Jay-Z, Beyonce, and a New Basquiat (Ep. 282)

When Jay-Z and Beyonce show up in an ad campaign with a new Basquiat painting very few people have ever seen, of course we need to talk about it! Jenn Russell and Lena Rodriguez join Tim to celebrate The Carters and share their love for Basquiat. Listen as they discuss the intersection of art and pop culture, how we deal with previously unseen artworks, and how this campaign can serve as a catalyst for classroom discussions.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

All right. I don’t know if we want to say this is an emergency podcast, but we had big news in pop culture and art history last week and we thought we had to talk about all this. So joining me today, my two favorite art history partners in crime, Jen Russell, and Lena Rodriguez. Lena, how are you today?

Lena: I am great. I made it. I am here and I’m excited to talk.

Tim: Good. And Jen, how are you?

Jenn: I’m good. I am great. I am so pumped to talk about my Lord and savior Beyonce. So I’m ready, y’all. I don’t even think you understand.

Tim: All right, it’s going to be good. So those of you that were not aware of this, those of you that are not sure what we’re talking about, I’m going to set the stage for everything that’s going on.

So last Monday, Beyonce and Jay-Z appeared in an ad for Tiffany’s that first appeared online. They’re looking good, because the Carters always look good, and Beyonce is wearing some just absolutely gigantic diamond because it’s an ad for Tiffany’s.

The big news though, the thing that kind of grabbed my attention was in the background of this photo shoot, in the background of this ad was a giant painting from Jean-Michel Basquiat, that pretty much no one has seen before.

The painting is titled Equals Pi. It was done in 1982. It’s undoubtedly a Basquiat. You know it as soon as you see it. You know it’s a Basquiat immediately because of the use of text, the skulls, his signature crowns that appear all the time in his work.

And the reason we haven’t seen it before is because it’s been in a private collection up until now. And Tiffany has decided to purchase this painting for the ad campaign. Now, this might be because of Basquiat’s use of kind of a robin’s egg blue that is throughout the entire work almost. It’s kind of reminiscent of Tiffany’s famous blue.

Tiffany has seemed to want this painting because they think Basquiat had Tiffany’s in mind when he created the work. Alexander Arnault, which I’ve seen in different places, I’m not sure of his exact job, but he was listed as VP. And he said, “We know that Basquiat loved New York and that he loved luxury and he loved jewelry. My guess is that the color is not by chance. The color is so specific that it has to be some kind of homage.”

And Jen and Lena, I’ll let you react to that. But that statement to me is just wild. Like just the amount of narcissism that has to go into that, to think that Basquiat is making paintings about your company, just because the kind of hues are similar to that.

So anyway, there’s a lot there. I’ll let you two jump in wherever you want. So Jenn, first reaction to any of that, all of that? What captured your attention about all of this?

Jenn: Well, first of all, I’m going to apologize to everyone who’s listening for the amount of fangirl that I’m going to do in the podcast, but I will say that, A, that statement is wild is a good word; but I also think that Tiffany’s is the outlier here to me.

Tim: Yeah. Yeah.

Jenn: So everything goes so well and you’re looking at it and you’re like, “Yes, excellence. Yes, elegance. Yes, just the elite of this entire photo.” And then, “Oh yeah. Also it’s like an ad campaign for like, Tiffany’s.”

It’s like, to me, it’s the last thing that I noticed because I don’t doubt that Beyonce would have a rock like that. I just don’t. And you know, she’s like stunning in it. Jay’s over there, like, “Yeah, look at my wife.” And then also we all know his obsession with Basquiat. So none of those three things, four if you include the rock, throw me off. What throws me off is that it’s like a significant ad campaign for Tiffany’s of all places.

Tim: Right.

Jenn: Which okay. I’ll take it, but you know, I’ll take Tiffany’s attached to it. It’s not my favorite, but yeah, but Tiffany’s is the outlier there for me.

Tim: Okay. Okay. We can get back to that. We can chat about that in a second. Lena, what about you? Like what did you react to first when you saw all of this?

Lena: I was annoyed that they have everything and now they have a Basquiat. I was jealous. But no, I mean, I wanted to find something wrong and kind of gross about it, but it was really hard for me to, because one, it’s kind of like the Frida Kahlo thing. Like I loved Frida Kahlo since I was a young girl. And then when she got really trendy and popular, kind of feel like the same thing has happened with Basquiat.

