The Commodification of Jean-Michel Basquiat

When he was alive, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s iconic art leveled a powerful opposition to inequality and racism. Since his death, his work has been co-opted, emptied of all political content, and commodified to be sold as an image of New York’s vanishing cool.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Rainbow Roof on September 19, 1985. (Patrick McMullan / Getty Images)

In April, Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure opened at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Manhattan. Organized by the late artist’s family, the exhibition includes over two hundred Basquiat pieces, many previously unexhibited. As Lisane Basquiat, the artist’s sister and comanager of his estate, told Rolling Stone, the show is meant to offer “insight into Jean-Michel’s journey and the context within which [he] was raised and the way that he entered into his adulthood.” Indeed, the lengths to which the exhibit goes to broker an intimate encounter — the space designed by architect David Adjaye includes a reproduction of the artist’s childhood home and his studio — are indicative of Basquiat’s immense cultural standing. Try to imagine anyone taking the trouble to recreate the childhood home of Joseph Beuys or Louise Bourgeois.

That Basquiat holds such lingering distinction while many other artists of his generation have receded is certainly understandable. His art is kinetic, politically trenchant, and deeply iconic. As Dick Hebdige wrote in 1992, “Basquiat’s work is as complexly coded and oblique, as passionate, as technically sophisticated, as intellectually daring as a saxophone solo by Bird or Coltrane.” Even for the uninitiated, such elements are readily apparent.

Basquiat’s celebrity was, of course, significant in his own brief lifetime. Easily surpassing the standing of both Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring, he was one of the brightest stars of the 1980s art world at a time when contemporary art was gaining marquee status. He dated Madonna (apparently repossessing and painting over works he had given her after she broke up with him). And he was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

But in recent years, his fame has become stratospheric. He has been name-checked by Jay-Z and Nas, and at auction his paintings have fetched some of the highest prices ever commanded. In 2017, Untitled (1982) was sold for $110.5 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a work by an American artist and still the highest price ever paid for the work of a black artist. Yet it has been ultimately through merchandizing where Basquiat’s stardom has been the most evident.

Gap, Amazon, Urban Outfitters, Uniqlo, and Old Navy sell clothing featuring his artwork. Three different footwear companies have offered Basquiat additions in recent years. There are keychains, throw pillows, iPhone cases, scented candles, and a Basquiat edition of Uno.

For deep-pocketed consumers, WACKO MARIA, Valentino, and Coach have released Basquiat-branded items. As Coach’s creative director Stuart Vevers told Essence in 2020, the artist “embodied the creative, inclusive spirit of New York and was a force for change in his community. I am proud to celebrate his work and values and help bring them to a new generation.”

And herein lies the problem. Sanitized and caricatured by corporate marketing schemes, Basquiat’s work has been defanged. Today, Basquiat the artist has become Basquiat the brand.

Riddle Me This, Batman

Born in Park Slope in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Brooklyn-born, Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat, famously, moved from obscurity into the upper echelons of the New York art scene in a few short years. In the late 1970s, he gained attention as one half of SAMO (“same old shit”), a street art duo with friend Al Diaz. In aphorisms spray-painted throughout the city, SAMO debuted several of what would subsequently become central concerns and motifs in Basquiat’s work — the copyright symbol and the iconic crown.

In 1980, he was exhibited for the first time at the Times Square Show, where he met Annina Nosei, who would set him up with a studio in the basement of her gallery. In 1982, he held his first solo show at Nosei’s gallery, notoriously selling out the first night. Art dealer Bruno Bischofberger introduced Basquiat to Andy Warhol that same year, a collaborative relationship that would further propel Basquiat’s stardom. When Warhol died in 1987, it reportedly affected him considerably and he began using drugs more heavily. He died of an overdose in 1988.

While Hebdige certainly isn’t wrong to assert that Basquiat’s formally complex work resists facile interpretation, the themes of exploitation, racism, and imperialism are nevertheless explicit in many of the pieces. Numerous paintings — though typically not the ones licensed by Walmart — evocatively explore race, framing contemporary racial inequality through the longue durée of racial violence. Untitled (History of the Black People) (1983) references both the Egyptian and Atlantic slave trades. Taxi, 45th/Broadway (1984–85), dramatizing Basquiat’s own experience of being unable to hail a cab, depicts contemporary conditions of racial inequality.

In other works, Basquiat took on policing. Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981), for instance, excoriates the intrinsic racism of the police force. Perhaps the most politically incisive piece, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) (1983) portrays the 1983 killing of the eponymous street artist by New York police. In the work, a lone silhouette is under attack by impish, fanged police. The painting was the subject of a 2019 exhibition at the Guggenheim.

The contemporary branding regime not only largely obscures these critical aspects of Basquiat’s paintings, it also occludes the contested nature of his work in the context of the art world. Indeed, many of the things Basquiat’s art is now seen to epitomize — originality, authenticity, iconoclasm, and the vibrant, bohemian world of 1980s New York — are aspects that many of his early critics were eager to dismiss as affectations. That Basquiat holds immense critical standing today largely follows from critics’ efforts to oppose the racialized dismissals of his work and his legitimacy as an artist.

In a 1988 article, Robert Hughes saw the artist as nothing more than a dilettante. Basquiat, he argued, was “a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art world promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and, no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics.” For Hughes, Basquiat’s success was a product of critics’ search for “a wild child, a curiosity, an urban noble savage.” As for the art itself, Hughes merrily cast it as “a run of slapdash pictorial formulas” with “mostly feigned” brio. In his acid New Yorker article from four years later, “Madison Avenue Primitive,” Adam Gopnik similarly portrayed Basquiat as a poser, a “corny” and “derivative” artist who gets by on an “ersatz primitivism.”

