On Wednesday, 10 July 2013, Jay Z performed “Picasso Baby” from his album Magna Carta Holy Grail for six straight hours at Pace Gallery in Chelsea, interacting with the invitation-only audience made up of many of the art-world’s elite, including performance artist Marina Abramovic. Many agree that Jay Z’s performance draws inspiration from Abramovic’s MoMA show “The Artist is Present,” and Jay Z himself acknowledged her influence.
The performance was filmed and edited into a docu-music-video, titled “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film,” which was released on 2 August 2013. In that video, Jay Z explains:
Concerts are pretty much performance art with the venues changed. And just by nature of the venues the performance changes, right? You’re in a smaller venue it’s a bit more intimate, so you get to feel the energy of the people. In a concert, especially a large concert, all that energy comes to you. Like, what do you do with that energy? You know so today, it’s kind of an exchange. We have some way to drop it back off, you know. When art started becoming part of the galleries, what became a separation between culture, and even in hip hop people were like, 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.
We were immediately drawn to the performance’s “stigmata effect.” That is, the artist doesn’t just perform for the audience; the audience (made up of critics, fans, other artists, children) becomes an equal and necessary part of the performance. “Picasso Baby” takes place not just in or through the body of Jay Z, but also through the bodies of the people at that event. Everyone becomes “Picasso Baby.” As the “Manifesto of Little Monsters” positions Gaga as the “devoted jester” to her kingly and queenly fans, renders Gaga the mirror that reflects – and therefore embodies – her fans, so Jay Z’s performance changes depending upon who comes before him: sometimes he watches the audience sing or dance, sometimes they mess him up, and they always impact his movements, his engagement, his spectacle. We’re tempted to ask: who’s interpreting whom? Who’s viewing whom? Who’s influencing whom? Who’s the artist and who’s the audience? But these are questions that no longer make sense during the “stigmata effect.” As Gaga would say, “There is no chicken or egg.”
We guess we could ask: are we part of the performance? Do we experience the “stigmata effect”? Or is that performance bounded by a specific place (Pace Gallery, Chelsea) and time (6 hours; 10 July 2013), and we’re merely spectators, not participants in the spectacle?
We think interpretation wounds the performance once again, lets its blood to let us in, allows us to become “Picasso Baby.”
In this spirit, we invited some of our favorite writers to contribute to a roundtable discussion of the performance, to build a conversation that is a stigmata of “Picasso Baby” at Pace Gallery.
What’s Jay Z doing at Pace Gallery? That is, why Pace Gallery? Or, put it another way, how is his performance affected by taking place at the Pace Gallery, and not somewhere else (e.g. a concert stage, or even a more public space, like a bus station)?
Becca: “Usually people are very tired when they ride on a subway, so they can’t sing and dance, but I think if they could sing and dance on a subway, they’d really enjoy it.”
Meghan: I was immediately drawn to this performance as an event that, among many other things, makes fame itself something to contemplate, turns celebrity into a kind of artistic end and project in its own right – much like Gaga’s first project dissected and dwelled in the spectacle of fame and its monstrous underbelly. For instance, to what extent does Jay Z’s celebrity grant him access to gallery space? Isn’t what’s on display Jay Z’s celebrity, his famous flesh, his notorious rapping – a performance of the celebrity performing?
Kate: And yet his celebrity also makes him suspect in this realm, as many view him as a rapper and not an artist. That crossover between worlds of celebrity is still viewed as somewhat taboo by the elite of both camps.
Becca: “It’s great to buy friends. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a lot of money and attracting people with it. Look who you’re attracting: EVERYBODY!”
Roland: What Jay Z was doing at Pace was a Freudian working-through of longstanding themes of excesses and empowerment in his work, which often articulated itself through the rapid-fire citations of stereotypically famous/expensive artists. His ancillary art projects associated with Magna Carta Holy Grail – such as revealing the cover next to the Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral – play into this process. But the playing ground has changed radically, because while “Picasso Baby” plays into the format of art-citation you’d expect from Jay Z, the cover photo of the album and the unveiling at Salisbury Cathedral radically deepen his corpus of references and adds a temporal depth at least, which sets him apart from your usual art-world stereotypes. Of course, I must also remind us that these citations are also deeply connected to racial issues surrounding the art world and also aspects of masculinity, both issues which I don’t even want to try to get into because they seem on the one hand too obvious and on the other hand too complex to address in a cursory manner.
