Within hours of Jay-Z’s landmark six hour performance at the Pace Gallery the cries of fury were heard from certain corners. Jay-Z had performed for six hours in what has been describe as an installation art piece, as well as the filming of a docu-music video. People called it “the death of performance art” and lamented that the grandmother of performance art, the formidable Marina Abramovic would associate herself with something so “safe” and “commercial.” Performance art - particularly in Abramovic’s oeuvre, has been famously dangerous, provocative, and outside the mainstream. These criticisms miss the multifaceted nuances of Jay-Z’s piece, and the various points he is making within it.
The concept of this newest Jay-Z project was inspired by Marina Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective “The Artist is Present.” While the collaboration, and the respect for Abramovic’s work,may seem out of left field, upon further inspection both have faced similar struggles. Abramovic was raised in the Socialist Republic of Serbia, and had a childhood filled with poverty, repression, and hardship. She has said that the more miserable a childhood one has, the better an artist they will become. Her art has been filled with references to her childhood in communism; such as carving a star into her navel as a self described anti-communist act. Jay-Z’s often miserable childhood has long been a theme in his work. Jay- Z’s childhood was marked by poverty, the crack epidemic, racism, and violence. He has said of crack’s arrival, “teenagers wore automatic weapons like they were sneakers. Broad-daylight shoot-outs had our grandmothers afraid to leave the house.” Jay-Z has undeniably broken barriers, and challenged our ideas of what an artist can be, how much control they can have over their own destiny (and their own finances) and how much power one can hold as an artist, a businessman, and an African American who will move into the penthouse building with spectacular views. While Marina Abramovic has spent her career asking how far performance art can go, how dangerous can it be, and how far her own physical body can go, Jay-Z has pushed at our notions of how far an African American artist can go, what they can be, and where they belong. While Jay-Z is not the first African American artist to ask these questions, or to show at Pace, his partnership with Abramovic is intriguing. Both of these artists are rule breakers, fighting with societies and physical bodies that were supposed to hold great limitations for them. Nothing about either of these artists is “safe,” even if Jay-Z practices radical self love over self flagellation.
One point of the piece critics have failed to understand is that much of Jay-Z’s work over the past several years has been making the case that hip hop deserves to be treated with the kind of critical analysis and respect that high brow performance art like Abramovic’s work is. In Jay-Z’s memoir Decoded he makes the case that any great MC’s work is poetry, and deserves to be treated as such, and not disregarded with a casual listen. “Since rap is poetry, and a good MC is a good poet, you can't just half-listen to a song once and think you've got it,” writes Jay-Z.
Jay-Z takes this misunderstanding of hip hop even further, “Being misunderstood is a badge of honour in rap. Growing up as a black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood, followed around stores, looked at funny, accused of crimes you didn't commit – until you realise, one day, it's not about you. It's about perceptions people had long before you even walked onto the scene.” Jay-Z not only calls out critics who dismiss hip hop’s cultural relevance, but he makes it clear that he feels this phenomenon is happening because of hip hop’s roots in low income African American communities.
By placing himself on this stage with Abramovic, Jay demands that you give his work the same level of analysis as you would hers. He is asking, if this woman can cut herself, whip herself and allow an audience member to put a gun to her head and have you accept it as art worthy of critical analysis, then why can’t his words be worthy of the same reverence and analysis, even if he uses profanity, or discuss his role in the drug trade?
Jay-Z has many times expressed the feeling that he is not wanted or welcomed in the economic arena he has entered by achivement. Two examples of this come in "Diamond’s Are Forever" (“It’s true/how society don’t want me to move/into the penthouse building with spectacular views/they’re like he’s a menace/he could never be a tenant) and "Somewhere In America" (“New Money/They looking down on me/Blue bloods they are trying to clown on me"). In appearing on stage with Abramovic, Jay-Z declares that he belong here. He belongs here as a legitimate artist, whose work is deserving of serious consideration and criticism, and he belongs here as an African American man among some of Manhattan’s most elite, in a setting where I can both make art and afford to buy it. “I just want a Picasso baby, in my casa, no my castle.”
The notion that Jay-Z performing with Marina Abramovic is merely a trite reference to buying as much as art as possible does a great disservice to both of these artists. While Jay-Z’’s references to spending enormous amounts of money on high art are grandiose, they can also be seen as deeply sarcastic send ups of our notions of him (“I be going ape at the auction/oh what feeling/ F*** it I want a billion”). While dissecting consumer images in Jay-Z’s work is complex and worthy of a separate piece, it’s worth noting some of his musings on consumerism, "In America — and in hip hop — success is supposed to be about accumulation and consumption. But even the finest meal ends up S***..” Meanwhile Abramovic, who just sold her Soho loft for over $3 million, isn’t exactly buying into the notion of living as a starving artist either. How about Damien Hirst’s “For the love of God?” It’s a skull set of over 8,000 diamonds. Art and consumerism are closely tied, the art world is full of wealth, elitism, and insularity. As artist Jayson Musson, who was in attendance, states,”Are you worried that Performance Art Itself is Doomed because someone like Jay-Z, a collector and ‘outsider,’ is able to employ some of the motifs of performance art in the production of a music video? Well, that smacks of the insular elitism that art is very much synonymous with.” In the end, staking a claim to this insular elite world is exactly what Jay-Z intended. He’s “A modern day Pablo Picasso, baby.”
As for Abramovic, the grandmother of performance art, she is a fan. She has been quoted saying, “I love his music, because it’s social issues, it’s political, and really goes to everybody’s heart. It’s so good. It’s like a volcano.” The debate on whether hip hop is “serious” art is over. Marina Abramovic and Jay-Z just ended it.