Beyonce & Jay-Z’s Tiffany’s campaign has riled Jean-Michel Basquiat’s friends

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Ever since Tiffany’s released their new ad campaign with Beyonce and Jay-Z on the first day of Virgo season, it’s just been one thing after another. First, the giant yellow diamond necklace which Beyonce wears in the campaign is literally a blood diamond from South Africa. People also complained about the frantic tokenization of Beyonce as “the first Black woman” to wear the necklace. They’re mad about the $2 million tax write-off donation to HBCUs to smooth over the controversy. But the strongest ire has been for Tiffany’s use of a rarely-seen Jean-Michel Basquiat painting. The Basquiat painting was in private hands for decades, and it was used in the campaign because of Basquiat’s use of the robin’s egg blue, the signature color of Tiffany’s. The problem? Basquiat didn’t use that shade of blue as some kind of ode to Tiffany’s. And now Basquiat’s friends and former coworkers are speaking out:

For close friends of Basquiat’s who lived and worked with the late, trailblazing artist in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the answer is quite clear: Their loved one was not thinking about Tiffany’s at all while conjuring Equals Pi. “I’d seen the ad a couple days ago and I was horrified,” Alexis Adler tells The Daily Beast. Adler, who lived with Basquiat in his earlier years of art-making between 1979-1980, maintains that “the commercialization and commodification of Jean and his art at this point—it’s really not what Jean was about.”

At first glance, it might seem like the function of the ad, to sell a more modern Tiffany & Co. to their wealthy consumer base, might align with Basquiat’s desire to sell his art at a high price, but where his art was displayed mattered more so than the monetary transaction itself. “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. Why show it as a prop to an ad?” asks Adler. “Loan it out to a museum. In a time where there were very few Black artists represented in Western museums, that was his goal: to get to a museum.”

The fact that Equals Pi will permanently hang on the walls of Tiffany’s flagship boutique on Fifth Avenue proves a sore spot for artists like Al Diaz—who was a close friend of Basquiat’s and collaborated with him as a teenager on their street art duo SAMO—and Stephen Torton, who mixed paints, framed hundreds of Basquiat’s paintings, and worked as his assistant for many years. “People think that his association with luxury was because he was impressed with that shit, but he couldn’t care less,” Diaz explains. “It’s not just about wearing an Armani suit. If he wore it, it’s because he could buy it and f–k it up, it wasn’t because the stitches were fabulous or well-made.”

But what’s happened in the last decade or so, as images of both Basquiat the face and Basquiat the aesthetic swarm brands like Avian, Urban Decay and Coach, is an overemphasis on the more lurid aspects of his biography—the party animal, the fashionisto, the drug addict—and a flattening of the art itself. “It’s lost in translation,” Diaz remarks, exasperated. “People won’t see the depth. At this point the only people that could afford a Basquiat are people he was targeting. Like, you’re the oppressor. They buy it out so that it becomes meaningless.”

[From The Daily Beast]

I get it. Tiffany’s has basically turned an anti-corporate, anti-homogenized-culture artist into a neutered, apolitical corporate mascot. The Daily Beast piece keeps going though, I learned something: Tiffany’s didn’t even trademark that “robin’s egg blue” color until 1998. Basquiat was using that color in his paintings long before it was trademarked for Tiffany’s. His friends also point out that he mixed his own colors and he often used that shade or similar shades of blue in other works and it had nothing to do with Tiffany’s.

Anyway, yes, this is a huge PR mess for not just Tiffany’s but the art world. I kind of wonder if Beyonce and Jay-Z regret their involvement too.

Elton John Oscar Viewing Party 2020

Photos courtesy of Tiffany’s.

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27 Responses to “Beyonce & Jay-Z’s Tiffany’s campaign has riled Jean-Michel Basquiat’s friends”

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  1. Maria says:

    I must admit I laughed when Stephen Torton posted an orange painting of Basquiat’s and said “Clearly inspired by Hermes orange”, lol.

  2. Ashley says:

    Yeah, my first thought when I saw this ad was whether Basquiat’s estate had given permission. The whole thing is distasteful, in all of that word’s meanings.

    • Smalltowngirl says:

      Do they have to if the owner did? How does that work with art? If the piece was created and sold privately, who has the display rights? (Honest question)

    • Tiffany :) says:

      I didn’t know this until I searched for his art this morning, but there are Coach bags with images of his paintings on them. It seems such an odd match. Did his estate sell the image? Or does the person that owns the painting get to sell the image from the painting to companies?

    • Kelly says:

      Basquiat’s estate does license a lot of his art for use in fashion and other commercial use. Uniqlo has worked with the estate over a number of years and currently has a UT collection with his work now, including one of the painting that set an auction record for his work.

      He’s not the only artist whose work is widely reproduced and licensed. Keith Haring’s estate has authorized quite a few, including with Toms. I still regret not getting a pair of Toms with Haring images. The Andy Warhol Foundation also does a lot of licensing as well. It’s likely that both Haring and Warhol would have approved of the licensing for various reasons. For Haring, it would have been another way for people to have some of his art and Warhol came from a commercial art background and was a great self promoter.

  3. Annaloo. says:

    I don’t want to take from Beyonce or even Jay Z ‘s careers or talent but I do agree that this tribute to luxury is a terrible use of Basquiat’s work, and not respectful as an homage. Materialism is the terrible partner of famous artists, and the irony that many artists die poor and unrecognized until death gives their work value is the sad truth of the world. Tiffany, Beyonce and Jay Z get no kudos for this. In 2021 it’s smacks of tone deafness and thoughtless consumerism, but those traits also seems pretty apt for describing humanity at this point.

