Did Jay-Z Just Kill Performance Art?

Murder, they wrote. The suspect? Media mogul, sports agent, and rapper Jay-Z. The victim? Performance art. The accomplices? Performance artists!? When Jay-Z decided to shoot the video for his song “Picasso Baby” from his recently released album Magna Carta... Holy Grail at the Pace Gallery in New York City, not only did he include an artistic venue, but he included an actual artist, Marina Abramović, reigning queen of performance artists and self-appointed guardian of performance art itself. Judging just from the sneak peek of the final video, Abramović plays a significant role in the video, making it one of the rare cases of popular culture crashing into the world of high art. For many people, performance art’s already moldering in the grave, but for those who hold out hope for the genre, “Picasso Baby” might be the coup de grace.  Did Jay-Z just kill performance art?


“Picasso Baby” represents Jay-Z’s attempt to mix his art with fine art. Donning his “playa” persona, Jay-Z raps that he wants to own a Picasso, a Rothko, “a million Jeff Koons balloons,” a Francis Bacon, some Warhols, and a Basquiat. Among that dream art collection, Jay-Z also wishes for the rap music requisite sexually available fantasy woman, marble floors, gold ceilings, and “champagne on my breathe.” Jay-Z rapped that combination for 6 hours at Pace Gallery on July 10th before cameras that caught him interacting with the crowd.  Among a list of 10 most awkward videos from the shoot, you’ll find the Abramović—Jay-Z showdown (shown above), which begins with the two artists staring each other down at distances ranging from several feet apart to touching heads. Abramović and Jay-Z then circle each other in moves that look like the paso doble from hell. Abramović’s long, black gown adds to the vampiric weirdness of the situation. I’m betting that Marina hoped for majestic or mysterious, but the final effect is more ridiculous, which is all the worse for performance art itself.

Jay-Z’s foray into the art world reminds me of Andy Warhol’s 1985 guest appearance on The Love Boat (video here). Warhol and The Love Boat were both on the decline, so it was a fair match. Jay-Z and Abramović, appearances notwithstanding, both seem over the artistic hill, repeating the same old tired clichés. I’d say that they were both “jumping the shark,” but that would be an insult to Happy Days (and to sharks). That shark was jumped long ago, for both of them. At the risk of making yet a third bad 1970s/80s television reference, the “Picasso Baby” shoot feels more like a reprisal of Battle of the Network Stars. Ah, I remember fondly watching “stars” represent their respective networks in athletic events. The only thing more surreal than watching TV tough guys such as Robert Conrad, Gil Gerard, and William Shatner pull ligaments as Scott Baio scampered over them was the sight of The Incredible Hulk’s Lou Ferrigno win a tug of war for CBS against a bunch of normal humans. The “Picasso Baby” shoot hits a similar surreal high in bringing together two networks—rappers and performance artists—together in “battle” that’s nothing more than shameless promotion masquerading as competition or, at the very least, cooperation.

Perhaps the saddest part of the “Picasso Baby” shoot is the missed opportunity. When I first heard that Jay-Z was dropping famous art names, I imagined the possibility of those names being introduced to a whole new audience. Alas, at the end of “Picasso Baby,” Jay-Z tells his daughter Blue “go ahead and lean on that sh*t” Basquiat, because “you own it.” Add disrespect for culture to all the other forms of disrespect promoted by rap. I don’t know much about rap, but I do know that it’s not monolithic in its attitudes. Macklemore more than proves that. Assuming that she’s heard the lyrics, it saddens me that Marina Abramović’s cooperated with “Picasso Baby” after all she’s done for women in art. More than anything else, it’s Jay-Z’s lyrics’ misogyny and disrespect for art itself that will kill performance art purely by association.

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