What Is Art 3

Guess what. I have some ideas about Jay-Z rapping in the gallery, and I decided to blog about it.

First of all, the question that lots of people raised about this event—“is it art?”—seems irrelevant. Jay-Z is making a music video. He’s making entertainment. Yes, he spent six hours lip syncing his rap, but is it more of a “durational performance” than any Hollywood shoot? Making videos for the entertainment industry is always grueling work; setting this shoot up as a six-hour marathon, with extras and guest stars lined up to take turns in front of the camera, was a good way to get the most people involved while expending the least possible effort. The point of setting the video in a gallery was not to present it as a performance but because art is a theme of the song, “Picasso Baby”: “I just want a Picasso, in my casa/ No, my castle … I wanna Rothko, no I wanna brothel, No I want a wife that fuck me like a prostitute.” This is a standard pop-music wish-fantasy about having the immense wealth that allows private access to rare cultural artifacts among many other luxury items; the desire for ownership and the fact of ownership equal sexual desire and sexual satisfaction, etc.

So the people who counted Jay-Z among Tilda Swinton, Lady Gaga, and James Franco as another celebrity who claims status as an artist asks for respect as such from the art world are, I think, mistaken; I doubt that this was Jay-Z’s wish. But I’m interested in the reactions from these self-appointed gatekeepers. It expresses a vision of the art world as professionalized and quasi-corporate, a regulated environment where everyone occupies a well-defined position, where the bosses can decide who gets to do what, and where, and when. People get mad about celebrities encroaching on the art world–and yet they want the art world to be as rigid as the entertainment industry. Where were they when Kenneth Goldsmith invited poets to give readings alongside artworks at the Museum of Modern Art? Were they mad that the last Whitney Biennial devoted nearly an entire floor to choreographer Sarah Michelson? Poets and choreographers aren’t artists, in the professionalized art-world sense of a person who has exhibited in galleries and museums–the credentials one needs to get an artist’s membership card from a museum. But the art world thrives on ignoring these disciplinary boundaries, because art in the broader, anthropological sense (which includes poetry and choreography and other creative pursuits) is about identifying boundaries and ignoring them (cf. What Is Art 1).

But some boundaries are more interesting than others.

There was something art-like about Jay-Z’s appearance at Pace, and the images of it that circulated, and the opinions they generated. People felt invited to treat the event like art, and they could read it as such because of the ambiguities that the situation presented: art can be a “durational performance,” i.e. a unique and ephemeral experience, or it can be a set of objects to be desired and acquired; charisma can manifest itself in the smoothness of pop celebrity, or in the gravitas possessed by Marina Abramovic and Lawrence Weiner. If you approach the “Picasso Baby” shoot as art, then it is art about the power structures of the art world and the status of the art object–issues that William Powhida and Jayson Musson raise in their comics and comedy routines, respectively, although they address them from the position of outsiders, which makes it charming and sympathetic to art-world kids who identify with them. But Jay-Z and Pace and the other participants (if they can all be called the artists in this situation) address it as insiders, which makes it off-putting, and I think that’s largely what generated the negative feeling that launched a thousand Facebook posts.

I’m going to quote myself. This is from a review of Gagosian Gallery’s 24th St. location that I posted to Yelp, about the Richard Phillips show that was there in the fall of 2012 and featured the painted and recorded images of Sasha Grey and Lindsay Lohan: “At the end of the video the titles said ‘Lindsay Lohan [or Sasha Grey, in the Sasha Grey video],’ then ‘Gagosian Gallery,’ then ‘Richard Phillips.’ Maybe I got the order wrong but it was those three, fading from one to the next. So it was like a commercial but you couldn’t tell what the commercial was for. That’s what made it art, if not very good art.”

Likewise, anything that has a lot of people asking “is it art?” probably is art, or it could be art. But it’s not necessarily good art.

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