This is the picture that won the Internet recently: a photo of Beyoncé and Jay Z standing impossibly close to Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th-century masterpiece, The Mona Lisa, during a private tour of Paris' Louvre museum last month. Shoulders barely turned away from the camera, arms crossed, and lips pressed in a half-smile, Beyoncé does a strikingly accurate imitation of the most famous painting in the world.
This isn't the first example of Beyoncé posing like the subject of a famous artwork. As recently as last week, she mimicked a Picasso sketch so perfectly that she could've been the Spanish artist's muse. No matter how charmed some people were by Beyoncé’s coy nod to art history, many reactions to “The Beyoncé Lisa," and the images that have followed, have been wildly hyperbolic. Case in point: BuzzFeed published a post titled, “No Picture Matters More than Beyoncé and Jay Z Posing in Front of the Mona Lisa.”
BuzzFeed readers are already familiar with the sensationalized headlines that are now on the homepage of almost every online publication, but this one brought up an important point. Many pictures do “matter” a lot more than the average celebrity selfie—Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, images from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream" speech, and even that inescapable photo of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flying up. They are more historically and culturally significant in the narrative of visual history. At the same time, though, Beyoncé's picture is worth your attention. By imitating famous artworks, specifically female subjects with complicated histories, Beyoncé enters a dialogue with art history and exposes her fans to art they may have not seen otherwise.
Not everyone feels that the educational value of Beyoncé and Jay Z standing in front of art is significant. Hyperallergic published a list of 13 responses to the photo, one of which was “holyshitwhofuckingcares." Kyle Chayka (who sometimes freelances for Complex) wrote an article for Pacific Standard about what he thinks is wrong with this picture: Beyoncé and Jay Z aren't looking at the art. “As a sometime art critic and a lifelong fan of art museums, the Mona Lisa selfie makes me cynical because it fails to emphasize any focus on the actual art,” Chayka writes. He bemoans how smartphones have infiltrated museums, ruining the viewing experience; the fact that you are there is more valuable than what you see. The title of a recent article in Vice, "If There's No #artselfie, You Never Saw the Art," summarizes this depressing attitude towards visiting a museum or gallery.
I sympathize with Chayka’s weariness towards certain technologies in arts spaces. In my own trips to galleries and museums, it’s harder and harder to really look at the art. While this may be something felt by many art lovers, what about people who don’t frequent galleries or don't live near any? Seeing Beyoncé in front of The Mona Lisa or a Picasso sketch may inspire her fans to have a real, lasting interest in art. The message of Beyoncé’s Mona Lisa photo may be, as Chayka writes, “Art is cool and stylish! Celebrities you obsess over like it!,” but is that really a bad thing if it’s inspiring young people to learn about visual art?
Beyoncé and Jay Z’s appreciation for art seems to run much deeper than these #artselfies or name-dropping artists in songs. Beyoncé grew up with a mother who loves art, and, with her husband, she has amassed an impressive art collection. Let’s not forget Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby” performance art piece in Pace Gallery last year, no matter the initial criticism or quality of the song itself. Whatever you thought of the continuous rap performance, it’s undeniable that Jay exposed a demographic of fans to performance art, artists, and art world professionals (who are named throughout the music video), who had probably never heard of Marina Abramovic, George Condo, Marilyn Minter, Wangechi Mutu, Andres Serrano, Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas, Ouattara Watts, Lawrence Weiner, Kehinde Wiley, Fred Wilson, or Dustin Yellin. (It's also significant that the majority of these artists are black).
Jay Z not only introduced his fans to artists, he introduced them to the people who support these artists behind-the-scenes, naming Sandra Gering, Roselee Goldberg, Diana Widmaier Picasso, and Bill Powers in his music video. This impressive list suggests that Jay is involved in, or deeply cares about, the commercial aspect of the art world. While in Europe last month, Beyoncé and Jay Z visited the prestigious London’s Arts Club, in addition to the Frieze art fair and David Zwirner Gallery (with artist Anish Kapoor). It's clear that Beyoncé and Jay Z go beyond museums to participate in the contemporary art world, and on the way, they record their experiences, enthusiastically sharing and exposing their fans to new art.
The negative reactions to Beyoncé’s #artselfies speak to the downside of a culture obsessed with imagery (and overwhelming access to it online). From our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter feeds to our Tumblr dashboards and Tinder profiles, we are addicted to visual stimulation and the lives of celebrities, through the way they use these democratizing platforms. Beyoncé, for one, may only use Instagram on a semi-regular basis, doing so in a way that feels carefully selected and intentional.
Beyoncé's decision to post her Louvre photos, and all of her other images in art institutions, was a calculated one. According to Lauren Seawood, who does Digital Strategy at Beyoncé's company, Parkwood Entertainment, “Beyoncé prefers to message the fans through photographs so she doesn't use Twitter.” By using Instagram and Facebook instead, Beyoncé recognizes how influential her self-portraits (or selfies) can be. She has even gone so far as to Photoshop her Instagram photos, something she’s been criticized for repeatedly online, and last year her publicist asked BuzzFeed to take down “unflattering” photos of Beyoncé from her Super Bowl performance. In our image-obssessed culture, can we really blame Beyoncé for trying to control how she's presented online (even if she may be the last person in the world to ever need a Photoshop touch-up)? Beyoncé is deliberate in her use of photography, because she knows the power of an image. If Beyoncé posts an image of herself in front of a work of art, she wants you to see her in front of a work of art.
The most powerful aspect of Beyoncé's #artselfies is her decision to imitate the subjects. Besides The Mona Lisa and Picasso's sketch, she has posed like two Neoclassical sculptures in the Louvre; funny enough, one actually looks like it's taking a selfie. In London last month, she mimicked Kerry James Marshall's painting of a black woman in a headdress at David Zwirner Gallery. Marshall's work depicts real and imagined histories of African American subjects, and it's as if Beyoncé can relate to the shifting narratives in Marshall's portraits. By mimicking The Mona Lisa and these additional art pieces, Beyoncé becomes part of the history surrounding the work. By appropriating art history, Beyoncé confronts the public's gaze instead of being objectified by it; she becomes the author of her own visual history.
Possibly, in 25-50 years, her portraits will adorn museums, immortalizing her image and legacy as one of the greatest performers of all time. There is a Will Cotton painting of Katy Perry in the National Portrait Gallery; why shouldn't there be one of Beyoncé? There's a deeper realization, maybe about the fact that Beyoncé worries about her legacy and being overlooked as a non-white performer, one that Jay Z spelled out on Watch the Throne song "That's My Bitch." He says, "Picasso was alive he woulda made her / That's right n***a Mona Lisa can't fade her," before saying "Put some colored girls in the MoMA" and "Call Larry Gagosian, you belong in museums." Maybe Jay Z and Beyoncé aren't asking to be written in history, they're studying it, and historicizing themselves using the dignified space of art history.
In the end, people are taking a greater interest in visual art because celebrities they admire pose in front of artworks (or work with them, as is the case with Kanye West). Art is becoming increasingly "cool," and even if that popularization may, at times, end up diminishing the viewing experience, art institutions desperately need more people to care about art. The continuation and preservation of our culture depends on it. So, even if it's not the most important image of our time, Beyoncé's photo with the Mona Lisa definitely matters. By imitating the subjects of famous paintings, Beyoncé is going beyond the "I am here" mentality of the #artselfie. Instead, she's actually interacting with art on a deeper level that extends beyond the museum walls, to address our relationship with images and demonstrate the critical power behind this photo trend. Keep the #artselfies coming, Bey.