Exclusivity and Art: A Racial Battle

Just in May 2017, a Basquiat piece was sold at $110.5 million USD, making it the most expensive art piece sold by an American artist. Although Basquiat cannot physically celebrate this success, the pride is felt in people of color. Finally, a medium that was meant to be kept from minorities is mastered by a Puerto Rican Haitian New Yorker.

What makes this such a remarkable win is that art used to be reserved for the elite — a group that would turn away Basquiat on the sole basis of the color of his skin — especially so during a time in which people of color were pursued by legal authority for their assumed graffiti practices. Kids jumping turnstiles would be handcuffed because “such shady behavior probably made them vandals”. Basquiat’s lasting legacy, along with his posthumous successes show that no matter the past, we too, can rise.

The Internet allows for information to be acquired by nearly anyone who can access wifi (or data) and has the drive to do so. The same can be said about other types of art, namely fashion and music. Fashion specifically, allows people to express themselves through their every day dress. With applications such as Instagram, along with blogs and vlogs, people are able to express themselves and use fashion in a way that no longer limits it to those who can afford expensive pieces. The stars of our time: Rihanna and Tyler the Creator, among others have made fashion more easily available to larger groups of previously excluded groups. Rihanna’s Fenty line is created for every woman as her foundations boast 21 different shades. Tyler’s partnership with Converse show that anyone can wear colorful shoes like a “flower boy” and that its okay!

Artists (especially poc) in the fashion world want to market to groups who have often times been overlooked in a way that allows those same groups to present themselves with the agency they might have lacked due to their being ignored in the eyes of capitalism. For some of these artists, its no longer about the money, but instead, empowering those who didn’t have the option to feel empowered. Doing such a thing requires some degree of affordability in the items that are to be purchased by groups like poc because the American system as we know it has set us back dramatically both socially and economically. Lets keep in mind that Civil Rights movement wasn’t all that long ago.

But what happens when art is created with the intention of being once again exclusive?

Louis Vuitton recently released a line of purses which are simply art masters’ paintings transposed onto bags with their last names attached in gold. The Masters collection features artists such as Da Vinci, Turner, Manet, Monet, and Van Gogh, among others. Their starting prices for purses? $1700. While these bags are meant to have a practical purpose, one might call them impractical for the every day handbag wearer. That being said, who is the type of person purchasing this bag?

Could it be the young woman who majored in fine arts in college? Or perhaps someone who taught a course on the pieces, or an elderly person who keeps the memories of those paintings near and dear to them. As one can probably tell, this is not a bag for everyone, if so who is it for? What is indexed by someone who wears a piece of art that is meant to serve a practical purpose?

It seems as though these bags are simply a reminder that history repeats itself. There is almost a charm people seem to find in things that are exclusive — perhaps it is the nostalgia. The remembrance of what things were like before “they” came into the picture. It became much too easy to access the masters on the Internet, so it was up to a luxury brand to create art that one can wear exclusively after paying a hefty price. While the only difference in art is the medium, one might also say the difference too, lies in the audience to whom that medium is meant to appeal. I would’ve never known about this collection had I not flipped through a luxury retail store catalog.

Even when we think we’ve solved the problems of availability and affordability in this country, we only tackled it at its very beginnings. Exclusivity will continue to be an issue until all parties are accepting of breaking down boundaries created by history.