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Jay-Z and Marina Abramovic: Pop Music Stops Ripping Off High Art, Starts Trying to Become High Art

The big news in New York’s art world this week was Jay-Z’s video shoot at Chelsea’s Pace Gallery. If you’ve somehow avoided reading about it, the idea was basically that Jay-Z’s suitably art-centric concept for a video to accompany new song “Picasso Baby” was recreating Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present MoMA performance from 2010, a process that involved him lip-syncing the song for six hours straight, accompanied by various celebrity types, the occasional ring-in… and Abramovic herself. Reactions ranged from excitement (HuffPo gushed that “Jay-Z is an artist — one of the defining artists of our time”) to bemusement (Gothamist called it “artful mockery of the art world”) to hand-wringing despair (Hyperallergic declared the event to be the day performance art died).

But look, setting aside the fact that the song itself is terrible, the whole spectacle of Jay-Z dancing with Marina Abramovic raised a bunch of interesting topics for discussion.

First, there’s the fact of the hip hop world’s ever-increasing interest in the art world. In this, as in apparently everything at the moment, Jay-Z and his black swan Kanye West are inseparable — West referenced Le Corbusier in explaining Yeezus and debuted the album at Art Basel, while Jay-Z devotes large swathes of Magna Carta Holy Grail to name-checking artistic luminaries past and present (actually, one way to force yourself to sit through the record is the Basquiat Drinking Game, i.e. taking a shot every time he mentions Jean-Michel Basquiat — you’ll be bladdered soon enough, and the album will sound somewhat more tolerable).

While only Jay-Z and Kanye can say why they’re so increasingly keen on the art establishment, but part of the motivation no doubt stems from a genuine interest in art — one would hope so, anyway, especially since West went to art school and has already collaborated with artists such as Takashi Murakami and George Condo. Beyond that, there’s the fact that blowing hideous amounts of money on art is something that rich people do, a natural progression for two mega-rich rappers with money to burn and images to maintain. It’s not just rappers who do this, either — remember those bits of Some Kind of Monster where Lars Ulrich casually discusses auctioning off various parts of his crazy collection (including, yes, a Basquiat)?

I’d also be willing to bet that at least part of this interest in the art world is rooted in the idea of kicking down the door of the establishment, an idea that suffuses both Magna Carta Holy Grail and Yeezus. (Take these lyrics from “Somewhereinamerica,” for instance, wherein Jay-Z recounts his glee at setting up camp next to rich people who are clearly horrified by him: “New money, they looking down on me/ Blue bloods, they trying to clown on me/ You can turn up your nose, high society/ Never gone turn down the homie/ Knock, knock, I’m at your neighbor house/ Straight cash I bought your neighbor out.”)

Both Jay-Z and West are at the stage of their careers where doors that have always been closed to them have been thrown wide open, something that’s no doubt both edifying for both of them. But it’s not like this is any sort of hostile takeover of the art world. It’s more a case of wanting to walk in the front door and be treated as equals. Whereas in the past pop culture has taken pleasure in plundering the aesthetics of high art, now it wants to be high art. Or, more accurately, perhaps, there’s a blurring of the boundaries of what used to be considered high and low art.

While art and music have a long history of crossing over — you need look no further than Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, for a start — they’ve generally done so via the art in question becoming part of pop culture, not by music breathing the rarified air of the art world. But let’s take the case of Warhol — at the time, and in the years after, there was a very clear distinction between the new, modern world of pop art and its more staid, respectable predecessor genres. (Even the name “pop art” suggests something separate from Serious Art, and indeed, this was a chasm that had to be bridged before Warhol, et al, ended up in MoMA.)

Instead of demanding that art lower itself into the world of pop music, though, the Great Cashed-Up Overlords of Hip Hop seem to be demanding that they be taken seriously as part of the Serious Art establishment. Again, this makes sense, considering that it’s another manifestation of both gatecrashing areas of culture previously closed to musicians, rappers, and black men, and also of the idea that hip hop success really involves becoming part of the elite, not removing them or changing the system that breeds them.

A bid to be taken seriously as Serious Art will almost certainly fail in this case, of course, mainly because no matter how star-studded and expensive and laden with art cred its video is, “Picasso Baby” is still a historically awful song, a fact that surely has to count for something. But even the fact that Jay-Z has the pulling power to not only repurpose one of Marina Abramovic’s ideas for his video, but also to get her to appear in the damn thing, shows that there’s been a fundamentally blurring of the lines between what would once have been considered high and low culture.

And despite all the complaining from various corners of the Internet, his isn’t a terrible development at all. For a start, it’s rather heartening to see musicians acknowledging and promoting the work of the artists who’ve inspired them, rather than just blithely appropriating their ideas. There’s always been something bratty about the way that pop musicians do this, as if they’re somehow thumbing their noses at the establishment (cf. Madonna’s wholesale adoption of Man Ray’s ideas, for instance). At least Jay-Z and Kanye are not only acknowledging their sources, they’re embracing them and bringing them to an entirely new audience — think about how many people there might be who’d never heard of Marina Abramovic before this week and are right now researching her work on the Internet.

With this in mind, it’s worth noting how productive six seconds of dancing with Jay-Z might be for Abramovic’s… well, much as I shudder to use the term, her brand. Part of the problem with treating art as a rarified pursuit is, well, the fact that it doesn’t resonate with the general public as much as it should. Embracing somebody like Jay-Z is as much a benefit for the world of art as it is for Jay-Z himself — he gets a good old boost to his already, um, healthy ego, and his artistic chums get access to his fan base. Everybody wins, eh?

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