Tiffany, Basquiat and the Art of “Selling Out”
In August, Tiffany & Co. unveiled a high-profile campaign with all of the star power afforded by its new corporate parent, LVMH. Dubbed “About Love,” the ads featured Jay-Z and Beyoncé relaxing in a modernist home in Bel Air wearing archival pieces steeped in Tiffany lore: the famed Tiffany Diamond for Bey, and a Jean Schlumberger’s Bird on a Rock brooch for Jay. The About Love collection was recently announced as Tiffany’s best-selling collection in recent history.
But the first couple of pop wasn’t the ad’s only draw. The shoot was centered around the large Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas Equals Pi, made by the late painter in 1982. The work, reportedly recently purchased by Tiffany, had been in the same collection since its creation, making it, per the brand, “the work of art’s first public appearance.”
Controversy or Representation?
Queue outrage: social media and blogs erupted in a slew of hot-takes condemning the advert. People criticized Tiffany’s employment of both Basquiat and the Carters as a steely attempt at blackwashing a historically problematic diamond and luxury company built off the backs of apartheid, slavery, and uber-capitalism. Most notably, friends and collaborators of Basquiat’s were more than dismayed at the revisionist narrative of Basquiat’s work that LVMH seems to be touting. Stephen Torton, the late artist’s studio assistant came forward saying, “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. But this very perverse appropriation of the artist’s inspiration is too much.” Close acquaintances certainly believe Basquiat would not have “sold out” for this collaboration.
But what gives with this particular campaign? The fashion world always finds a way to co-opt certain artistic and socio-political movements to fit the mold of their liking. Just look at the successful reception of artistic collaborations like Gucci x Dapper Dan, Louis Vuitton x Murakami, Off-White x Jenny Holzer or Balenciaga x Jon Rafman.
Has “selling out” become a dirty word, yet again? In the age of high-low referentiality in the fashion and art world, “selling out,” the once well-known term seems to have fallen by the way-side in favour of postmodern irony and kitsch in the juxtaposition of money, luxury, and the underground. In a sort of reverse Warholianism, injecting fine art into luxury became a win-win for brands and artists alike, where artists traded off their street credibility for exposure and fame.
View this post on Instagram
But what really constitutes a sell-out? And why is our perception of the term changing? Established in the 1930s as a counter to the growing influence of money and industry in government after the 1929 stock market crash, the term spread with an explosion of economic resentment. An anti-corporate connotation became concentrated in the emerging labor union movement.
One only needs to look at the current state of global affairs to understand why attitudes toward artistic “sell-outs” have taken a turn for the worse. As wealth disparity, a climate crisis, rampant racial injustice, and a global pandemic ravage hopes for a better tomorrow, suddenly the luxury and ostentation of designer brands seem gluttonous and egregious; their artistic collaborations, often with marginalized artists, opportunistic and disingenuous.
And yet, times are dire, for artists and workers alike. After Gucci’s puff-sleeved bomber jacket was outed by fashion enthusiasts as a direct rip-off of a late-1980s Dapper Dan design, the house reached out, offering to bring Dapper Dan into Gucci’s family of external collaborators — including Trouble Andrew, aka Gucci Ghost, and Coco Capitán.
No one batted an eye when Dapper Dan was inducted into the ranks of the wealthy and elite. Having now been finally recognized for his contributions to street style and fashion as a whole, the designer was congratulated and the moment felt full circle during a time of calls for increased representation and equity in the industry. A PR move to save face? Sure, but the fashion community nevertheless lauded the gesture. The designer was congratulated and the moment was regarded as ‘full circle’ during a time of calls for increased representation and equity in the industry.
This time around, however, there is no consent. The posthumous use of Basquiat’s work struck a chord with the general public. Where Dapper Dan had palpable agency in the decision to accept the offer of designing for the house of Gucci (even in the wake of their blatant theft of his designs) as did Kaws with Dior, Murakami with LV and so on, Basquiat was never afforded that choice, with Tiffany or any of the other brand collaborations his estate has profited off of in recent years.
In other words, collaborations such as Tiffany x Basquiat lacking a semblance of authenticity leave a bad taste in our mouths. Like garment workers stitching ‘girlboss’ into H&M t-shirts for a pittance, or Pepsi-Cola co-opting Black Lives Matter, there is a certain irony and danger to cross-pollinating capitalism, art, and activism. The lines once blurred can end up backfiring big time. In the case of Basquiat’s politically and racially charged artistic oeuvre, the collaboration looks like a misstep for Tiffany on the whole.
Perhaps our perception of upward social and economic mobility as a whole is becoming tainted by the state of our world, or perhaps consumers don’t want to feel duped by the uber-wealthy and the powers that be. One thing is for sure, in the case of Tiffany x Basquiat, consumers loved the collection, snapping up pieces at a record rate. Social media users, on the other hand, are increasingly discerning and savvy, and like it or not, they’re quick to spot a sell-out.