Are Pop Music and the Art World Getting a Divorce?

Is the unholy shotgun marriage between pop music and institutional high art about to end in divorce? It’s hard to say. But after MoMA’s fiasco-level failure of a Björk retrospective, a relationship built largely on shared megalomania, reputational gain, and, well, money, appears to be on the verge of collapse — like most celebrity marriages.

Nor was the Björk retrospective the only bad date between music and high art in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Wu-Tang Clan infuriated fans everywhere when it played 13 minutes of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, its final album, to an exclusive audience of art world stalwarts, radio contest winners, and journalists at MoMA’s PS1 museum in Queens. What’s worse: the closed listening party will likely be the only one of its kind for the next 88 years, given that RZA has placed an extended copyright on the album, only one copy of which exists. In response to the stunt, Wu-Tang’s Method Man told fans, “I’m tired of this shit.”

There are signs of fatigue in the art world press, too. Michael Miller, writing for ARTnews, described MoMA during the Björk exhibition as “Planet Hollywood,” adding: “I felt sad and embarrassed leaving the museum. Embarrassed for Björk mostly, who deserved better than this, but also for MoMA.”

“MoMA-bashing is in,” wrote Christian Viveros-Fauné of Artnet yesterday. The magazine called for MoMA PS1 Chief Curator Klaus Biesenbach’s head. The reason? His “unseemly celebrity chasing and gross curatorial overreach”:

Besides the nearly universally negative headlines that have accompanied the “Björk” exhibition, questions have emerged lately about Biesenbach’s curatorial autonomy, his problematic celebrity profile, as well as his capacity to keep an appropriately scholarly distance between himself and his famous subjects…

It’s true that Biesenbach, who has also been ceremoniously accused of racism by Mykki Blanco, comes prepackaged with his own curatorial manias and prejudices. Yet there is no denying that Biesenbach’s version of the art world is the one routinely pitched to casual observers through an array of media – TV shows, film, and, increasingly, pop music, and rap.

But now complaints about the union of pop and high art are bubbling up from within. At e-flux Conversations, a new hybrid editorial site devoted to conversation in the art world, editor Karen Archey asks, “Why do we continually lose our shit over celebrity art collaborations?”:

The trend seems to dovetail with the increased presence of new collectors — or newly minted millionaires (aka Wall Street bros) — in the artworld. While it isn’t strictly impossible to produce a successful celebrity art project, celebrities are often treated as experts when they’re not, and thus clearly are given preferential treatment for, well, being a PR machine.

Here Archey hints at the mutual disadvantage of the relationship. Not only are pop musicians and rappers exposed to vampiric curators punch-drunk on the perceived leverage of the musician’s built-in fan base; the art produced and exhibited in such partnerships is typically awful.

If the art world is self-correcting, or at least adjusting, with the possible firing of Biesenbach, perhaps pop musicians and rappers, too, are becoming wary of the association.

The New York Times announced last week that Drake will team up with Sotheby’s for a special exhibition under the auction house’s S2 brand. Though Drake, as the article points out, is not a noted collector of art, Sotheby’s believes his imprimatur will abet the sales of the art works being auctioned. Specifically, Drake will contribute music to go with each of the items up for bid, around “20 works by artists including Rashid Johnson, Nick Cave, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu and Jean-Michel Basquiat.”

Even if Sotheby’s is trying to turn Drake into some kind of Art DJ, his involvement in the exhibition is fairly modest. It’s clear, too, that Drake’s aim is to help sell the work of black artists, and not, necessarily, self-promotion or credibility-by-association.

We know this too from remarks that Drake has made about high art and rap in the past. Last year, he raised eyebrows when he criticized Jay Z for his repeated references to art-as-conspicuous-consumption in recent verses. “It’s like Hov can’t drop bars these days without at least four art references!” Drake told Rolling Stone. “I would love to collect at some point, but I think the whole rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny.”

It’s hard not to wonder whether this corniness, expressed most succinctly by Jay Z’s Picasso Baby, his 2013 performance with Marina Abramovic at New York’s Pace Gallery, is coming to a head or cooling off. In either case, artists like Kanye West continue to create the one-off, aura-based spectacle so sought after by the institutional art world whether its curators are involved or not.