By Vani Kant
Art as a discipline cannot be commodified. Its value lies in the enjoyment or grief it can bring to people by allowing them to see reflections of themselves, and finding solace in this familiarity. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work is an essential element of the zeitgeist because it exists to make people feel seen. It’s raw; it’s subversive; it’s unapologetic; and arguably most importantly, it’s anti-capitalist. Turns out, it’s also slapped on a £565 Saint Laurent hoodie which was most probably made in a sweatshop in India. Basquiat, having tragically passed away in 1988, has no say on the bastardisation of his legacy. And therein lies the proof that while art cannot be commodified, artwork definitely can, and definitely has been.
Why is Basquiat’s “Equals Pi” a focal element of Tiffany and Co’s “About Love” campaign with Beyoncé and Jay-Z, where Beyoncé adorns the infamous blood diamond gatekept from all but four women worthy and wealthy enough to wear it? The recent infatuation of luxury brands with the Black and queer anti-establishmentarian visionary is very curious, but not particularly mysterious. It’s important to contextualise this interest against the global upsurge of activism and the consequent demand for luxury brands to be socially conscious of their elitist practices. And what better way to respond to valid criticism than by rebranding and co-opting symbols of socio-political subversion and ‘rebellion’ while strategically retaining all the power capital can buy, simultaneously staying relevant in the discourse? The desire to appear agitational is especially big with street style brands and luxury collections, which is why you can now buy a £2800 Saint Laurent Basquiat skateboard, to roll his name in the mud. You can always count on the rich to look subversive but not declare their taxes.
But there’s still hope for us lesser mortals yet. As the trends trickle down the hierarchy of the fashion industry, inevitably you will find the £3 Shein crop top someone was paid £0.45 to make. You don’t know why there’s a three point crown and chaotic writing on it, but you do know it’ll look fantastic on the ‘gram. And that’s the problem. Capitalism is capable of draining every last drop of meaning out of Basquiat’s – and so many other artists’ – works until they exist for optics and vibrant colour palettes alone. It reduces canvases of creative genius that led to a cultural shift to a detached, niche aesthetic, or an investment to be sold and resold amongst collectors over the years. An untitled Basquiat which was worth $19,000 in 1984 was recently sold for $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
Jean-Michel Basquiat dedicated his life’s work to portraying the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle. He challenged what art was and redefined what it could be and who could make it. He detached art from the ivory towers of the elite and placed it in the more brutal reality he – and so many others not born with a silver spoon up our arses – lived and knew of. Unfortunately, thirty three years after his death, the glory of Basquiat’s art comes from the millionaire who can afford to own it, not the spectator who takes time to understand it. But hey, if you can afford New York’s rent and a blood diamond or two, at least you can go see “Equals Pi” on display at the Tiffany and Co Fifth Avenue store in 2022.