What can Jay-Z teach us about art? More than you think.
Wednesday before last, you may have heard, Jay-Z gave an impromptu performance of his new single “Picasso Baby” in a hush-hush event at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea. The audience, if you could call it that, was studded with art stars, socialites and people who knew someone that could get them in. Jim Jarmusch. Glenn O’Brien. Bill Powers. Laurie Simmons. Judd Apatow. Naturally, George Condo, Kanyes’ sloppy seconds, was there. So was the recklessly fêted Marina Abramović. For six hours Jay performed the song over and over, individually, to every person in attendance—a feast of discomfort masquerading as a feat of stamina.
On Vulture, New York‘s resident art critic Jerry Saltz tells us how this performance piece-cum-freemason fundraiser went down:
“Picasso Baby” teems with references to art. The first line is “I just want a Picasso, in my casa.” The last one is “I’m the modern day Pablo Picasso, baby.” The chorus repeats “Picasso baby.” There are name-checks of Leonardo; the Mona Lisa; Rothko; Francis Bacon; Warhol; Basquiat by first name, last name, and tag-name SAMO. There’s George Condo and of course that idiot savant Jeff Koons. Not to mention the Met, the Louvre, Tate Modern, MoMA, Christie’s, and Art Basel. One of the most well-known Americans since Muhammad Ali, just talking about not Lamborghinis and jewelry but about art? The thought that this might entice kids, intimidated by museums, to give them a visit? Come on! Whether it was going to be weird, cringe-worthy, or what: I was there.
Jerry’s sippin’ on that Jaytorade if he thinks he can convince us with his agnosticism. It’s unnerving to see a premier art critic, one of two who actually gets paid to do his job (the other being his wife, Roberta Smith of the New York Times), and a minor celebrity in his own right, dispense with his better judgment for a conversation starter about his brush with fame. Not that I begrudge Saltz for going because who wouldn’t? Only I feel confused and a little betrayed by his conciliatory turn, as if his instinct was gradually overwhelmed by all the crowdsourcing and groupthink. (If I knew for certain that his canned critique was a matter of professional reputation, that would be one thing, but as much as Saltz strikes me as a savvy man and a man about town he also strikes me as a man of integrity.) Saltz calls Jay-Z an impresario, a word so awesomely void of meaning that it cannot but inspire confidence. What he misses however is that art is the new Lamborghinis and jewelry. Kanye summed that up nicely in “New Slaves”: “What you want, a Bentley, a fur coat, a diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things / Used to be only niggas, now everybody’s playing / Spending everything on Alexander Wang.”
Sure, he’s complicit in the system, but what Ye gets that Jay doesn’t is that everyone, including himself, has been enslaved by capitalism. That sounds quaint, but there’s a reason that on Fashion’s Night Out, all you see on the street are young, queer minorities. They’ve been sold the storyline that the only way to offset their ancestors’ historic woes is to own the American Dream, which these days pretty much means borrowing against your future self to finance your present-day swag. What they’ve come to believe in is that it’s cool to worship the status symbols of your colonial overlords as long as you “make them yours.” But they do it without the sense of irony that was the basis of voguing culture. That’s not fighting the system from within, it’s subscribing to its authority.
This is the reality that Kanye’s been trying to reconcile in his own mind, bravely if somewhat sheepishly, by professing to be a minimalist in a rapper’s body. But at least he’s in the habit of thinking critically. At least he doesn’t shy from inconvenient truths. Even his public outbursts—Katrina, Taylorgate—have a ring of legitimacy about them. Kanye is unafraid to make the consumer squirm at the sight of his own moral alibi; in Jay-Z’s world the customer is always right.
Where Kanye’s wrong is in assuming that the war on America’s poor is more than incidentally about race. In America, unlike in Russia say, where all anyone still talks about is class pedigree, it’s a major gaffe to even utter the c-word in company. The vanguard of cultural and professional dilettantism gives us the impression that we’re a classless society. And yet. ”That’s the ultimate race, poor people,” said comedian Adam Carolla. ”White people, when they’re marginalized, when they are denied meaning, when they are denied meaningful work, they become drug addicts too…Capitalism is fairly colorblind in the end,” said David Simon, creator of The Wire. If that’s too bummer, consider, conversely, why Beyoncé, Shakira and Britney Spears all look like the same person.
Now that bling and minks and cribs have been evacuated of their symbolic power, the next best way to advertise your moral superiority is though art. And now that Jay-Z’s bought everything he possibly could’ve short of the Kerguelen Islands, the only place for him to decamp is the art world. Art-going is a less obvious form of acquisition than art collecting, but Jay-Z can’t bear the idea of admiring something without being able to posses it. “Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner / Go ahead, lean on that shit, Blue / You own it,” he raps referring to his one-year-old daughter with Knowles. I don’t know what’s the greater effrontery: that he’s already instilling her with the values of conspicuous consumption, that he’s using her yet unformed identity to glorify his own poorly formed one, or that the artwork itself is treated so carelessly, like a dishrag or a pair of slippers. Of course, standoffish metaphors of wealth are the métier of rap, but Jay-Z pisses on propriety in a way that’s more incidental than intentional. The migration of taste from the conspicuous to the obscure is the new pastime of bored and overpaid urban achievers, putting an additional level of mastery between you and the rest of the peons. It’s still consumerism, only sublimated from things to ideas.
