Jay Z's 'Picasso Baby' Is Challenging the Definition of High and Low Art


Hip-hop artist Jay-Z recently set the art world aflutter with a performance piece filmed at the Pace Gallery in New York, which later debuted on HBO. Taking inspiration from Marina Abramovic’s 2010 performance, "The Artist is Present," Jay-Z rapped his latest single, "Picasso Baby," for six hours straight in front of a small crowd that included Abramovic, herself. Their collaboration has "raised a few eyebrows" among critics and commentators, who question Jay-Z's validity as an artist. The ensuing backlash has offered a revealing look at preconceived notions about who can and can't call themselves an artist. I would encourage detractors to reconsider their position, given the valuable contributions an artist like Jay-Z can make to the contemporary art scene. 

The video begins with an interview where Jay-Z reflects on the relationship between the world of hip-hop and contemporary art, expressing his excitement to be “bringing these worlds back together." Throughout the video, he symbolically rejects traditional ideas that separate artists and audiences. He invites his viewers on stage, as he sits and watches. Later, he signals to the audience, instructing them to step over the small rope dividers separating them from him, and a crowd gathers around him.

The video presents a diversity that contemporary art sorely lacks. It includes dance-hall artist Magazeen, spoken-word poet Michelle Broner, and hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy, in addition to requisite, big-name contemporary artists like George Condo. The incessantly self-referential nature of contemporary art emerges throughout; the last minute-and-a-half of the video is devoted to cataloging various appearances by other artists. Within the body of his song, Jay-Z name drops artists as easily as he references Lamborghinis and champagne, culminating into a “Leonardo Da Vinci flow” that is hard to resist.

Jay-Z’s decision to break through this divide between contemporary art and hip-hop has drawn the attention of a confused public, leaving some individuals perplexed by the suggestion that rap music and contemporary art have anything to do with each other. This bewilderment seems to stem from the assumption that the world of “high” art — the type of art normally found in galleries in Manhattan — is incompatible with the world of “low” art, like popular music in general, and, specifically, hip-hop.

The art community seems unwilling to fully articulate what makes them feel uncomfortable with this relationship. However, the underlying hesitation and mistrust seems to be pervasive. The LA Times asked, "Was it really a performance-art event, or just a glorified plug for his new album?" Vibe magazine showcased artist Alex Reyes' comments regarding Jay-Z's art-world comparisons: "We get it, you can wipe your ass with hundred dollar bills, but sorry Jay, you're neither 'the new Jean-Michel' or 'the modern day Pablo Picasso.'" Others reluctantly admitted to the merits of Jay's endeavour, with Blouin Art Info conceding that the event was "not as horrific as it could be, actually," while at the same time claiming that, "this clip is out to strip-mine the art world for cachet." Hyperallergic asked if Jay-Z's performance marked, "the day performance art died?"

Clearly, neither Abramovic nor Jay-Z subscribes to such thinking — nor has the wider world of art theory, since at least the writings of Georg Lukács and Clement Greenburg during the Modernist era. Our discomfort with this collaboration has deeper roots. Taste dictates that the purveyors of art, such as Abramovic and her ilk, definitively stand apart from the rest of the world. Jay-Z, one of the most critically acclaimed rappers of all time, who has garnered dozens of awards (including 17 Grammys), is therefore excluded, and his legitimacy as a “serious” artist is constantly questioned.

Yes, Jay-Z participates in mainstream culture. His work is sold through Billboard Top 40 hits, and not through Sotheby’s auctions. He rarely uses words like “apotheosis” in the titles of his pieces, and his fans tend to be younger than the average MoMA member. What the art world's dualistic thinking seems to overlook, however, is that Jay-Z does not simply participate in mainstream culture, but is a creator of it. His notoriety has the power to influence the course of popular culture. His endorsement of contemporary art is not only a cultural statement against the current white, middle class system, but an invaluable public relations campaign that may make going to art galleries cool again. In choosing to participate in the art world, regardless of the barriers of prescribed taste and class, Jay-Z is bringing contemporary art to an incredibly wide and culturally disenfranchised fan base that will, no doubt, be fervently Googling his many references to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons.

The concept of taste is an important social indicator in our capitalist system. The art, music, fashion, and lifestyles we choose for ourselves (our "cultural capital") indicate our position in a social hierarchy. Insisting on a divide between popular and fine art reinforces class barriers, and suggests that the rich create and institutionalize art and culture, while the poor are merely consumers of it. The roots of contemporary art are a part of a tradition that challenged these class divisions, and played with the dissonances created between ideas of sophistication and vulgarity.

The public's perception of Jay-Z as a lowbrow rookie is laced with implications regarding race and class. It offers a glimpse at the obstacles black artists from impoverished upbringings confront when attempting to gain credibility in the art world. Breaking through a racialized, classist understanding of the distinction between "high" and "low" art is no small feat when your very identity has been culturally marginalized. Even Jay-Z's critics, like Ben Davis, are willing to admit that, "if this film does one positive thing, it might be to serve as a platform to promote artists of color." 

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes about how the distinctions of taste in our “social mythology” always refer back to, “the most fundamental oppositions within the social order, the opposition between the dominant and the dominated.” Even Jay-Z's enormous popular success in the world of music cannot undo the impact of his social and economic background. By bringing the rap prowess developed in his early years in Brooklyn to an art gallery space in Chelsea, Jay-Z transgressed the traditional boundaries established by the tyranny of taste.  

Though both discuss issues of love, power, life, and death, and though both deal in multimillion dollar contracts, the worlds of contemporary art and hip-hop remain separated by an unspoken distinction. The differences between performance artists and performing artists seem too great for many viewers to get past. Unfortunately, it will require more than a change of venue to overcome that.