The point Jay Z critics keep missing in Basquiat Tiffany ad
The art education will last far longer than the ad will
My art teacher was really into Vincent van Gogh during my elementary school years. She’d go on and on about the myths of him cutting off his own ear when she wasn’t assigning us to work on paintings like his of vases of flowers. Three decades later, I still remember how much of a fan this black woman was of the Dutch painter. When she wasn’t talking about van Gogh, we were creating our own versions of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” In later years, because my elementary school was so Afrocentric, I wondered why this sista didn’t bring more African- or African-American artists to our attention. But she liked who she liked.
I started paying attention to other artists as I grew older. I was intrigued by Ellis Wilson’s “Funeral Procession” after an episode of “The Cosby Show” made a big deal of it. Like the van Gogh paintings, I wasn’t wow’d by it, but I thought it was eye-catching. It made me pay more attention to Wilson’s other work. By high school, I’d started collecting calendars and framing printouts of work by Frank Morrison and Annie Lee. That was more my speed. By the time I started painting ceramics (with my mother’s encouragement from her own work), then I realized I was really into people-centric art, not necessarily objects and random words. Abstracts have never been my cup of tea.
I don’t have to like every single artist’s work who comes out, but I can respect the creativity. More importantly though, I’m a loyal supporter of art education. And that’s what’s missing from this debate about Jay Z and Beyonce showcasing a long-unseen painting called “Equals Pi” from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s private collection in this Tiffany ad. If you haven’t heard the hoopla by now, social media users’ latest gripe is over this Tiffany ad image. I heard the critiques about Jay Z copying Basquiat’s hair. I heard the complaints about how Basquiat’s work shouldn’t be affiliated with a capitalist market. I sighed at the outraged predictions over how Basquiat would’ve wanted his work to be showcased.
Now I could easily go the easy route and point out a few things: 1) Entirely too many people who are complaining about Basquiat don’t know him personally, and cannot tell you what he would or wouldn’t have wanted. 2) If Basquiat didn’t want the artwork to be seen, he wouldn’t have painted it nor released it at all. 3) Once you buy a piece of artwork, you can showcase it however and whenever the hell you see fit. 4) Some of you seem more bent out of shape about elite black folks enjoying luxury and don’t spend enough time worried about your own bank account.
But that’s not what I want to focus on. My response is a bit simpler than that. To be brutally honest, I have yet to see one Basquiat painting I actually liked. Some are just flat-out ugly to me. Others are OK. I don’t jump on bandwagons or ride popularity trains because it’s the “in” thing to do. Had this Tiffany ad never made it onto an ad for two music artists who I’m a huge fan of, I can guarantee you I wouldn’t have started reading about Basquiat. But the angrier the critics got, the more I looked up his other artwork. The longer the topic trended, the more content I devoured about “Mike” and that hidden door artwork. I wanted to know what the big deal with him was, as much as I wanted to know why my art teacher was so hung up on van Gogh.
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Close your eyes right now. Picture a Tiffany ad. Can you? My guess is “no.” Even if you’re a fan of the jewelry line, nothing really sticks out. (To me anyway.) But I can visualize this Basquiat pic because people made it such a big deal. Without looking back at the Tiffany ad, I know the wording at the top says, “Knowledge of the cone” and I want to know what that means. (No one seems to have a legitimate answer for it.) I remember the toothy grin on a man’s face, and the crowns sprinkled here and there. I remember this piece.