Jay-Z’s success lies mostly in appropriating and repackaging the innovation of others. When Lil’ Wayne went from niche rapper to household name in the middle of the aughts, Hova took notice. Suddenly, his delivery became asthmatic, his rhymes, free-associative. They even cut a duet together, “Mr. Carter,” the second track off of Wayne’s triple-platinum 2008 album Tha Carter III and a legacy play on their shared last name. The idea was that the symbolic father handed the torch to his younger, more-talented successor, but of course, what Jay-Z had in mind was more of a timeshare. The new record, meanwhile, is filled with Kanyeisms, in the form of stripped-down beats and avant-garde posturing. It’s no coincidence that just as Ye comes out with that bit about romancing a Corbusier lamp, Jay starts name-checking Picasso and Warhol. He knows what looks like plagiarism now will pass for genius tomorrow; he can bank on our short attention spans for that. If you recall, it was Jay-Z who who vacated tales of street life of their meaning and turned them into vehicles for his mythology, the same thing he’s now doing to Koons balloons (Koons, alas, has him beat). Anyone can rhyme a word with itself; few can carry a narrative.
I get that liking Jay and Bey on principle makes people feel benevolent and sane, as if the entire culture isn’t caving in around them, but what can these two teach you other than how to match your curtains to your shams? And I get that Jay-Z wants desperately to be seen as “with it,” but all of his efforts seem reactive, cursory, cheap, down to his survey knowledge of art history. Congrats on skimming the Janson book, bro.
How can I take these people seriously, these parochial bozos who bought their daughter a pink Swarovski crib and pink satin baby pumps but burdened her with the name Blue Ivy? These people who couldn’t in a million years come around to the idea that to be cultured is to understand history and to understand history is to be humbled? Kanye once bragged, “most rappers’ taste level ain’t at my waist level.” That may be true of Jay-Z, who, if any credit is due him, has a paranormal talent for cozying up to the right people, meaning rich white people. I’m sure he’s convinced that is interest in art is authentic. That’s how it always goes when you have a lot of walls to fill.
You may ask why give Kanye a pass? Aren’t they cut from the same cloth of indiscreet consumption mingled with moral indifference? As a matter of taste I like Kanye’s sound better so, on this point, we can agree to disagree. What’s not up for debate is that Kanye has a twisted sense of humor while Jay-Z is congenitally incapable of laughing at himself. Kanye isn’t scared to call black people out on their shit, which is what all people need—a bigshot from their own backyard who tells it like it is. Whereas Kanye’s parody of race betrays both a systemic understanding of the problem and a fundamental sense of compassion, Jay-Z radiates only a vague contempt for those he left in the dust. Of course, he also dusts them off selectively when it comes time to take his hood persona out of Gwyneth Paltrow’s dildo drawer. His cavalier attitude is partly wealth but also: a cover for the shame in wanting to be a handmaiden of the establishment. Jay-Z is truly the rapper of out-of-touch white people everywhere yet he’s still trying to convince us (and himself) that he’s “the man to watch.”
Note that Kanye’s interest in the avant-garde is genuine in the sense that it exists outside of his ability and desire to make money. He knows art, having made some himself. Rightfully, he’s considered a tastemaker. Jay-Z’s interest, meanwhile, comes off as fundamentally shallow and insincere. He skims off the top, which is to say, the middle. That’s why Kanye will casually say some off-the-wall shit about race on air or punch out a paparazzo but every time you go to a Beyoncé or Jay-Z show, you have to hand over your cell phone and sign an NDA. Ironic that a guy with so little personality requires so much image control.
Still, nothing in Saltz’s account was more chilling than the moment Abramović made her entrance at 3:15pm and proceeded to agitate the crowd into an outpouring of misplaced feminist adulation with her high-handed, new-agey affect that passes so well for artistic profundity. Of course, Jay-Z bought her act hook, line and sinker because someone—maybe it was Gagosian—once told him she was VIP. (Sidebar: how has this insufferable snake-oil salesman of a woman managed to convince everyone of the validity of her myth? Can’t help but admire the hustle.) Make no mistake: I’m not bemoaning the inherent commercialism of the art world, or that Jay-Z did this to drum up publicity, or that it was all a pretext for a music video. The problem with this scenario isn’t that there’s money backing things because money, after all, is the basest form of sincerity, but that the whole thing came off as insincere, wholly void of thought and passion. Like a true cynic, Jay-Z knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.