Don’t Forget America, This How You Made Me

One of the first things I noticed about JAY-Z’s amazing new video for “Picasso, Baby” was that the whole thing is built around a motion from back-stage to on-stage to off-stage. Unlike certain other major rappers, there’s something shy and apologetic in JAY-Z’s affect I like, which you see during the interview segments, talking about what he does. Or in his appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher to promote the Picasso Baby video. And then I like watching that shyness get shucked off like a coat as the beat starts. That the video is structured like that, going back-stage to on-stage tells you a lot about what he’s doing in the video, I think.

The film is basically a collage of him rapping the same song in full persona to one person at a time, which he apparently did for over six hours, finding new and interesting ways to interact with all of them, based on how they responded to him. But, getting all Duchampey about it, he’s very demonstratively doing it in an art gallery, New York City’s Pace Gallery, and the people watching and interacting with him are the NYC art world elite. The art gallery is very art gallery-ey. All white cube and framing Hova as the art work. So it’s a sort of cliche art gallery performance art scene. And the audience all have Wikipedia pages: Jim Jarmusch, Marina Abrahamovic, Andres Serrano, George Condo, Lawrence Weiner, Rosie Perez, Judd Apatow and two cast members from Girls … as well as dedicated fans, breakdancers … He also significantly invites one of the early hip hop greats, Fab 5 Freddy. He’s deliberately mixing art elite with hip hop. In one interview which I can’t find right now, he also says something about the art world and hip hop mixing and interacting back in the early days of underground hip hop, and then separating.

So what is this, as an art work? First and foremost I guess it’s interesting. I like that I both completely enjoyed the video and that it’s still complicated enough that I can’t untangle it easily. Anything both enjoyable and complicated is on its way to becoming good art.

It’s performance art, as Jay points out in the video himself. Framed as a sort of response to Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” (Abramovic has a part in the video, locking eyes and foreheads with JAY-Z for her entire segment, according to witnesses). But what’s it trying to say? What’s most interesting to me, untangled from the beats and the pure, fun buzz of vicariously taking part in the communal event, is something about the status of hip hop and art, money and power. But that’s also where there’s something a little weird and uncomfortable to the video.

The song is all about art, ownership and materialsm. JZ wants more more more more more more is the theme of the song. Art is a consumer product. Art is another vehicle for materialism. He wants Condos in his condos. “I’m never satisfied, can’t knock my hustle / I wanna Rothko, no, I want a brothel.” (Note also that he actually has a Picasso baby in the house: Pablo Picasso’s granddaughter is one of the people he raps to.) Art and ownership, art as hustle, art as consumerism, art as money, art as everything but art, except not quite. 

So that – uncomfortably, flagrantly mixing art and money – is what he’s doing in the video. He’s “not a businessman / I’m a business, man”. And he’s taking that literally billion-dollar, got-Obama’s-phone-number-business into the art gallery and making it into art.

Does he? No, but it’s interesting that he tries. He says he’s the new Picasso and he isn’t. He’s something non-analogue to Picasso. But I like watching him try. In the meantime, the depressing part of this is that the video is one of the many ways art today becomes all rolled up with elite power, with money and with everything that isn’t art but which flutters around in the art world. And the discomfort comes from him not quite making fun of it, but instead admitting that that’s what he’s doing. WIth all his fame and all his money: there he is, billionaire rapper rapping to the art scene, making a kazillion off the video of the art, the end credits for which runs on for like, a decade. He gets to make art. He gets to play at being an artist in the classical sense. At the same time, he gets to be a rapper and a hustler making a buck off the people he’s performing with and for. He’s having his art cake and monetizing it too.

And that’s what the structure of the video means. He’s non-art backstage, he moves on-stage and becomes art, makes the connection with the fans … And then he leaves, in a limo, escorted by stonefaced bodyguards and police. The separation from the social space he was just rocking. One imagines him jetting off to one of his many mansions, lounging by the pool. He’s simultaneously saying he’s different from the art world and a part of it.

And in the process of doing that he does blur lines that need blurring. But Is he earnestly trying to self-identify as a performance artist? Is he hustling the art world? Is he making fun of it? The answer, obviously, is I don’t know. And that’s in a sense what I love about the video, that’s the thing I can’t quite think through.

That and the fact that it just looks like a really fun, exuberant afternoon house party in an art gallery with a great performer and a great beat. And anything that gets the art world less cloistered and hoity-toity is a good thing. I just wish JAY-Z didn’t have to be rolling in money and power to be doing what he’s doing. 

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