In recent weeks, the art world has been up in arms over Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s use of a never before seen Basquiat painting, entitled Equals Pi. While it is no secret that those with the luxury of money have been able to afford to own high end works of art (seemingly from the very inception of the art market) this latest commodification and commercialization of arguably one of the 20th centuries most influential artists seems to have catalyzed universal criticism— both for Tiffany & Co., as well as the two artists.
Recently, friends and collaborators of late-artist Jean-Michel Basquiat have joined in to criticize the use of the painting, with many explaining that the use of the painting in the ad campaign is ‘not really what he was about.’ The photo in question features Jay-Z and Beyoncé posing in front of the 1982 painting, with Beyoncé donning the famous 128.54-carat yellow Tiffany diamond, making her only the third person who has had the privilege of wearing it (after Audrey Hepburn and Lady Gaga). The diamond, which was unearthed in South Africa back in the 1870s, is now considered to be a blood diamond and has been labeled a ‘symbol of colonialism.’
The diamond, coupled with the overall aura of the Tiffany & Co. brand, seems antithetical to what Basquiat stood for in life. The late artist, who died of a drug overdose back in 1988 at just 27 years old, was a staunch anti-capitalist who would’ve been horrified to see his work being appropriated in this fashion, according to many of the artist’s friends. According to Alex Adler, who lived with Basquiat between 1979 and 1980, the commercialization and commodification of the art is ‘really not what Jean was about.’ Adler was outraged by the use of the painting, “I’d seen the ad a couple days ago,” she told the Daily Beast, “and I was horrified.”
Others have come forward to criticize the campaign as well, including Basquiat’s former assistant Stephen Torton, who claims that Tiffany would not have welcomed Basquiat while he was still alive. “They wouldn’t have let Jean-Michel into a Tiffany’s if he wanted to use the bathroom, or, if he went to buy an engagement ring and pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket. We couldn’t even get a cab,” he explained. Torton himself actually mixed the paint for the artwork.
Tiffany & Co. responded to the criticism by suggesting that the blue in the piece resembled Tiffany’s signature blue, which only further outraged friends of the artist. “The idea that this blue background, which I mixed and applied was in any way related to Tiffany Blue, is so absurd that at first I chose not to comment,” Torton fired back on Instagram.
While Basquiat was underappreciated in life, his work became hugely popular in death— which can be both a good and a bad thing. “Unfortunately, the museums came to Jean’s art late, so most of his art is in private hands and people don’t get to see that art except for the shows.” Explained Adler, before asking: “Why show it as a prop to an ad?”
In the years following his death, Basquiat has become something of a cultural icon, and his work has bled seamlessly into high-fashion in recent years, with companies such as Coach and Off-White launching their own lines of Basquiat clothing. As new generations develop their own relationship with Basquiat’s art, the question of the artist’s intentions will continue to be prevalent with each new adaptation. But regardless of how his artwork is utilized, it is clear that it continues to speak to people. “People are interested in his art and what it says to them,” Adler explained. “It speaks to them. And that’s where Jean is communicating. He’s not doing it through the merch.”