Kanye West & Jay Z Reach Out To The Art World

It was a rare sight. As if trying to impress and gain acceptance into her world, he sang to her: “I’m the modern day Pablo / Picasso, baby.” She complemented his energy with her presence; arms extended, palms wide open — feeling it. As a matter of fact, we do appear to have footage of the encounter:

Okay, so that’s not exactly footage of Jay-Z performing to Marina Abramović at New York's Pace Gallery on July 10th, but it’s certainly more fascinating and a hell lot less awkward than the actual footage: 

And Jay-Z is not the only one from the Hip-Hop world that has recently made headlines in the art world: Kanye West and Mos Def have also been poking their heads into the sphere. So I have to ask: what’s happening in Hip-Hop? Has high art become hip enough that pop culture superstars are hopping on its shoulders? Are these mere publicity gimmicks or are they offering a serious attempt to heighten the level of culture of a genre that has over the years, generally speaking, been dumbed down to beats and braggadocious rhymes about money, sex, and the spotlight? Let’s take a look.


Oh what a feeling, fuck it I want a billion / Jeff Koons balloons / I just wanna blow up / Condos in my condos I wanna row of / Christie’s with my missy / Live at the MoMA / Bacons and turkey bacons, smell the aroma,“ and the list of art-world references in Jay-Z’s upcoming single, Picasso Baby, goes on — which he repeatedly sang for six hours during the now infamous day when performance art died. But exaggerations aside, let’s be honest, it was a flop. At least as far as performance art is concerned.

And here lies the division. On the one side you have the disappointed crowd that yells murder!, nostalgic about what performance art once was or is supposed to be (a memorable, live, transformative, on the edge experience, for which Abramovic has reigned as queen). On the other side, you have sympathizers of Jay-Z who claim that this is an attempt to break new grounds for his fan-base and revealing a world that, due to the pre-requisites of hip-hop (bling, juice, and honey), they wouldn’t normally be exposed to. In pop culture, it's certainly easier to come across Jay-Z’s name and face than Andy Warhol’s—but it seems the tables are turning.

Warhol Baby

“What I want people to understand about sampling and producing is that it’s really similar to—and I know this is obvious what I’m going to say, because I’m a black guy so I’m gonna name the ‘most obvious artist in the world’—Warhol, but it’s very similar to the way Warhol would appropriate a Campbell’s Soup can is the way I would sonically appropriate a Ray Charles sample or a Michael Jackson sample.” That’s what Kanye West told an excited crowd at Art Basel in Switzerland last month, before presenting them with an impromptu listening party of Yeezus, his new album. Is it a coincidence that Jay-Z and Kanye both like to tap the art world on the shoulders riht before their albums drop? Unlikely. The pair have been close partners for years and both appear genuinely invested in expanding their cultural influence to other markets.

Alright, thanks for the interruption Derek. Yes, Mr. West is known for his preposterous remarks — that’s nothing new. Case in point would be his most recent NYTimes interview in which he claimed, “ I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period. By a long jump.” So it may come as no surprise that such an ambitious individual would want to claim and sustain a high level of respect – one that comes with the label of genius which, as history has shown us, is a badge that can be acquired from the art world (Picasso, baby).

What’s Cooler Than Being Cool?

Hi-hop has always been about being cool. The beats, the rhymes and the projected lifestyle of the players involved, all revolves around 'street cred.' Both Kanye and Jay-Z have undoubtedly earned their street credibility and they now seem to want to earn the respect of the white cube. But in their attempts to bring their craft into the realm of what is generally understood as being ‘high art,’ they're efforts appear more propagandistic and opportunistic – and heavily reliant on their celebrity status for content and attention.

Perhaps they should learn a thing or two about the power of art from Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos-Def). Earlier this month, The Guardian released a video in which the popular actor and hip-hop artist underwent the force-feeding procedures of hunger strikers from Guantamo Bay’s prison. Warning, the video is quite graphic: 

Without the glamor, the bling, or a crowd giving him accolades, Yasiin Bey stripped from the coolness of hip-hop to bring forth this powerful piece of activism and performance art – and he did it all without falling into gimmicky publicity stunts. Now he might not be claiming to be the modern day Pablo Picasso or the Steve Jobs of the Internet, but how's that for "keeping it real?"

Article by Jovanny Varela Ferreyra