I think the Pace performance was an interesting moment that revealed a lot of the problems with a certain model of art and popular culture that were once valid a few years ago (as in 2007 when Gaga started), but not any more – precisely thanks to Gaga, but frankly the credit goes well beyond her as well and not to the people you’d normally expect. The powerhouses right now are those artists who are taking a union between art and pop for granted, and are seizing the medium condition enabled by such blurred lines. The prime example of this is Lana del Rey, whose revisionist, nostalgic videos are infused with Americana, while approaching this archive with intricacy and precision – she is much more of a tacit force than Gaga, given that she has not forcefully attempted to generate meaning to her works, while at the same time obfuscating angles of approach with a smokescreen as Gaga has at times been guilty of doing: the whole, “It’s art, it’s open to interpretation,” and quickly digressing into a brief yet charged analysis that both gives too little and too much. Another person that has been leading the way is, perhaps surprisingly, Katy Perry, whose videos have actively spoken to and reacted to contemporary visual culture, like “TGIF” – which came right around Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” video, quietly riffing on it with Kenny G’s saxophone solo, which served as the perfect pop foil to Gaga’s inclusion of the late Clarence Clemons. The thing that Lana del Rey and Katy Perry understand is that uniting pop and art does not come from using art to validate pop or vice versa; it’s about using the critical, self-reflexive methodology of art toward pop-culture. That is why Rebecca Black and Kenny G need to be in your music video, not Clarence Clemons.
How does Jay Z’s performance perhaps defamiliarize the space of the art gallery – its power, its meaning, who gets access? Or is Jay Z’s performance no different than a Picasso exhibit?
Amanda: It seems we should address the hyper-masculine moments in the lyrics (“I want a wife that fuck me like a prostitute”; “Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa” etc.), though there are any number of critical counters to my knee-jerk feminist shudder, not least of which is the legacy of black masculinity in America, and its ties to slavery, racism, and incarceration rates. What’s more fascinating is how these moments bolster the parallels Jay Z draws between this highly criticized black masculinity and its white counterpart: notably found in the capitalist art world. Notice that, with the exception of Basquiat, the artists mentioned in the song are all white males, specifically artists like Koons, Rothko, and Warhol, rather than say Kara Walker, Joan Mitchell, or Yoko Ono. Even Abramovic does not make an appearance in the lyrics. Yet this is not a disconcerting lionization of white high art materialism – at least not simply, though there is an inevitable glorification of these white male artists. In the final verse Jay Z offers a painfully timely image of a black man, whose “mirandas don’t stand a chance with the cops,” first being arrested and then appearing in court. There is no longer any mention of these artists or the art world: “got my hands in cuff/ I’m like goddamn enough.” Hence the rub: white excess is gallerized (sanctioned with white walls no less) and black excess is incarcerated.
“Don’t forget America this is how you made me,” the song closes. “What’s it gon take for me to go/ For you to see, I’m the modern day Pablo, Picasso baby.” Here, we are not just met with the question of access but the total redundancy of American racism.
Maybe this is an obvious challenge for Jay Z to offer us, although very few of the observers and commentators surrounding the event seemed to get the message. “For a young black man in America to be on his level of success and rapping about art, and not what he’s wearing, is the coolest thing,” the artist Mickalene Thomas said. As though fashion and rap are not aesthetic products and processes – in the former case, this is a rather sexist (and dated) understanding of aesthetics, and in the latter case, an extremely racist one.
Becca: “I like to be the right thing in the wrong space and the wrong thing in the right space.”
“Picasso Baby” – how does the song function in the space of the art gallery?
Alexander: The song is composed much like an exhibition; bits and pieces of artworks and artists strung together, playing off one another, mimicking the typical events in the space. It’s like he funnels the history and function of the space into a different medium.
“Picasso Baby” was looped for hours, so a kind of repetition took center stage. What’s the effect of this? How would it be different if Jay just lipsynched the song once?