Some of us that have been practicing artists or into art history, been familiar with him and his relation to Andy Warhol and all of the great things that happened in New York at the time, and then to see it really become commercialized on one hand, it’s kind of annoying because you want to be that person that was like, “I liked them first.”

But then the art teacher in me is like, “Yes.” Like it’s being seen. It’s being noted. The fact that it’s a Black artist as well is exciting for me. I mean, because Tiffany is like the elite, you know? And the Carters are like American royalty in so many ways.

Whereas Jenn is like Bey’s fan club president, I’ve been obsessed with Shawn Carter since 2001 with the Blueprint album. To me, it really opened my eyes up more to hip hop and rap and I have a huge appreciation for it. And the homage of his hair that kind of resembles Basquiat… That photo in itself, even though it’s an advertisement, advertisements have been viewed as art before. To me, I see it as a response to the original painting of Basquiat.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. And Jenn, can we chat about that? Because I know you and I were talking just a little bit about how this just, it feels like an art piece. Like yeah, that’s an ad. Yeah. It’s a little disconcerting and like you said, Lena, I have some conflicted feelings. But at the same time, this feels like everything that Jay and Beyonce have been doing is like an entire art piece. So Jen, can you talk a little bit about just your thoughts on that?

Jenn: Yeah. So when I saw this and I actually talked to my classes about this, like this was their warmup, and I posted about it because I was so excited. I don’t know how many times I’m going to say so excited, but y’all can keep count, and someone tell me.

But I was just so taken aback by it because a lot of times my students don’t understand that setting up something like this and taking a photograph is in fact just a whole art piece. Like they are all artists. So whoever planned it first down to the photographer, obviously there’s artists in the image, and then we have like a physical piece of art.

So everything that they do from, and I’m going to group them together as the Carters, because I didn’t realize how much I knew about these people until I started thinking about what to say about this a few days ago. I was like, “Wow, is this weird? Because they released an album as The Carters, right?

But then we also know that Beyonce does these visual albums and if you have not looked at it or listened to and prayed about Lemonade in your existence, I highly encourage you to do that. It is a life changer. Just the visuals are stunning. The whole Carters, the album is just great.

But then also you have that video with them in the Louvre. So again, people are really, I’m going to use this word, they’re salty about them having this piece. But I love that they have the piece. Yeah, if anyone should have it, por que no ellos… Why not them? I mean, I can actually say that and not have my parents be upset at my English accent there. But you know, like why won’t it be them? And you know, it is bought by Louis Vuitton or whatever as the parent company, which whatever.

But everything that they do has so much spot to it. They don’t just lend their name to anything. You know, when he says it in that specific video, he says, “I said no to the Superbowl. You need me. I don’t need you.”

And that’s like, one of the greatest things for me is that they do things so intentionally. They do visuals so intentionally, and that this is such an intentional move for both of them to attach their name to this company that to me, all of it is art.

The photograph itself should be in a museum and it shall be in the museum in my classroom, I will tell you. I will say that. But yeah, it’s so intentional.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s a good thing. And they are intentional about everything they do. The photographer, I think his name is Mason Poole. Beyonce has worked with him a bunch before, but they brought him back for this. And so, like I said, everything has so much thought to it.

So Lena, what about you? Do your kids respond well to Jay-Z and Beyonce, what they’re doing? Do you think there’s going to be more interest in Basquiat because they’re seeing this here?

Jenn: Oh, definitely. You know, like Jen, I talked to… Was it my AP or my senior class? My juniors yesterday about it. And first of all, if anything offends me in any of this process is that whenever I dropped the name, Shawn Carter, they had no idea who I was talking about.

Tim: Oh, that hurts because that makes me feel old, personally.

Jenn: It’s like how… “You wear a Jay-Z shirt. How do you not know?” But anyway, that’s a whole other thing. I explained the situation to them and also explained that this isn’t their first… I mean, I had to do some googling and the Carters bought their first Basquiat like in 2013. Okay?

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jenn: And I was aware of who Basquiat was. A lot of us were, but this newer generation that’s really embraced him, they didn’t. So it’s kind of like, they were kind of supporting and saw a visual interest and love for this man’s artwork long before.

And you know, we know Shawn Carter or Jay-Z for my students who’ll be listening, Jay-Z is connected in love for all things New York. So I there’s a kindredship there. I could see they’re from the same place, from the same area.

