanding and unforgiving force, and, beyond Beyoncé’s shortcomings, mainly raised the question of what Basquiat would say about his painting being used in (very) capitalistic marketing campaign.

The fact that Equals Pi has been almost completely absent from the public eye and in the ad carries an air of a “newly unveiled” Basquiat doesn’t help. Of course it’s not a new discovery, as it came on auction at Sotheby’s twice in the ‘90s, the first time failing to sell and the second time going for around $250,000 to the Milanese Sabbadini family, another Jewelry household name. They then sold the painting to above-mentioned Arnault family (the father of Alexandre is Bernard, chairman and chief executive of LVMH and well-known art collector) recently, and it is slated to be hung in Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue flagship store after its current renovation. So what would Basquiat really say about all of this?

The simple answer: we don’t know. No one does. Alexandre Arnault in his interview further tried to defend the company’s use of the painting in the campaign by stating that “we know a little bit about Basquiat. We know his family. We did an exhibition of his work at the Louis Vuitton Foundation a few years back. We know he loved New York, and that he loved luxury and he loved jewelry.” The reasoning is really scanty at best. But its as good as the company needs it to be to go forward with it. The cleverness lies in the choice of the Black power couple as the ambassadors of this campaign, because, with regard to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, the transgression would have to be much more offensive to motivate the masses to turn on their semi-gods. As it is, a little slap on the hand and some lip service do the job and we can move on.

Art media and personalities, however, have been surprisingly reserved at passing judgement and preferred hiding behind objective reporting. For one, they might be reluctant to criticize luxury brands which are becoming increasingly synonymous with art brands. On the other hand, they might be aware of the Pandora’s box they risk opening should they undertake the herculean task of drawing the line between safeguarding the essence and ideals of fine art and its commercialization. For haven’t we jumped over that fence a long time ago?


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