“When art started becoming a part of the galleries, there became a separation between culture and Hip-Hop. It’s almost like, art is too bourgeois. We’re artists; we’re alike, we’re cousins. That’s what’s really exciting for me, bringing the worlds back together.” —Jay Z, “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film”
The arrival of Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby” video may forever feel like the most unexpected event in the course of his Magna Carta Holy Grail album/Samsung app release, which itself came only a month after it was announced during Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The conception and delivery of it have shown us that with a will, there’s still a way, and when a superstar rapper like Jay Z wants to make performance art, he will do so unabashedly.
In a six hour performance at the prestigious Pace Gallery in New York, to a crowd of insiders, Jay Z sought to unite the creative potential of Hip-Hop with high art, and to declare himself the modern day Picasso to core figures of the art world (which included Picasso’s own granddaughter, Diana Widmaier Picasso). There was even a Cubist sentiment to it—the audience was treated to Jay Z from all angles.
This isn’t the first time that Jay Z’s rapped about Picasso, though. On the DJ Premier-produced “Friend or Foe” from his first album in 1996, Reasonable Doubt, he raps: “You draw, better be Picasso, you know the best / Cause if this is not so, ah, God bless.” Since then, Jay Z has mentioned Picasso in five other songs, but instead of as a double entendre for "drawing" a weapon in "Friend or Foe," as a means to embody perfection or opulence.
That luxury exists in the overflowing amount of art references on “Picasso Baby” (Mark Rothko, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, George Condo, Christie’s, MoMA, and Art Basel, among them), which are all a backdrop for Picasso—at once a desirable object (“I just want a Picasso”), a feeling (“Oh what a feeling, Picasso, baby”), and the greatest artist to ever create. Jay ends the song declaring, “I’m the modern day Pablo / Picasso baby,” and he raps it over and over, on camera, for six hours.
Through the tireless repetition, he's testifying to rap’s endurance, both physically for the performer and historically throughout multiple decades, and as he says in the trailer, "putting your fears, vulnerabilities, and insecurities to music." It resembles Kanye West’s spontaneous Art Basel appearance in May, where he performed the breathy, fast-paced “New Slaves” a capella before sharing his new album, Yeezus—again, bringing Hip-Hop to the fine art crowd.
However, repeating the “New Slaves” lyrics “I see the blood on the leaves” and the “Picasso Baby” lyrics “Pica-Pica-Picasso Baby” sends two different messages: one criticizes and one conforms. Whereas Kanye’s performances and work are artistic in nature—wearing masks, making an installation of nude women for his 808s and Heartbreak listening party with Vanessa Beecroft, doing his “Power” music video with Marco Brambilla, and commissioning George Condo, Takashi Murakami, and KAWS for album artwork—Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby” event was declared “art” from the moment invitations were sent on July 5 until now, where its YouTube title is "Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film."
For Kanye, ironically bashing the establishment that his lyrics criticize at Basel makes more sense—after all, he repeatedly calls himself “a god” on his album and continues to win people over with his music and rants, even as he alienates them. Jay Z’s mission was union, and in his eyes, he was bringing the worlds of Hip-Hop and high art back together.
From the position of the art world, who received his familiar performance art in the safe space of a gallery, he momentarily succeeded. “Picasso Baby” significantly mirrored performance artist Marina Abramovic’s groundbreaking 736-hour “The Artist is Present” sit-in at MoMA with visitors who individually cried, laughed, and gazed in awe at her for minutes at a time. Marina came to give her blessing and spin around with Jay, forehead to forehead, after removing her shoes and belt, which felt "very much about reception and a little bit about seduction, but not in a sexual way," as noted by Pace Gallery director Andrea Glimcher weeks after.
Jay Z joins a lineage of musical entertainers (The Beatles and Madonna, among them) who have worked with visual artists to open their work up to new audiences and new heights of commentary and impact. In recent times, Lady Gaga, who announced upcoming collaborations with Marina Abramovic, Jeff Koons, Inez and Vinoodh, and Robert Wilson for her album/app ARTPOP only two days after Jay’s performance, created a Duchampian, Dada-esque urinal for SHOWStudio’s 2009 “Inside/Out” exhibition, slept in the Guggenheim as performance art to promote her perfume “FAME,” and performed at MOCA in collaboration with artist Francesco Vezzoli (in a Frank Gehry-designed hat with a Damien Hirst-painted piano). In a way similar to Jay Z, who signs his Life+Times website as “Andy Warhov” and put Warhol’s Rorschach on the cover of his book, Decoded, Gaga began her first tour with a video of herself playing a character called “Candy Warhol.” The Warhol obsession is akin to the Jean-Michel Basquiat obsession shared by many rappers from Rick Ross to Swizz Beatz (the latter who Jeffrey Deitch has compared to Basquiat, on the record). Warhol and Basquiat dominated visual culture and seamlessly bridged it with music, whether it was Basquiat producing a Rammellzee and K-Rob single in 1983 or Warhol managing and doing artwork for The Velvet Underground; however, neither of them lived to continue doing so in the grand, sweeping fashion that Jay Z, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga are attempting to.
