It was a big week for art history with the surprise release of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s "Apeshit"-- a song and accompanying video that set the Louvre Museum centre stage. Within days of the video's release, my social media feeds were filled with commentary and discussion. I was immediately struck by Beyoncé's decision to feature so many Jacques Louis David paintings-- works of art tied to the French Revolution and Napoleonic era that I spend countless classes covering in both survey and upper level seminar art history courses. The large dance number in front of Coronation of Napoleon (1807) was especially brilliant in terms of meaning-making and rethinking the role of women in canonical painting. David had reimagined the piece with Napoleon's wife, Josephine, being crowned by him as the focus of the composition. This act, at the central point of the painting where Beyoncé herself is positioned, is witnessed by all of the surrounding figures (all privileged white upper class people). The "lie" of the painting, however, is that the coronation of Napoleon was illegitimate. He had seized power from the church to make himself king (thereby coronating himself), stealing power without authority. This extends to the representation shown in the painting-- Josephine's sisters, for example, did not attend the event, but David put them in there anyways much to the chagrin of Jospehine and her family ("fake news" early 19th century style). Later, Josephine would divorce Napoleon and expose his deception. In this way, we also see Beyonce and her dancers stealing back meaning and authority for this work. She is the rightful queen, and the fact of this painting's lie is once again exposed.
Another compelling David work featured in the video is the of portrait of Madame Récamier from 1800. The reclining aristocratic French woman is juxtaposed with two black dancers posing as maid servants just off frame-- a reminder of the invisible labour and lack of representation for the majority of people (across race and class) who existed within this society, and have in art's long history been denied serious attention. Later in the video, Jay Z will rap in front of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), a strategic reference to the colonialism and slavery that is for the first time represented on a monumental scale in this painting, and for that same privileged audience who refused to "see" this group only a decade earlier. Here, the direct correlation to hip-hop music, as a subculture and artistic revolution rooted in street and minority references is profound. I could go on and on.... In fact, so much good criticism and reflections was already written by mid-week, I did not feel compelled to add much more. This alone is a wonderful sign of how impactful the video was and is-- that, and the successful way Beyoncé and Jay-Z bridge notions of "high" and "low" art. Yes, it is a music video, and yes, there are much more urgent issues to address for more serious artists, but it is important to remember that popular visual culture, the "kitsch" that the Nazis, for example, at once despised and feared so much, is precisely the entry point for subversive content into the mainstream. Seeing black bodies essentially pulling off a carefully choreographed "heist" of the Louvre's elitist and limited gaze is critical and significant. There will be much discomfort in these images, and that is the point. All praise Queen B. Enjoy the links and have a great week!
- The Simple Art Historian’s Guide to Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s ‘Apeshit’ Video
- Is Art School Only For the Young?
- 20 Curators Taking a Cutting-Edge Approach to Art History
- A Very Queer Street Art Movement Is Spreading Across the US
- This Artist Foresaw Our Digital Future in a Meadow of Dandelions
- Jean-Michel Basquiat Is Still an Enigma
- Will the Retail Apocalypse Be Good for the Arts?
- Artist collective tackles 'disappearing kids' under US immigration policy
- Giacometti at the Guggenheim Museum (VIDEO)
- Meet the Sobey 2018 artist nominee whose neon Cree signs are getting glowing reviews (PODCAST)