Peter: Kierkegaard announced in the nineteenth century that the concept of “repetition” would play a central role in the future of philosophy. He was right. Repetition is how thinkers such as Nietzsche and Freud and Deleuze have thought about the energy or intensity that inheres life’s movements, rotations, and transitions. The “truth” of anything – a person, an idea, a compulsion, a relationship, a work of art, a song – is not statically or eternally present, just waiting there to be accessed. A thing has to be repeated to be what it is; it has to be worked out over time, in multiple iterations of itself. The paradox is that you don’t really know what something is until you repeat it, that is, until you do it again and again, each time with a difference. The mosaic of repeated differences is where the “truth” of anything lies, which is to say that the “truth” of anything is always elusive, never fully present, always to come. Modern art has of course explored the theme of repetition in multiple and diverse works. Perhaps the most iconic are Andy Warhol’s screen-printings, which take a single person or object and repeat it several times, each time with a difference. The effect is to teach us that identity inheres only in difference, or that identity – of a person, of an object, of anything – is always unstable because possible only across difference.
So when Jay Z loops “Picasso Baby” for hours, we might say that he is exploring in a highly concentrated way the identity of this single song he has written and produced. He is testing its limits, its flexibility, its capacity to form new meanings, to generate new energies, to become distant from itself, to become what Jay Z never anticipated it could be. That’s the “truth” of “Picasso Baby.” It is a common testimony of musicians who perform their music that songs become what they really are only in front of an audience. Truth only in repetition. Jay Z’s performance perhaps isolates this phenomenon and puts it on display for us. And that’s a very characteristically modern gesture in art, to isolate the constitutive elements in any art form and turn those elements into art forms in their own right. Repetition is characteristic of all performance; Jay Z here isolates and amplifies it for us. Repetition is also a central feature of rap and hip-hop as musical genres. The rhymes characteristic of rap and hip-hop lyrics repeat sounds and phrasings, with a difference. “I just want a Picasso, in my casa, no, my castle, I’m a hassa, no I’m an asshole.” The looping of “Picasso Baby” has the effect of making it rhyme and rap with itself.
But it is important to emphasize that it was Jay Z’s live presence through every repetition of “Picasso Baby” that made the repetitions of the song in fact repetitions, and not simply the song recollecting itself over and over. Had Jay Z not been there re-performing the song each time, had it simply been the recording re-doing itself over and over, the repetition effect would not have been the same. The song would not have been repeated in the rich sense I just spoke about. It might have dissolved into meaningless noise, like words do when you say them over and over again without any reference to other words or a context. Interesting questions present themselves here. What is it about Jay Z’s live performance that sustained the repetitions? Where does the power of repetition lie? What was the same in each performance? What was different? How do you draw those boundaries? Did Jay Z in fact achieve repetition? Did he get his song back new and expanded and full of difference? Or did it just dissolve into noise?
Becca: “When Picasso died I read in a magazine that he had made four thousand masterpieces in his lifetime and I thought, ‘Gee, I could do that in a day.’ So I started. And then I found out, ‘Gee, it takes more than a day to do four thousand pictures.’ You see, the way I do them, with my technique, I really thought I could do four thousand a day. And they’d all be masterpieces because they’d all be the same painting.”
What about Jay's choice to lipsynch rather than sing?
Alexander: There is an artificiality associated with lipsynching that plays an important role in the discussion. It’s false, it’s mimicry, it’s inauthentic and ultimately an ersatz of “legitimate” and “authentic’ performances we expect from our clearly delineated cultural caste system.
Singers should sing, dancers dance, artists paint. Deviations are usually derided, even from people with more sophisticated views and knowledge of the arts. Many critics will put up with an artist doing anything, and even if they criticize the work, the fact that they were first established as a fine artist means their work will never come into question about being art. Good or bad, yes, but Jay Z was never given that much. He’s not first and foremost a fine artist so his work is not, nor will it ever, be considered art by the mainstream. Let alone be given an evaluation of merit.
It goes back to the inauthenticity of the lipsynch and the authenticity of the performance. Even if we don’t consider Jay Z an artist and this work is purely in existence because of celebrity clout, the context surrounding it makes it important. The artificiality makes for a real reading of merit.
