A week before she dropped her Inez & Vinoodh-directed video for “Applause,” Lady Gaga declared a “pop emergency,” insisting she was compelled to drop the new ARTPOP single after an unfortunate Internet leak.
Soon, the song was everywhere, with the 2013 VMA performer tweeting in frantic all-caps about the jam. The tweet most telling of the current musical climate? “I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY BLEEPING OUT KOONS THEY THINK IM SAYING THE C WORD.” Yup, popular artists have officially become a part of the pop music world — in a way we haven’t seen perhaps since the Andy Warhol era — and radio, obviously, needs to catch up.
Art has been creeping into the music world with a vengeance in recent years — with Kanye saying that he found inspiration in architect/designer Le Corbusier, Jay Z dropping references to Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat in Watch The Throne, Thirty Seconds to Mars teaming up with formaldehyde fiend Damien Hirst for their Love, Lust, Faith and Dreams album cover, and a pop star like Miley Cyrus cribbing all manner of artists in her “We Can’t Stop” vid.
This recent pop music/ pop art marriage has never been so amorous, though, than in recent months. Not only did Jay-Z drop Magna Carta… Holy Grail — replete with references to a multitude of artists and art world mainstays — but he also sampled performance artist Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present” piece for his “Picasso Baby” video, singing the jam for six hours straight to a bevy of film, music and art celebs.
That video generated plenty of art and music world buzz, but it was Lady Gaga who really cemented this burgeoning union as a trend. First, by teaming up with apparent pop-star favorite Abramovic to create an out-there video featuring the pop star practicing the Abramović Method, a kind of promotional video for Abramovic’s Kickstarter campaign.
Then with the release of “Applause,” in which she states: “One second I’m a Koons fan/ Suddenly the Koons is me/ Pop culture was in art now/ Art in Pop culture in me.” Yes, Gaga is very clearly equating herself with the art world, an assertion we imagine will become even more insistent when her album ARTPOP comes out in November.
So why this recent collision between the art world and some of the biggest names in music right now? New York Times critic Jon Caramanica had some ideas where Hov is concerned.
Art As Status Symbol
“I think for Jay Z art is a real marker of class status,” Caramanica told MTV News. “He’s grown up, he’s wealthier, he’s taking interest in different things, so enjoying art and buying art and therefore rapping about art is sort of part of the logical progression of what he’s always been doing. He’s in a much wealthier class now, so his concerns are the concerns of wealthier people and art is one of those things.”
Brian Boucher, Art in America online editor, pretty much agreed, telling us, “You get rich, you demonstrate your refinement by buying Matisses in addition to Maybachs and mansions,” he said. “It’s an old story. The Fricks and the Mellons did the same in the early 20th century.”
Boucher also adds that this mounting interest in art germinating in the pop music world happens to coincide with what he calls “an insane climb” in the value of art on the market. For example, a recent sale of contemporary art by Christie’s scored the highest total in auction history at $495 million, with records set by one of Jay’s favorites, Basquiat.
“While I’m sure Jay Z and Gaga are genuinely interested in art, it’s probably not a coincidence that their interest comes at a time when artists are more and more famous and blue-chip,” Boucher said.
Art As Legitimacy
Caramanica, however, didn’t lump Gaga wholly in with Hov when speculating about the rise of art in the pop world. “This seems more like a cry to be taken seriously — quote, unquote ‘seriously,’ ” he said. “I think Gaga would argue that there has always been an element of art to her pop. … This is her way of saying, in a sense, ‘I am more serious than other pop artists. I am more serious than Katy Perry. I am more serious than Ke$ha.’ Those are her motivations.”
In some respects, Gaga seems to be getting her wish. The singer, who attended New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts, appears to have found in an ally in Abramovic, who called her an “inspiration” in an interview with MTV News. Gaga is also working with artists like Jeff Koons, who’s reportedly doing the album art for the LP.
A New Factory?
Regardless of motivation, what we’re seeing coalesce with regard to art and music is kind of a singular moment. As Caramanica said, “I don’t think that high art and pop music have meshed in that way [in a while]. … This level I don’t think has happened since the Warhol era.”
Reva Wolf, a professor of art history at the State University of New York at New Paltz and author of “Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960s,” agreed. “Art has been viewed as a status symbol for centuries,” she told us. “But perhaps we are at a moment of ‘even more so.’ ”
During the heyday of Andy Warhol’s career, the artist collaborated with all manner of musicians at his New York studio, the Factory, specifically the Velvet Underground, who Wolf said Warhol worked with on everything from stage visuals to album production. Warhol also worked with the likes of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie.
So we touched on why now, but we’ve yet to answer the question: “Why them?” Why do musicians like Jay and Gaga gravitate to artists like Marina Abramovic and Jeff Koons, specifically?
Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Koons scholar Lynne Warren thinks that musicians dig Koons because “he’s bright and shiny.” “I don’t mean that irreverently, because that is a huge part of his aesthetic and it always has been from the very beginning,” Warren said. Koons’ MO, according to Warren, is making things that are mundane new again, and why wouldn’t that be attractive to a pop artist, whose whole job is putting a new gloss on well-worn topics like love and loss?
When it comes to Abramovic, Boucher speculated it was “perhaps because she has attained such celebrity status in the wider world after people waited in line for hours to stare into her eyes at [Museum of Modern Art], which was, in turn, based on her celebrity in the art world.” He also mused that it’s easier for pop artists to crib a performance artists’ style than, say, a painter’s, at least where a music video is concerned.
But Is It A Bad Romance?
What will come of this newly formed union? Will art world regulars and music mainstays merge to create an explosion of light and sound? A Renaissance of ideas? Or is this recent partnership more an exercise in “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” promotion?
Is Mother Monster right in saying: “Pop culture was in art now/ Art in pop culture in me”? Well, the jury’s still out.
Some, like, Boucher, doubt the veracity of some of these unions.
“It’s a commercial,” he said of the Gaga/Abramovic collaboration. “There’s nothing wrong with it as such except how unintentionally funny it is. I don’t think you could come up with a better parody of a certain self-important, pompous strain in performance art.”
He also questioned Jay calling the “Picasso Baby” video performance art.
“In the intro, he says that performing artists and fine artists are like cousins. I can support that totally,” Boucher said. “And he suggests that people in the world he comes from might think art is too bourgeois for them, and that perhaps they could think differently. I love that. I’m all for inviting people to get interested in art who otherwise wouldn’t know that it was available to them.”
Still, Boucher said, that doesn’t make Hov a fine artist so much as a musician taking inspiration from another artist. The “Picasso Baby” idea isn’t new. The National even did a similar performance when they played their song “Sorrow” for six hours at MoMA PS1, before Hov, and after Abramovic.
“Does Jay Z really think he needs to be a fine artist?” Boucher said. “What’s wrong with being a ridiculously successful performing artist and businessman? There’s a lot of dilettantism in his seeming to think he’s making fine art here.”
Caramanica added that he wishes pop stars would dig a little deeper when looking for artists to collaborate with, arguing that Gaga and company are hanging their stars on “low-hanging fruit,” a.k.a. celebrity artists.
That’s an idea that Warren had some theories on, though. “There are levels of celebrity in all fields. Once you get to a certain level, there are a few people who understand what you’re going through. … The levels of celebrity do shape people.” In other words, perhaps the only people who can understand firmament-treading artists like Koons and Abramovic are their pop-world equivalents, making them natural partners in artistic crime.
All told, the debate rages on over whether pop music and the paint-splattered set will make anything of lasting artistic merit. But one thing’s for sure: It’s time for radio censors to stop confusing “c-nt” with “Koons.”