When I talked to my students about it, they were kind of like indifferent to it. They’re like, “They can do it.” Like, “What’s the big deal with it?” And then I started playing devil’s advocate with them. I said, “Okay, what if I told you?” Because I had the image pulled up. “Okay. So what if I told you that the original background color of this was like a muted yellow and they changed the color to turquoise to match the ad.” And then honestly, tables started to flip. So they were really upset about that.

So what the conclusion was for a lot of my students was that when an artist makes an artwork, they may have these amazing, deep-rooted intentions of how they want that art to be seen and heard and used. But once that piece is no longer in the possession of that artist and that artist is no longer around, part of the art is the journey it goes through, and this journey just happened to end up in a Tiffany & Co. ad and now millions of people who would have never seen it before, because it was originally part of a private collection, now get to see it.

And honestly, I’d never really seen him use that color before. So it was like kind of shocking to see like, “Wow.” Like you’ve seen it a little bits and pieces, but with that background, how expanse it was.

So they were kind of like me. They’re like, “Well, it’s exposing more people to art,” you know? And they love Beyonce, even if they don’t know who Shawn Carter is, I have a problem with.

Tim: Yeah. Well, and I think part of that, part of what you said there is why I’m feeling so conflicted about it. I feel weird about it being in an ad. And I think part of that feeling comes from just knowing Basquiat, what he was interested in. He was very, I don’t know if I want to say anticapitalist, but like definitely anti-consumerism. So it’s weird to see his stuff being used for such a high-profile ad.

But at the same time, I don’t want to begrudge his family for getting their money, like go for it. You do what you need to do. And then at the same time, like you said, it’s opening up a lot of eyes and introducing a lot more people to Basquiat, which is never a bad thing.

Jenn, let me circle back here because when Lena said, “My students really didn’t care,” you almost fell out of your chair. Are you saying your students cared a little bit more or you’re just shocked that Lena’s students don’t?

Jenn: I’m shocked because, I mean, besides the fact that I’m really obnoxious with my love of certain people, again, my Lord and savior Beyonce being one of them, because if y’all don’t know, and you can’t hear by the y’all, I’m from Texas, specifically from Houston, Texas.

And again, that is the mecca for my Lord and savior Beyonce and Shawn Carter, which I’m going to continue to use that name so that y’all learn it, they learn it, is from Brooklyn.

So whenever you hear them reference like BK but also Beyonce Knowles and then Houston and all that crap. Right? It’s crawls through my soul. So anyway, so I have a giant Houston flag in my room. There’s like a Beyonce poster in my room. Like, so my kids know we’re pretty much related.

When I showed them this, they were like, “Yes.” I just have a whole hive in my classroom, but they were, and I jokingly said, “Beyonce and that dude she married,” because she is just such a standout that again, the amount of fangirl y’all that’s happening. But my kids were just really about it.

I even had a kid and I don’t know, my room is notorious for like anything goes, it’s kind of like Wild Westy style. I mean, just don’t follow directions, you guys.

When we discussed stuff, I encourage like anything, because I want to know what they have to say and then we can refine how we’re going to put that in an artist statement and all these things.

But someone was like, “Okay, the Black excellence.” And I said, “Okay, let’s unpack that.” Right? And so then we went into this discussion, but they were really into it. They were just like, “Okay, how are you…” And I had boys that were like, “How are you just going to call Jay-Z ‘that dude she married?'” And then they got upset about that. And so they were really… They had seen it. They were about it. Some of them were really against the capitalistic aspect of it. They were like, “This isn’t fair.”

And I said, “Okay, so what about that time that you wore the Mona Lisa on your white t-shirt?” Or your case? Or, “What about the time that Supreme has used every single art piece ever and you bought it?” So like, “Why are you grumpy about this one? Is it because an article told you to be grumpy or Twitter told you that it doesn’t sit well with your ‘spirit’? Right? Like what?”

I pushed my kids. I said like, “Why? Because I definitely just saw you with the Creation of Man on your t-shirt. What is the difference? Because that person is not alive to tell you ‘No, I don’t want you to use it this way.’ And neither is he.”

But they were really about it. They had seen it and yeah, they were like super rawr about… You can’t see what I just did with that sound, but claws out with it. Yeah. They were really about it. So.