Though I don’t think Jay Z hangs around with drag queens, it’s an interesting connection he’s made with them. In a way, they’re both constructions of fiction come to life [Hyperfeminity and Hypercelebrity], which also makes the lipsynch apropos.
Laurence: Of the many, many details of this performance that stood out to me (as much as a detail may stand out to a second-hand audience, an audience reading about an audience) is not the presence of Bill Powers (gallerist) or Cynthia Rowley (fashion designer) but their daughter. According to The New Yorker, when the lyrics of the song became too “raunchy” (too much), Rowley covered the daughter’s ears. In response to this presumably unwelcomed censorship, the daughter rolled her eyes, stuck out her tongue, exhibiting the expected response of an intelligent child – the rebellion that says I will, because I must, tolerate your actions, but understand that in the grand scheme of things they are useless.
I love this covering of the ears, because it censored nothing. In a looped track, there are no moments of lyrical improvisation. The sound is not what is center-staged: Jay Z is. The daughter doesn’t miss a word, because this exhibit is not an exhibition that revolves around words, but one of revolving worlds, of an unlikely solar system. In what other circumstance would the daughter of Bill Powers and Cynthia Rowley come within the physical/gravitational pull of Jay Z? As Alexander suggested, Jay Z is not staying within his culturally-given orbit. Or, rather, his orbit is wider than our culture chooses to acknowledge. After all, the daughter and Jay Z do cross paths. Jay Z’s hands eventually took the place of Rowley’s. Holding her ears while holding up his act, Jay Z reinforces that he is there to be seen, not to be heard. This performance is one of an artist in space: specifically a rapper in the space of an art gallery, the image of rap warping the space of the Pace. And this warping, this disruption of our space/our perceptions of our space is precisely what all of “good” art in a gallery will do. If we are not moved, if we are not disturbed, the art/artist has failed.
Jay Z skirts this issue of being a “good” artist or a “bad” artist by the very fact that he is not an artist “meant” to be seen in the space of the Pace gallery. Yet there he is, standing on the white stage/pedestal that signals “art.” In many ways, Jay Z is not art because he says he is; he is art because Pace said he is. He is the latest incarnation of Duchamp’s “Fountain.” He provokes the very same questions: what am I looking at and why am I looking at it?
Amanda: I agree that the lipsynching de-legitimates the work. This strikes me as vital to our discussion, given the fact that what seems to make the performance a “performance” rather than a video shoot is the fact that the performance went on for six hours. And yet, it seems to fall short of an exhaustion performance precisely because Jay Z is not, at the end, parched and breathless, having used his voice for so many hours. In fact, I would venture to say that many video shoots go on for longer than six hours, and require more physically of certain artists who repeatedly perform with their bodies.
So what is the act that is repeated to exhaustion? Is it the language of the work, repeated ad nauseum in order to, as Peter suggested, reveal itself? Or, is it the interface between white bourgeois culture and black pop/street culture? In an idealist sense, the interface feels almost like an attempt to break apart the artificiality of celebrity itself, or perhaps aesthetic division, in the same way Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” worked to undo boundaries between self and other.
Rowley’s ear-covering is telling in this sense: the act repositions her not as spectator, but rather one implicated in, and indeed resistant to, the challenge of the performance.
What happens when Abramovic shows up? How does this affect Jay Z's performance? What is gained or lost or changed by Abramovic’s presence?
Laurence: And if we are confused by what we are looking at or why we are looking, if all of Jay Z’s citations of Rothko, Bacon, and Warhol did not sell you on his art-world cred, Abramovic serves as a live/living citation, abbreviating the vetting process of the performance art world with a forehead press. “Marina’s blessing” (as W states) is, more specifically, a baptism.
