Reflecting on Jay Z and the "Picasso Baby" Shoot at Pace Gallery

Matthew Israel
Jul 12, 2013 5:36PM

Yes, there are probably better rap songs that have been written about art.

Yes, the scene and the song are/were more about bling, blowing money as spectacle, and art as a status symbol than the subject of art appreciation or the insightful understanding of art, artists and the art world.

Yes, Jay Z is replacing cars with canvases.

Yes, people were totally starstruck and falling over themselves.

Yes, Marina Abramovic capitalized on her moment in the spotlight.

Yes, Jay Z did not do an endurance performance piece (as was promised).


Shouldn't we embrace the fact that a major rap star performed in a Chelsea gallery and focused his attention on the art world?

Isn't it better that Jay Z is rapping about artists and artworks than guns, dealing drugs or mistreating women? 

Can't we appreciate someone who can work a crowd like that for six hours and come off to so many people as so charming and endearing? 

Also, are there different rules for Jay Z boasting about his art than for other collectors?

Shouldn't there be more events like these, i.e., provocative performances that prompt strong reactions from the art-going public, and which make people speak out and "come clean" regarding their thoughts about the boundary between high and low—or the subtle line(s) between "keeping it real" and "selling out." 

And how great is it that many people around the world with little exposure to art might hear about Francis Bacon or Jeff Koons via this song. The song might even prompt people to look these artists up on the Internet to see what they're all about. (Via the videos and tweets and instagrams online right now, people might learn about Lawrence Weiner, Lorna Simpson, RoseLee Goldberg and Mickalene Thomas too.) In so doing, they could be challenged by what they might see; something like this might open up their world. This is not something rap has really done before. (For one, as a kid who only listened to rap from ages 10-16, the things I heard about and looked up were types of guns, intersections in Brooklyn and South Central, and names of drugs—not artists. I'd say this is a positive/interesting turn of events.) 

As testament to the eye-opening ability of Jay Z's song, one respondent to Jerry Saltz's article on the event explained that, while last week, they "literally couldn't bribe a single friend to go check out" a free art museum, one of my friends just asked me who Picasso is. Because of this specific song." They continued, "This 'circus' may be below your rarefied taste, but it just opened a whole new world to more than one of my real life, living, breathing…friends."

And in the same vein, another commenter explained...

"Much as you despise it, Jay dropping these references will inspire some of our less advantaged youth to aspire to collect art, as opposed to gaudy jewelry. Or a Maybach."

The exposure someone like Jay Z provides is pretty awe-inspiring in today's ever-connected world. If you're interested in spreading access to all of the amazing and great and odd aspects of art, then yesterday's event can be seen as a positive mass-market moment.

Matthew Israel