Tim: Okay. So that brings up something else I want to talk about, which is the music video that Jay-Z and Beyonce did in the Louvre. And because we’re family-friendly, I can’t say the full name of that video, but do you see some similarities there? Does that play into part of the discussion? How is a new Basquiat different than showing all of these old classical artworks in a music video that’s filmed in the most famous museum in the world?

So Lena, what are your thoughts there? Is this a good thing to introduce more people to work, even if it’s not how these works were originally meant to be seen?

Lena: On the business aspect of all things, exposure is exposure. And there are people now who probably, would’ve never thought to have made it a plan or mission to go see some of that artwork now can see it and think of the people that really wanted to and can’t. That’s just another way they can experience it, which I love. Then of course, the purist as an artist would be like, “Well, this is almost like somebody’s cathedral, somebody’s church.”

But I don’t think that’s really what art is about. It’s all about taking it in and letting it affect you in whichever way you want. And honestly, I always tell my students, “Good art causes a reaction. And sometimes that reaction is, ‘That’s gross. I can’t stand it.’ But you still reacted. So you got pulled into it and it made you feel something, it stirred something inside of you.”

So I see a lot of what they do… And this is honestly what I love about some of the more mainstream stuff. Like people are really taking an approach in artistry with some of their videos whereas kind of whenever I was growing up, it was like somebody’s basement. And you know, it was still kind of cool, like when MTV was like still showing videos. But over the years they’ve turned into works of art.

I really do appreciate the artistry that goes into it. The lighting, the imagery, the colors, I mean the symbolism in Lemonade alone. I mean, you can just unpack that for days and have discussions and topics about it.

I am saying this as somebody who I appreciate Beyonce, but I’m not downloading her albums and stuff. I’m sorry, Jenn. We can still be friends one day. I support your love for her.

I easily would be that person… My husband calls me a hater. I could easily be that person that could just see this smallest sliver of something wrong or gross about it. And just kind of go on my soapbox about it.

But as an art educator, I’m like, “Yes, that’s one more outlet for my kids to see art.” And you know, you can’t see them, but I’m wearing my MoMA Vans right now. I’m not even huge Monet fan, but it’s art and a portion of it supports the moment, so why not? It’s art. Share it.

Tim: Yeah. That’s good. I’m just going to say, I love that music video. It’s tough to say this. I wish the song were a little better. Like I don’t love the song, but the video is incredible. Like the powerplay, like right at the beginning and to just Jay-Z and Beyonce standing in front of the Mona Lisa and an empty Louvre. You’re like, “Oh, this is impressive. Where are we going here?” And then, yeah, just the visuals throughout that are just spectacular.

So Jenn, I’m sure you have some thoughts on that music video as well.

Jenn: I just want to tattoo that music video onto my body. The colors, the imagery, the Louvre. Okay. I’m going to flex a little bit because I’m really about this random happening that occurred.

So we went… Y’all, this is rude. The dude that I married, he has a name. So my husband, I told him, I was like, “Are you like my Jay-Z?” And he was like, “Are you saying that you’re Beyonce, because…” I said, “Let me stop you right there.”

So we were actually at the Louvre on a random day because we went for a honeymoon the first week in December. And I walk into this room and I have no map because I am not about following instructions like that. No map, we just got lost. And I walked into this room and it’s empty and there’s the Mona Lisa.

And I was like, “Oh,” but there was nobody there. And so I just have myself standing in front of the Mona Lisa and my husband took this picture. And now you can just see like how awkward and like astounded I am. I look nowhere near as cool as Beyonce or Jay-Z, but the fact that they could just shut anything down like that and say, “We’re filming in here,” really speaks to just my boozy soul. I just loved just how much they love art and how much they want to include art and how much they have turned into visual artists throughout their career.

So that to me I said, “Yes, girl. Drag this man in Lemonade. Like drag him.” But then just that visual journey of like towards the end of the film and then same thing with the Carters’ video is you just go on this journey. And if you’ve seen Black is King, what a visual, a stunning visual journey.

So I just am here for how much of visual artists they have turned into in their appreciation of art. And so by all means, include more and go find some more hidden gems out there.

Tim: Yeah. Nice. Okay. One last question for you both to wrap it up. I want to get your advice for teachers who maybe want to start a discussion in their classroom about this.

So Lena, I’ll start with you. Can you talk about when you show this to your kids, what are you showing them? What are you talking about? How do you get that conversation started?