  4. Lizzie Bathory says:

    Sadly, this whole thing is also a repeat of what happened during Basquiat’s lifetime. He was a brilliant artist who was exploited by the (white) art establishment. I remember reading that a collector/art dealer set him up in a basement studio & would bring people to watch him paint, like a circus act or something. He seemed tormented by his success & the world of luxury & fame he found himself in. He was only 27 when he died. What a loss.

  5. Theothermia says:

    THANK YOU FOR COVERING THIS. I knew this campaign was problematic the first time I saw the image. The art world is mostly about status and money, about 2% of it is about talent.

  6. TisMe says:

    Why would she want to wear a blood diamond?? The Fawk??

  7. LightPurple says:

    There is so much that is disturbing about these photographs.

  8. reef says:

    Tortured his legacy? BASQUIAT?! I just don’t understand where all this Basquiat wouldn’t approve nonsense is coming from. He liked celebrity. Basquiat liked money and all the accoutrements of wealth while being able to shun it because he felt “otherized”. He’d have been fine with 2 massively wealthy black people using his art – especially if he got a cut.

    • TW says:

      Thank you! I don’t understand the outrage either. Precisely because of all you said.

      ETA I just purchased one of the Coach bags featuring his work with the assumption that it could appreciate in value * because * it features his work. Am I exploiting him?

  9. Nina says:

    Very disappointed in the Carters

  10. Chana says:

    It’s such a bizarre, shallow campaign. The painting is so blatantly a meaningless prop. It’s impossible to criticize Beyonce and Jay Z online, but this is all so embarrassing for them.

    Was also expecting a new, modern collection from Tiffany to commemorate the partnership or whatever, but their website is still princess cut diamonds and dog tag bracelets. Did they really expect this to get trendy zoomers to start buying the same crap they’ve been doing for decades?

  11. NCWoman says:

    I just don’t get the controversy. Many, many more people are being exposed to Basquiat’s art than have been in a very, very long time. Of course, he wasn’t thinking of Tiffany’s, but the coincidence–and the association with Jay-Z and Beyonce–helps give him and the rest of the art world modern relevance. Bring people into the rest of the arts any way you can IMO. And as for the “blood diamond,” no diamond or other jewel mined before basically the last 10 – 15 years can ever be called anything but “blood” because there were no ethical options, period. So, you can either keep them in vaults and never let anyone see the art that went into the pieces, or you can show them intentionally in a way that turns aside from the colonizing (white) wealth that created them. I don’t even particularly care for Jay-Z or Beyonce, but this controversy is strange.

    • Call_Me_Al says:

      I don’t really love Beyonce and Jay-Z either, but I don’t understand how this is an issue. Lady Gaga wore this diamond at the Oscars and I didn’t hear anything except how beautiful and rarely worn it was. Celebrities do ads. Ads use images. The other thing I do want to know is, what are they selling?

    • mahcat says:

      There is a whole world of diamonds not from Africa. Canada and Australia are two large producers that come to mind and produce diamonds you can’t describe as blood diamonds.

    • Imara219 says:

      I swear people just love to hate on the Carters. People are mad at how an art owner displayed the art. I never associated that the painting as specific to Tiffany’s, just a piece that fit the moment. The Carters donate to HBCUs and discuss Black American issues constantly. Their entire brand at this point is about giving voice to Black people and using art as a device to achieve this. That was my impression of the painting. This was a way to have a Black artist apart of this moment. As for the diamond itself. The entire issue with Colonizers raping Africa’s resources and creating these mercenary situations fall entirely on their shoulders. Perhaps the Carters should have ensured the diamond was legit but honestly this entire set of criticism is just a way to be negative.

  12. SomeChick says:

    it’s just “Tiffany” – no apostrophe s, unless possessive. the Daily Beast got it wrong.

    I saw the Baquiet Coach bags and just shook my head.

  13. Queen Meghan's Hand says:

    It is just disappointing that for all of their accomplishments, for all Beyonce’s ‘Black is King’ imagery, the Carters have such a strong desire to be accepted by the white elite.

  14. The Recluse says:

    This is typical of the Art World at large. It’s all about big bucks. The artist tends to get lost.

  15. L4frimaire says:

    I get the sentiments about Basquiat’s work but part of me thinks this outrage is specifically because Bey and Jay are in the ad. I didn’t like how it was framed as her being the first Black woman to wear the diamond, which implies that other black women weren’t worthy of wearing it. I also see how triggered and angry people get by such blatant displays of wealth, particularly from them ( or the Obamas) -we know why. Tiffany owns the work, no one saw it until this ad, and I think they wanted to showcase the artist. So what if Basquiat didn’t reference Tiffany when he painted it, the color was why Tiffany bought it. If it was a Jasper John’s flag painting, would we get the same reaction and discussions? Probably not since he’s alive and living well. Btw, the retailer Uniqlo have made T-shirts showing Basquiat’s art for years. I’ve never heard his friend’s complaint about that and someone gave permission to license the work. Basquiat should have benefitted more directly from his work. He shouldn’t have died young, I don’t know whether his friends looked out for him and his interests or enabled his addiction and exploited his talent; he was very much a part of the social scene and art world in 80s NY. There’s a lot to unpack with this whole Tiffany ad with the giant yellow diamond and its very very conspicuous consumption.

  16. so says:

    Wait, you can trademark colors ??? WTF ?

  17. Justjj says:

    This is real messed up.