Yet, just as there were critics ready to dismiss Basquiat and accuse their colleagues of reverse racism, there were others who recognized the significant critical work being done. In 1993, bell hooks, writing on a Basquiat exhibition held at the Whitney, observed that he “takes the Eurocentric valuation of the great and beautiful and demands that we acknowledge the brutal reality it masks.” Moreover, instead of seeing pure egoism and braggadocio in his work, as he is often understood today, hooks identified the layered meaning of his depictions of wealth and status: “Fame, symbolized by the crown, is offered as the only possible path to subjectivity for the black male artist.”

Writing on his legacy, Jordana Moore Saggese is similarly unequivocal on the significance of Basquiat’s work, particularly his political and racial commentary: “This is an artist who propped the boundaries of Blackness before the term ‘post-Black’ became current, as a way of describing the sources and ideas from African, the Americas, and the spaces between.”

For Saggese and others, Basquiat’s aesthetic project represented, and continues to represent, a landmark critique of racist, imperial, and, indeed, commercial sensibilities. That Basquiat retains the critical standing among critics and scholars speaks to the success of this narrative over the racially disparaging dismissals of critics like Hughes and Gopnik. But the triumph of this narrative also coincides with the reengineering of Basquiat by capitalist interests. While Basquiat is generally seen as an artist of distinction, the precise content of his work, and the nuance of his commentary on race and capitalism, has effectively been scrubbed.

Today, Basquiat’s work seems mostly deployed to index New York’s idealized vision of itself — a vibrant, seedy fulcrum of chaos and creativity. The New York in the 1980s, where “rents were cheap (or people squatted) and downtown New York was a grubby, exhilarating mecca for the artistic dispossessed,” as Miranda Sawyer tells it, has long vanished. Now littered with vacant luxury apartments and ghoulish developments like Hudson Yards, New York needs figures like Basquiat to maintain the fiction that it still has an edge. Serving a similar role as the New York City T-shirt once played, immortalized by John Lennon in 1974 and sold by tourist shops ever since, Basquiat as pure aesthetic offers a trace of the city’s vanished cool.

Everything Must Go

While much of Basquiat’s branding has been generally tolerated, if certainly not beloved, a public controversy arose last year when Tiffany & Co. used Basquiat’s painting Equals Pi (1982) in its “About Love” campaign featuring Jay-Z and Beyonce. Alexandre Arnault, Tiffany’s executive vice president of products and communication, claimed that the painting, which features a striking robin-egg blue, was done as a nod to the company: “We know he loved New York, and that he loved luxury and he loved jewelry. My guess is that the [blue painting] is not by chance. The color is so specific that it has to be some kind of homage.” He subsequently noted that the painting would be a way to “modernize” the brand.

Such is yet another example of the indefatigable efforts of corporations to metamorphose art and artists into business-friendly parodies, in this case to render Basquiat as a symbol of authentic New York to sell luxury goods. Many were naturally appalled by the insinuation. Alexis Adler, a photographer who lived with Basquiat in 1979,  responded that “the commercialization and commodification of Jean and his art at this point — it’s really not what Jean was about.”

Of course, Basquiat is not alone in such a transformation. Rather, he is the exemplar of a marketing strategy that has seen countless artists transmuted (sometimes willingly, other times not) into featureless, deracinated, and depoliticized products. As Elliot Safra details, museums and galleries in recent years have significantly expanded their retail wings while new companies, like home goods company Ligne Blanche, have arisen solely to market artist-branded products (predictably, the company has a Basquiat line). Perhaps no artist has exemplified the era of art-as-collectible better than KAWS, whose sales of art toys have revolutionized the art retail market in recent years.

In our contemporary cultural scene, the ideology of branding reigns and merchandising is generally understood to be integral to any aesthetic. Indeed, Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal has celebrated Basquiat’s branding as a coup for his democratization:

You’re aligning yourself with the values and the credibility of that artist too. You’re telling the world, “This guy is cool and I have his skateboard, so I’m cool.” And when you get that, then you get the Basquiat sock, you get the Basquiat skis. You get an estate that’s licensing products galore at much lower price levels. And when you can go into your museum gift shop and buy a Basquiat book or Basquiat socks or Basquiat whatever, you feel like you’re buying into that dream, that aspiration, that only billionaires can really afford the real thing, but you can have this little thing.

For Crow, getting that little piece lets us feel like we might be in the same league as someone like Ken Griffin, the billionaire manager of Citadel who bought Basquiat’s Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982) for over $100 million in 2020. But, of course, we aren’t. Very few (and certainly no one reading this article) will ever own a Basquiat and cosplaying as an elite only strives to deepen capitalism’s preferred social fiction that we are all, paraphrasing John Steinbeck, temporarily embarrassed millionaires. While this is not to suggest that the prior model, in which art was far more restricted to the world of galleries and auction houses, was superior, democratization by mass commercialization isn’t it either.

Even more importantly, associating oneself with an artist’s cachet through branded merch can’t but obscure any sense of political critique that a work once held. Perhaps more than any comparable artist, Basquiat’s work has not only been merchandised but excerpted and abstracted. With the skis and hoodies and Uno cards, whole works have been stripped of context and rendered as mere pattern. Basquiat’s crown, now thoroughly disembodied, has become meaningless in its abstraction.

At the same time, the nuance of his project has been made unrecognizable when filtered through the cut-up method of corporate marketing machines. As the jewelry company Lokai, purveyor of a line of Basquiat-branded bracelets, describes the artist’s work, it “inspires us to find balance through its uninhibited portrayals of identity and self-expression.” Through such insipid, aspirational nonsense, Basquiat, ventriloquized by ad copy and shorn of all complexity, lives on as champion of “balance,” “identity,” and other neoliberal values.