Lena: I really just start off… Okay. So my kids are already familiar with Basquiat and the Carters obviously; just didn’t know that was their last name.

But I guess I just kind of started talking to them about like, “Hey, did y’all did y’all see this ad?” And believe it or not a good portion of my students did, which I could give some background information on how my students are very different than your average high school student. They can tell you what’s going on in Afghanistan. They can tell you what’s going on like all these places in the world. They can tell you what’s going on at the border.

So whenever I brought it up to them, they were kind of familiar with the situation, but not really immersed. And I just really started off by showing them the image, because I think it’s really important to just show them that image and get their reaction without any context, without any background information, because a lot of times that muddies what our authentic reaction and appreciation for something is.

I could see some people like amping them up, like, “Okay, I’m going to show you something that’s going to disgust you. And it’s a piece of artwork, they’re commercializing it.” So then you pull it up, they’re impressionable minds are like, “Wah, pitchforks, let’s go after them.” So I just kind of gave them some background information, showed them a little bit of background, not a lot. Showed them the image and just kind of got their reaction for it. And I think that’s why a lot of my kids were pretty docile about it.

They’re like, “It’s art. It’s a photograph. It’s not the end of the world. People are going to get to see it.”

So I really did a simple less is best approach to introduce it. And then once they formulated their thoughts on it, then you can kind of share some information. It’s a really great segue about Basquiat and art during that time and the AIDS epidemic and everything that was going on in his relationship with Andy Warhol and the warehouse. And I mean, you can impact so much with just that piece. Just that photograph.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. It opens up a lot of doors. And Jen, I know you need to go here, but just real quick, like what would your recommendation be to introduce this or to start a conversation in your room?

Jenn: I did it as a warmup. And so as they walked and our sketchbooks are being sent and my AP kids make their own. And so I was like, “Okay, in your sketchbook or grab a piece of paper, however you want to do it,” because I did it for multiple levels. I was like, “Here’s this image. Let’s talk about it.” And I’m just literally like my Bitmoji’s at the bottom, like peeking through because it’s how I creep on Beyonce all the time. Y’all come on now. I can’t be stopped.

And I just said, and I’m reading this directly to you guys. I said, “Have y’all seen this? My Lord and savior Beyonce and that man she married are in a Tiffany & Co. ad campaign. Answer the following questions.”

I just bulleted… My kids said it was a lot, but I don’t think it’s a lot. But I said:

-Your initial thoughts.
-Describe it.
-Does it bother you?

So I gave them the option and a lot of the kids were like, “Why would it bother people?” And so, right, I was like, “I don’t know. It doesn’t bother me. I’m about to print it out as a poster.”

And then I asked them, “Is an ad campaign a portfolio?” Because I wanted them to start thinking about it as like this whole grand thing from pitch to photo. I like for them to think about their portfolios like that… From sketches to final pieces to this massive collection of work that you have to create for somebody else, but you shouldn’t, you should create it for yourself. Right? So how are we going to do that? And then do you think that this is a good deal or not?

And so then we just unpacked it as a class discussion and it took the whole class. That’s partially on me because of course. But yeah. It was super cool to watch my boys get into it because a lot of my female-identifying students were like, “Yeah, it’s queen.” And then my boys were like, “Okay, but can we talk about Jay for a second, though?” So then we talked about yay, officially now, and I had the discography and like, just so many things. But it was so cool for all of them to get involved.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. Great way to do it.

All right. Well, we will go ahead and wrap it up. Jenn, thank you so much. Lena, thank you so much.

Jenn: Thank you.

Lena: Thank you.

Tim: And hopefully, I can talk to both of you again soon.

Lena: Yeah!

Jenn: Awesome.

Tim: It’s always fun to chat with Jen and Lena and obviously, and I loved that conversation a lot. I think that a lot was there for us to discuss. And I think a lot is there for you to bring to your classes. So we’ll link to an article or two about the Tiffany ad and all that comes with it, all the topics surrounding it.

We’ll link to the Jay-Z and Beyonce video from the Louvre that we discussed, and consider this your preemptive warning on the bad language before you show that video to your students.

But I’m hoping that all of that, everything that we covered today can maybe start some conversations in your classroom. Maybe introduce your students to Basquiat or something new about Basquiat if they already know him. And hopefully you can have some enjoyable conversations about art history this week with your students.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening, and we’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.