Comment Writer Alex Cooke writes about the recent Tiffany Ad Campaign featuring Beyonce and Jay-Z and revealing a previously unseen Basquiat painting, concluding that it reduces elitism within the art industry

Written by alex_cooke
Images by Raysonho

Beyonce and Jay- Z have recently caused controversy by appearing in an advertisement for the jewellery brand Tiffany. The advertisement featured a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat which has never been seen by the public before, entitled ‘Equals Pi’. It was previously owned by a private collector but was purchased by Tiffany’s earlier this year.

This caused debates about elitism in the art industry and whether it is fair to keep significant pieces of art from the public, especially because its first appearance was in this advertisement. Basquiat’s work frequently featured themes of class and wealth divisions and so using a Basquiat piece in a Tiffany advert has angered some people as they believe it goes against Basquiat’s own intentions.

It depicts a huge display of wealth with Beyonce dressed in a black Balmain dress as an obvious homage to Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s; also wearing the $30 million diamond necklace Hepburn wore to promote the film. Jay-Z pays tribute to Basquiat himself, wearing the Jean Schlumberger-Tiffany collaboration, ‘Bird on a Rock’ brooch.

However, I would argue that using this painting to promote Tiffany is not in poor taste and does not necessarily go against Basquiat’s morals. The painting uses the same colour as the famous ‘Tiffany Blue’ and so many believe that using this colour may have been an intentional reference to Tiffany, especially as Basquiat’s work is heavily influenced and inspired by New York.

Additionally, I think it is not the place of strangers on the internet to decide what the artist would have intended. They do not know Basquiat and therefore do not have any authority over whether this is what he would have wanted or not. Alexandre Arnault, the executive vice president of products and communications for Tiffany said: ‘we know he loved New York, and that he loved luxury and he loved jewellery’.

To say that Basquiat would have disliked this use of the painting because his work shows themes of the wealth divide, is an oversimplified view. A person can be aware of the wealth divide and also not object to luxury brands just because they are for those who are incredibly wealthy; Basqiat himself even featured in a Comme des Garcons show and often wore Armani suits.

The painting is also now going to be available to the public because it was purchased by Tiffany. The brand is displaying the painting in their flagship store in New York once renovations of this store are finished. This means it will be freely available to the public, which it was not when it was in a private collection.

The advert also came with a $2 million donation to colleges that are historically black, for internships and scholarships. Although I would argue these kinds of donations from large corporations are done in order to create a more positive image for the company by appearing progressive, it is still a large sum of money for a good cause. The result will be beneficial, even if the motivation is not simply to help young black students.

The idea that the public are entitled to see works of art, simply because they have been created by a significant and influential artist is flawed

Also, the idea that the public are entitled to see works of art, simply because they have been created by a significant and influential artist, is flawed. The owners of the painting are entitled to do what they wish to do with it, whether that be displaying it in a gallery or keeping it in a personal collection; it is only fair – after all they did buy the painting. I would argue that the real issue with this idea is wealth hoarding. If a family is able to collect works by such famous and influential artists, then they perhaps have too much money.

This continues the debate over elitism; however, it focuses on how the upper classes can live completely different lives just because of the sheer amount of wealth they have. To be able to buy such an expensive and historically significant painting, which if it was known to the public would have allowed art historians to contribute to our knowledge of Basquiat as an artist, is unthinkable for the average person.

The legacy of artists and musicians is often debated. There are some cases where a use of an artist’s work or image posthumously is clearly wrong, such as when Justin Timberlake featured a hologram of Prince in his Superbowl half-time show. Prince had specifically stated in the past his dislike of virtually manipulating someone’s image saying, ‘that whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon’. I think it is instances such as this where it is clear that would be against the artist’s wishes as it was explicitly stated.

However, the same cannot be said for the use of Basquiat’s work. There is no explicit moral contradiction. If anything, revealing the Basquiat in an advert creates more interest and publicity for the painting. It shares the piece with a wider audience than if it was only shown in an art gallery or even just hidden in a private collection. To share the painting in an advertising campaign goes against elitism and I believe is an act of democratising art.

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