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Art at what cost?

by Emma Baykey-Melendez

When modern art meets mode. 

I am a self-proclaimed artist. Attending one life drawing class makes me feel entitled to make sweeping statements about the art industry with little formal education aside from a very small Taschen book collection! Admittedly, I may have started this collection to make my room feel more sophisticated than my primary school-esque postcard display would warrant. 

For once I am writing something a little different! I never know how to write about things that aren’t super personal to me. It seems I can spill my heart over the shitty dates I have had or over my disdain at living back home but get me to write an impassioned piece on why I hate the commercialisation of art and I go mute. It’s not a case of me not trusting my ability to properly articulate myself, on the contrary, art is for everyone- a philosophy that artists like Keith Haring adopted till the very end. Such a belief should empower individuals to engage in conversations surrounding the art world, but this world can be very polarising for those who don’t think their humble opinion would matter.

Consumer culture and modern art have had an illustrious affair and it seemed that when I walked into the Coach store on Oxford Street only to be welcomed by an overenthusiastic employee and a slightly anticlimactic Basquiat collection, I was made ever more aware of this arguably (in my opinion) toxic relationship. Opinions remain divided. The Basquiat X Coach collection is not the first of its kind and it won’t be the last. So long as consumer culture remains unchanged these collections will have a space within fashion- whether they’re loved or loathed by the masses.

Only last summer I was feverishly darting around Coach in Woodbury Commons (NYC) like a bull in a china store. Clutching fifty handbags and profusely sweating partly because of how cheap everything was but also because I had made the stupid decision to wear all black on a blazing hot August day (in a bid to look chic). Outlet stores aren’t for the faint-hearted and as soon as you’re handed the mesh shopping basket (that could house a small child), you’re then met by a slightly wired store assistant that looks one rude remark away from grabbing you by the collar and breathing down your throat to tell the cashier they helped you” when you’re at the checkout. If you’re not inspired by the slightly questionable customer service, then you are inspired by the massive reductions that leave you throwing in bags and purses you didn’t even know you wanted until the assistant says “that’s sooo your colour”. 

I hadn’t realised that the Keith Haring collection was in the store until I hazily found myself stood looking at the iconic symbols of his art embossed on keychains and crossbody bags. Haring is an artist that I view with a kind of nostalgic longing, a longing for the art scene of the 1980s. Generally, I think a lot of things were better in the 1980s (within reason) and the modern art movements of those times definitely captured an exciting new body of material that hadn’t been previously explored. Work was heavily driven by the socio-political events of their time that left an indelible mark. Consider Haring and Basquiat’s street art that thrust these inspired pieces in the faces of the public in the places that they identified the most with. Both artists moved in spaces where inhabitants didn’t have the economic or cultural capital to access traditional art institutions. Creating art that gave meaning to their realities and to the events that defined the generations in a cheap and accessible way was the magic of them. Spotting the collection, I felt a mixture of deflation matched with a sort of selfish material desire to own something- not because I thought the collection was striking but mainly because I could never conceive of owning any of his original work. The push and pull between feeling compelled to give in to the consumerism that brands like Coach rely on was contrasted by the moral effect of renting out art only for it to be used in arguably uninspiring ways. 

Basquiat backpacks, trench coats, handbags, scarves, t-shirts, bag charms. Regardless of the intentions behind such collaborations, they are still driven by a capitalist system that often just benefits the privileged few. I found myself struggling to describe what it was in particular that I disapproved of, but I definitely found them problematic even though the items looked so unassuming and harmless when arranged neatly in a window display. For me, the plastering of the familiar crown and dinosaur symbols onto pieces of fashion somewhat dilute the legacy of Basquiat’s artwork. Though those who favour the collection highlight the artist’s love of fashion I can’t help feeling like the more that art is used in this way the less meaning it will inevitably have in the future years. Perhaps I find the disconnect between the artist and the items the most frustrating aspect of these high-end collaborations. I totally appreciate that the art world can be incredibly exclusive and hard to access but I do feel that the rise in these collaborations (that aren’t unique to Basquiat) has an impact on the way in which we can have conversations about an artist’s work. For example, someone that’s fashion-conscious may purchase a Basquiat-inspired pouch from the collection and beyond thinking that this item is edgier than the normal slightly bland colour palette of Coach I doubt that they’d pay serious attention to the artwork portrayed on the leather.  

Maybe I underestimate people and their ability to authentically engage with art. I certainly know that I am no expert and if owning a piece from the collection sparks joy to use the words of Marie Kondo then I guess go off but I do call to question whether the continuation of these collections will inspire more or less of an interest in exploring art other than for the shallow purposes of looking good. Putting my opinion aside I think Coach did honour the legacy of Basquiat with the cast of models that were used for the campaign. If I don’t agree with the designs, then I do agree and totally support the diversity of which I hope to see more in the future. 


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