Since his passing in 1669, Rembrandt has had a vibrant second life selling cigars and teeth whitening kits. His “artsploitation” — like that of monk turned liqueur Fra Angelico — offers a cautionary tale in a world searching for untapped and undefended brand equity. Social media reveals the odd cultural conflations of artists as products and brands.

Smoking with the Dutch

Today one finds Rembrandt everywhere. In the bodegas of New York, his De Staalmeesters or The Sampling Officials are always smiling out from behind guarded counters. You might know them as the confident-looking gents on Dutch Masters cigars.

For art historians, the term Dutch Master is somewhat interchangeable with painters of the Dutch Golden Age — a canon including Johannes Vermeer, Jan de Bray, Rembrandt van Rijn and many others. For Instagrammers, Tumblr users, and surely many other Americans, the term marks celebratory photos of repurposing cigars for weed consumption.

Oddly, Pinterest users alone have reserved the tag for legit 17th century Dutch paintings and art-styled after it. It would seem all those southern and midwestern women didn’t blaze through art history.

Still, compared directly against the term “dutch master” on Twitter, individual Dutch painting all-stars dominate conversations and total mentions. Between June 21 and July 24, Rembrandt averaged about 500 mentions a day with a peak of over 2,000 mentions on his birthday (July 15). Vermeer averages around 250 mentions a day, peaking around an opening of a retrospective show in Japan (with a beanie baby dressed as the girl with the pearl earring).

Rembrandt may have been visually co-opted by a cigar company, but it’s these teeth whiteners that are really taking his name-recognition to task. Search Google for the artist and you’ll almost certainly find a sponsored result from the dental product directly above an academic resource about, well, the Dutch artist named Rembrandt.

The story proves more complex on Twitter, where mentions of “Rembrandt lighting” or “Rembrandt art” exceed discussion of “Rembrandt whitening,” but it’s a close margin. The whitening-to-art ratio proved only 2:1 over the past month, with moments when spammy-product offers actually surpassed the number of tweets containing both “art” and the artist’s name.

Renaissance Artist Fra Angelico has Bigger Problems

Competing against the tasty vice of hazelnut liqueur the painting monk has just a single space and a dropped ‘a’ to separate his biblical paintings from cocktail recipes.

Instagram users, already seen to be a debauched bunch, have tagged over 700 images of the alcohol to just 22 tagged with the name of the artist:

On Twitter, the dear Fra is likewise outgunned. Over the past month, the alcohol consistently had more social chatter than the artist. Fra Angelico did have his days — July 10th’s story in Boston Globe pushed him past the liqueur for the Tuesday —  but in all the monk’s figure seems more familiar in social media as a bottle shape than has the hand and vision of an artist.

Fra Angelico vs. Frangelico | artist vs. alcohol

The Artist as Brand

Just what is it that makes older artists so timeless and so appealing to brands? The answer may lie in the trust and respect their names continue to hold in popular conscientiousness. These names are, after all, brands like today’s own shining logos and product taglines. It also has something to do with the public domain, that land beyond lawyers and estates, where companies may borrow cultural works and titles for free.

But there is a strong line between Disney borrowing classical music and companies recasting a cherished artist into an alcohol. For while one perpetuates the culture objects of a creator, the other hijacks it — diverting confidence and awe away from the very products one associates with that name. This strange fate shows firmly how the artist is truly a brand, even when their place in history long proceeded such a vision of their name and style.

Today’s artists powerfully protect this, but what of those too old (read: DEAD) to speak from the grave and decry their exploitation? Who can help them assert their right to a name and creative value?

Us. We can. Just as social media shows the encroachment of brands on artists, so too can social media make this encroachment untenable by asserting that Fra Angelico was an artist, and Rembrandt has little to do with whitening kits. In the absence of brand managers who so consciously grow and protect a brand’s value online, anyone with a Twitter handle or Instagram could step in and do it for cherished artists. If the Dutch Masters can’t save themselves from cigars, maybe we can.

Zachary McCune is a digital culture researcher specializing in mobile and social platforms. He has developed music visualizers for MTV, filmed a documentary on traditional Irish games, and written an...