Skip to content

The Problematic Charity of Jay Z’s Picasso Baby

Over the weekend I watch the extended music-video-quasi-art-thing Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film. I would argue it’s one of those three nouns: a performance. And while I think Jay Z has been making  strong efforts at pushing himself and the hip-hop genre into loftier domains, I think Picasso Baby is representative of what’s wrong with his strategy.

The daylong project is essentially replicating Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present” installation but with, like, music and dancing and hoots and hollers. However, the attempt feels more like a bastadization of Abramovic’s work than a transformation.

Abramovic’s work (watch this for a short primer) presented a moment of interaction as a gift and built upon it. (And she made a lot of people cry in doing so.) Jay Z? Not so much. Instead of Picasso Baby being about individuals getting these one-on-one moments of reflection with an artist, the film represents the moment as something closer to worship. Abramovic’s work was (to me) about that interaction between two people. A mutual exchange that felt like it changed both participants. Jay Z on the other hand simply reinforces hip-hop swagger in a new space–a whiter space (both in terms of color aesthetic and in terms of racial representation).

This is media spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Aside from Jay and a bunch of hipster-approved celebrities, the most apparent things in the film are the presence of cameras and the absolutely bonkers responses from fans.

How do we read this?

The film highlights two young men of color yelling, “Brooklyn’s in the house.” Does this give street cred for an artist in an otherwise exclusionary space from his past audience? Is it, instead an invitation into art spaces urban youth may not see as welcoming? Or is Jay Z leaving behind this audience? The design aesthetics of Magna Carta Holy Grail and Watch the Throne were an artsy move that could, for instance, be interpreted as a step toward even bigger hip-hop bravado.

At one point in the film a fan looks at the camera, addressing Jay Z and says, “You make yourself art. That’s amazing.”

But this is the distant art of an artist out of touch.

Among the things Jay has garnered headlines for over the past months–the sad breakup with his hyphen, the debut of his album art next to the actual Magna Carta–there was a problematic statement he made: responding to a quote from Harry Belafonte about social responsibility, Jay Z said, “my presence is charity. Just who I am.”

So there’s that.

And Picasso Baby reinforces this dangerous belief in Jay’s charity. It’s a dangerous pathway for young people to encounter in an otherwise looser culture of fandom today. While I see Jay Z trying to build on the momentum and hype of a new album, I don’t think this is the approach that creates healthy networks amongst fans. It only offers a singular pathway of idol-worship.

[Note: There is a rant to be made – and likely made ad nauseum elsewhere on the internets – about Kanye and Jay and the two roads diverging on a diamond-studded path. I would say Kanye is just as confounding in his Yeezus-like direction. He isolates audiences across the board and more directly challenges the direction a continually maturing genre is headed. I would also add that the lead up to Yeezus was a masterful example of transmedia marketing in 2013 that educators could directly crib within the classroom. That’s another post for another day.]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *