The Genius of Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Louvre

 A detail from The Carters'  Apeshit  music video directed by Ricky Saiz, 2018

A detail from The Carters' Apeshit music video directed by Ricky Saiz, 2018

On Saturday, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a surprise new album, Everything is Love, on Tidal the streaming service they co-own. The first music video for the album accompanies the single Apeshit and was released under the duo's co-moniker The Carters. The video was filmed entirely at the Louvre and was directed by Ricky Saiz, who previously collaborated with Beyoncé on the video for her track Yoncé. The new video, shared with unwitting fans via Instagram on Saturday afternoon, has over seven million views as of this writing (a little more than 24 hours after release). It features Beyoncé and Jay-Z in the empty Louvre Museum; perhaps the greatest bastion of so-called "high culture", and also the center of the predominantly white and male tradition of Western Art. The Apeshit video is stunningly styled, choreographed, and filmed. And it is also highly conceptual. It takes part in an ongoing tradition of celebrities engaging with high art, it places the uniquely American art form of rap on the same level with European masterpieces, and it corrects the lack of diversity that is often taken for granted in cultural institutions, not only in the Old World, but in the New as well.

The video opens with a cinematic shot of a black figure with angel wings standing guard outside the Louvre by night; bells chiming in the distance. It then transitions inside the museum with lavishly gilt interiors appropriate to a former palace and details of fine European paintings. In the next scene Beyoncé and Jay-Z are pictured dramatically standing alongside La Jaconde, The Mona Lisa. Jay-Z wears a pale teal suit with a gold medallion, Beyoncé is in a pink silk smoking jacket, richly accessorized with diamonds. They are presented one-to-one with the best known portrait in Western Art, equaling it in regality. The scene is also a reference to their viral photo shoot at the Museum in 2014, in which they also took a photo alongside Da Vinci's most famous painting. In both scenes they are compared directly to their painted co-star. They, like she, stare out at the viewer. They too, are iconic. And The Carters, like The Mona Lisa, are celebrities with far reaching influence.

 George Clooney, a la Yayoi Kusama,  W Magazine , 2013

George Clooney, a la Yayoi Kusama, W Magazine, 2013

Other celebrities, too, have engaged with the art world. The painter Will Cotton was the artistic director for Katy Perry's California Gurls music video in 2010. George Clooney was styled by the Japanese conceptual artist Yayoi Kusama for a W Magazine spread in 2013. John Currin was commissioned to paint a portrait of Jennifer Lawrence for the cover of Vogue's 125th Anniversary Issue in 2017. Louis Vuitton created a line of bags designed with Jeff Koons that feature paintings by Rubens, Monet, and others. The list goes on. Celebrities and luxury brands regularly utilize blue chip artists in their own projects both to establish their cultural bona fides and also to raise the cachet of their own brands. In the case of The Carters, the hallowed halls of the Louvre and the paintings within it become not a sales pitch, but rather a backdrop for an effective performance about culture and race that undermines traditional assumptions about art, the vagueries of high versus low culture, and the institutions that broker mass interpretations of these topics.

Whereas the media of the artworks presented in the video are sculptures and oils, the media of the performers are hip-hop and dance. The uniqueness of hip-hop, rap, and their associated dance styles can be traced back to their foundations in The Bronx of the 1970's, and other mostly African-American enclaves in cities throughout the United States. The Carters' merging of this American musical tradition with the Parisian art establishment is reminiscent in so many ways of Jazz Age ex-patriotism, when American-American Jazz singer, dancer, and performer Josephine Baker rose to spectacular popularity in the Paris of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. Beyoncé and Jay-Z are interested in the unique history of African-American performers in France, and engage with that story in the video. Like Baker, their cultural prominence abroad has been achieved not through the avenues of the establishment but through a mass popularity built on the currency of their own work. Lyrics in Apeshit directly reference their popularity and success:

I can't believe we made it (this is what we made, made)
This is what we're thankful for (this is what we thank, thank)
I can't believe we made it (this a different angle)
Have you ever seen the crowd goin' apeshit? Rah!

This popularity comes from a broad and diverse fan-base, which has already raised ecstatic support for their new album and the Apeshit video. Throughout the already viral video, the iconic American music duo is presented as equal to not only The Mona Lisa, but also to the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and Egyptian Pharonic sculpture. Beyoncé and Jay-Z perform as art historical subjects with the same gravitas afforded to the works of art they reference. Dancers perform too, alongside Beyoncé in front of works from the academic canon of art history, including Jacques Louis David's The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine, while Jay-Z raps in front of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa. The mostly white faces of art history are contrasted with contemporary African-American artists. Rigid paintings by dead painters are challenged and redefined by rap and the ecstatic movement of individuals who are very much alive. And importantly, this redefinition is undertaken utilizing African-American music and choreography, with a cast made up of people of color. People who have been mostly left out of institutions like the Louvre, as evidenced by the artworks scanned in the video, claim their rightful place in the cultural pantheon.

 Beyoncé (center) accompanied by dancers, performs in front of Jacques-Louis David's monumental painting  The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine , 1807

Beyoncé (center) accompanied by dancers, performs in front of Jacques-Louis David's monumental painting The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine, 1807

Through performance in the Louvre and amongst works deemed "important" by the art establishment The Carters remind the viewer of their own cultural import, which comes not institutionally but communally. Beyoncé and Jay-Z are clearly and unarguably cultural leaders in their own right, and have been for some time. They have millions of followers around the world and, in a reference to the current political climate, they note that they fill stadiums as successfully as the NFL. So the Apeshit video is more of a statement of fact than anything else. These artists are as recognizable and as recognized as The Mona Lisa. They are as successful and as respected in music as painters like David or Da Vinci have been in the visual arts. The video shows though that The Carters share in the kind of creative "genius" formerly associated with white, male, European artists. Although it was produced commercially to promote their music, and does not fit the mold that has been set out for a work of high art, The Carters' Apeshit tells a compelling story and helps to reframe popular visions of culture and cultural institutions.

The video concludes with Beyoncé and Jay-Z in front of The Mona Lisa again. The two, who are previously pictured in the same spot facing the audience, slowly turn to regard each other and then the turn away from the audience to look at famous painting. The point is clear: two uniquely American celebrities considering an iconically European celebrity and thinking about her and their roles in the history of visual culture. In the video, audiences are enjoined not only to reflect on the status of great art or great celebrities within the mass culture, but to reconsider who is deserving of their status and who might have been left out of the popular story and history of art.