Art Goes APES**T

Does hip hop really belong in the Louvre? Lana Crowe explains why The Carters’ ‘APES**T’ is more than a music video. 

“I can’t believe we made it.” These lyrics reverberate around one of the world’s most revered art galleries in the new artistic project from The Carters (that is, musical power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z). The new video for ‘APES**T’ is a bold statement that not only declares their art to be up there with history’s greatest, but calls for our viewing of authoritative artworks to be redefined. And here’s why I love it.

More than a music video

We are currently experiencing a music video renaissance, with Beyoncé at front and centre. The release of her visual concept album Lemonade in 2016 was a turning point in the artistic expectations of music videos. Though this isn’t the first wave – undoubtedly, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’blurred the line between music video and short film in 1983 – the music video culture of the 1990s prioritised quick shots and sound bites. This year has already seen a numer of both politically and visually thought-provoking music videos, such as Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ and Janelle Monae’s ‘PYNK’, and I can’t wait to see where this trend takes us next. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy videos that look like they were made with MS Paint as much as the next person.

Beauty and power

Equating art and the ideal female is an old trick: from Victorian poetry to Hollywood movies, confining women to the status of sculptures and paintings is an easy metaphor. Where Audrey Hepburn mimics the Nike of Samothrace in the musical Funny Face (1957) – a beautiful clothes-horse for her eye-catching gown – Beyoncé rejects a moment of elegance in favour of an equally as powerful but far more thought-provoking visual. The so-called male gaze – the misguided depiction of women by men – does not dominate this video, unlike the majority of the works in the gallery. The dancer’s bodies are active and autonomous, and we’re encouraged to view the paintings through the same lens with which we watch the video.

It even references interwar Russian film

The video literally situates itself amongst iconic works of painting and sculpture; visually, it also creates a dialogue with iconic film and photography. The dancers strewn over the stairs in front of the Nike of Samothrace recall the famous Odessa Steps scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). The two-dimensional effect of the geometric lines created by the camera angle also evokes Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photography of The Stairs, itself referencing Eisenstein. If you think that comparing 21st-century musical royalty and interwar Russian art might is a bit of a push, the second unit director Jenn Nkiru, in an interview with the BFC, talked of how discovering “African film, Italian film, Korean film, French film, Cuban film, early Soviet film” during her MFA “completely blew my whole world open and took my creative curiosity to new heights”.

It reminded me of Toni Morrison

The most prominent message of the video concerns the exclusion of people of colour from canonical artistic spaces. The self-confidence of the political message brought to mind Toni Morrison’s über-quotable thoughts that “all good art is political”. The Nobel Prize-winning author dismissed “‘art-for-art’s-sake” as, and I quote, “BS”:

My point is that is has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time. I’m not interested in art that is not in the world. And it’s not just the narrative, it’s not just the story; it’s the language and the structure and what’s going on behind it.

Perhaps this is what that The Carters, and director Ricky Saiz, are trying to establish in this video: their presence reasserts the silenced context that has long allowed European art to be for its own sake, a liberty not enjoyed by those excluded from the cannon. It’s been shouted time and time again, but is, perhaps, more important now than ever. 

Art for all

The dismissal of  Bey and Jay on the basis that their use of the Louvre is a trite and exploitative abuse of artistic culture is, frankly, unoriginal. In another famous film scene set in the Louvre, from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part, the main characters run through the galleries in an attempt to beat the American record of ‘doing’ the gargantuan museum in nine minutes, forty-five seconds.

Personally, I’m a keen advocate of using music as a way of making art galleries more accessible to people who mistakenly believe their lack of expertise stops them from appreciating the art. I have no doubt that this video will inspire flocks of fans to swarm from the Beyhive to the Louvre to recreate the moves of their idols. As well as reinforcing the growing place of art in the ‘experience economy’, artistic statements like these do make art accessible in a more indirect way. There’s something powerful in standing in the shoes of people you admire, in seeing what they saw and being inspired by what inspired them. Galleries are artistically fertile and full of beautiful treasures, and they have too long been a bastion of an alienable ‘high culture’. People feel excluded from places where they don’t see themselves represented: it might be a cliche of the woke, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

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