The closer these contemporary musicians get to the art world, either to look into its eyes with curiosity or to scream a message, the more their territories appear similar—volatile, overheated, and full of artists who are unsure about who they should be making art for. Kanye West’s creative agency DONDA released a “remixed” version of the trailer for Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’ The Canyons hours before “Picasso Baby” came out, for example. The remainder of 2013 will be a time when music and visual art reach new heights together, allowing for greater discovery across culture, exposing these worlds as simultaneously robust and fragile, and elevating all forms of artistic practice and creativity. The art and music worlds will undoubtedly get closer together, but first, they must be shaken. Jay Z took an important step in that direction.
Regardless, it's important to ask whether or not he's taking big enough steps for culture as a whole, which certainly comes into question after he chose to do a reduced version of an existing performance art piece. A year ago, Jay Z was publicly ridiculed by singer and activist Harry Belafonte, the “King of Calypso,” who said that entertainers like he and Beyonce have “turned their back on social responsibility.” He said, “Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black,” to which Jay Z spitefully responded on Magna Carta’s “Nickels and Dimes”—“I’m just trying to find common ground before Mr. Belafonte come and chop a nigga down. Mr. Day-O, major fail.”
In light of the disheartening Trayvon Martin trial verdict, a situation Jay problematically articulates in a recent interview with Elliott Wilson, it’s not crazy to wonder why Jay Z doesn’t more readily use his platform at Pace Gallery, on stages, and in interviews for “social responsibility,” outspoken political commentary, and more active corralling towards efforts to fight racism. He attended a rally in NYC for Trayvon Martin and has been dedicating “Forever Young” to him at his shows, but like his performance at Pace, it doesn’t feel like he’s taking full advantage of his power to take a firm political stance or make an impactful political statement. He’s too busy telling us how great he is, how much he knows about art, and how he’s the next Picasso.
Jay’s performance video didn’t carry the shadow of Belafonte’s criticism, even if he responded to it on Bill Maher just before the HBO premiere, where he said, "Dragging my wife into it was a low blow." Anyone who has watched “Picasso Baby” can tell that it was a positive, light-hearted, and well-received experience, and as someone who went, I can affirm that it was teeming with joy. However, as someone who thought that Magna Carta Holy Grail was one of Jay Z’s less exciting, less cohesive albums, I’ve come to justify both the album and the performance by thinking that Jay was aiming for something like Cubism—a jumble of re-angled pieces combined to create something as stunning and forgivably misunderstandable as a Picasso painting. Does anyone truly know what they see when looking at Les Demoiselles d'Avignon? They know enough, but visual art has an acceptable space for guessing and “never knowing what it truly means” that popular music seems to now lack completely. Jay asserts himself as the new maestro of such beautiful, sacred confusion, but to a generation of post-Pop Art consumers, it feels irrelevant.
On “Holy Grail,” Justin Timberlake reinterprets Nirvana's famous "Smells Like Teen Spirit" lyric, singing, “And we’re all just entertainers." Jay Z’s at the point where he’s not just an entertainer, and society (the art world, included) expects more from him. He may not be in touch with the breadth or depth of racism in America right now, making statements like, “It's beautiful because this generation, they don't see color in that way” and “My presence is charity,” and he may have made an album that didn’t feel as relevant, hard-hitting, or accessible as people wanted it to be. He was trying to get in touch during his “Picasso Baby” performance, while asserting his greatness and the greatness of his medium, but calling yourself the new Picasso doesn’t make it true.
Many consider Pablo Picasso to be the Father of Cubism, in the same way people consider Marina Abramovic to be the Grandmother of Performance Art and Harry Belafonte to be the King of Calypso. Jay Z will certainly be given a place high up on Hip-Hop's family tree, and not just because he created a positive, endearing moment in the art world with "Picasso Baby." As the credits give names to the largely unknown faces of Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Lawrence Weiner, George Condo, Fred Wilson, and others, it’s obvious that he did many things very right, at the least by introducing these visual artists to his fans. Cubism was the most influential art movement of the 20th century, and maybe historians will look back and say that Hip-Hop was its equivalent in the 21st. If its creators get in touch with society and the art world they desire to stand in, beyond imitating what already exists, then Hip-Hop’s creative potential can stand with that of Cubism, Pace Gallery, and art history. Who will be the new Picasso, though, remains to be seen.