Kate: Particularly since her “The Artist is Present” performance, but even in her earlier work like “Rythm O,” Marina Abramovic has been the artist who creates a space within herself – that is to say within the performance, for the audience to come in and become the work. Jay Z’s focus on the audience in this project, his desire to involve them in the piece, seems to owe a debt to Abramovic, so it makes sense he would want her there. But I also think this goes a step further. Since “The Artist is Present,” Abramovic has desired to connect with those in spheres beyond the art world (and she has, of course, received a lot of criticism for this). Similarly to how she set herself up as a receiver/receptacle of the audience’s unconscious rage/desire in “Rhythm O,” or how she set herself up as a receiver for their emotions in “The Artist is Present,” she set herself up as a passageway for celebrities from popular culture to enter the normally closed-off realm of the art world.
In other words, she is Jay Z’s window into a closed-off room (his cred, as Laurence points out). And she is risking herself in a very big way, here. The mean things written about her on the Internet, often from art world types, about how her work “used to be good” and how she is now just a celebrity whore, are all a result of the risks she’s taken recently, working with the likes of Jay Z and James Franco, and now Lady Gaga. But her ultimate goal is to bring the work to the people, and it always has been. In this way she is very similar to Gaga. She is rich and famous now, and she has everything to lose in terms of her reputation, yet she keeps risking because she wants performance art to be accessible to everyone.
This is what makes the performance so polarizing: we are still dealing with the art/pop binary. Many people in the art world still see popular art as a watered down version of high art or the avant-garde.
Alexander: I started watching bits of the performance after Marina had shown up, and all I could think was that he was referencing her 2010 performance “The Artist is Present.” It’s almost like a photographic negative of that – the audience moves rather than stay stationary, there’s a closeness and active interaction with the artist, music instead of silence, boundaries crossed (except, of course, for the dais.)
Is this project populist? Why or why not? And if so, in what ways is it populist?
Becca: “I’m not saying that popular taste is bad so that what’s left over from the bad taste is good: I’m saying that what’s left over is probably bad, but if you can take it and make it good or at least interesting, then you’re not wasting as much as you would otherwise.”
Where is Gaga in all of this?
Kate: Lady Gaga recently announced that she would collaborate with Jay Z on her forthcoming album/app ARTPOP, and with Marina Abramovic, Jeff Koons, and others. She was then spotted with cuddling Abramovic on a haystack at the Watermill benefit in New York. Abramovic was whispering in her ear. If that moment wasn’t ARTPOP, I don’t know what is.
I think the Jay Z performance at Pace would not have happened if Gaga hadn’t shifted the pop cultural landscape over the past several years. In her recent WWD interview she stated that “the point” of ARTPOP is about how “art and pop can have an exchange.” This art=pop exchange is precisely what Gaga has been doing ever since the beginning of her career – but it took her some time and cred to break into the art world. Only this past year did she finally perform at the MoMA in New York.
Gaga has shifted the art=pop landscape to such an effective degree that while the Jay Z incident seems surprising and provocative, it isn’t a shock that it happened, and it makes sense that Jay Z would want to follow in Gaga’s footsteps by reaching out to the art world. I really see this Jay Z event as ushering in a new era, the ARTPOP era, where that exchange between art and pop will happen more frequently. Jeffrey Deitch might have gotten ousted at MOCA in Los Angeles, but the era of ARTPOP isn’t something easily ousted.
Roland: I am deeply troubled by the flight into the art gallery that Jay Z and Gaga are enabling. There is something deeply troubling about pop-artists who seeks to validate themselves within the art world. This might be a promising route simply because there is a critical mass of work in these areas, which suggest things at large are changing. But I fear that what this act actually does is re-perform the idea that art is high brow and pop is low brow, and that art must validate pop rather than the inverse. I suppose frankly at the end of the day all I lament is that Gaga is not Kate Durbin, for example. I want an Ode to the Kardashians as a strategy of validation, not groveling to a MoMA curator to be recognized. Although, I will confess my own hypocrisy by saying that I am sure that as more emerges from the ARTPOP project I will be thrilled and continue to write happily on these products. I already have many ideas about Gaga’s Pierrot costume for “Applause.” But here is the crucial difference: by the time we have more material in circulation from ARTPOP we will have material in circulation (not material confined to an art gallery with limited access) therefore there will be material circulating within the domain of pop culture – whether that be a trashy dance tune or a collaboration with Gerhard Richter – what would matter then is that it is being tweeted, commented on, shared, liked, etc.