Pop music has long cherished collisions with the visual arts. Andy Warhol’s peelable banana cover for the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut disk and his design combining a photograph of a pair of jeans with a real metal zipper for the Rolling Stones’ 1971 Sticky Fingers album both wittily played with the horndog ethos of rock ’n’ roll. In 1976, five years before the debut of MTV (and almost seven years before Michael Jackson became the first African American artist featured on the channel), David Bowie turned to a surrealist classic in lieu of a warm-up band for his Station to Station tour. Thin White Duke fans, eager for the rapturous feedback of the album’s title track to wash over them, were nonplussed when the 1929 black-and-white film Un Chien Andalou began to play. Doubtless many were only dimly aware of Salvador Dalí as a comic stereotype of the mad artist, and even fewer knew of Luis Buñuel’s artistic provocations. But when the film’s infamous eye-slashing scene lit up the various arenas on the tour schedule, groans, screams, and knowing cheers from art students in the audience mixed with the pot smoke.
In their new video, “Apeshit,” Beyoncé and Jay-Z shock in more subtle ways, not least by pulling off the shoot of their dynamic and complex music video at Paris’s Louvre Museum in total secrecy. The video opens on a young man in dreads, sneakers, and ripped jeans wearing angel wings; sirens wail in the distance and bells toll forlornly, an elegiac soundscape in a city that has seen too much terror in recent years.
But the Louvre is one of civilization’s bastions against the world’s latest wave of nihilism, and music’s supreme power couple make the most of it. Dancers do crunches on a broad staircase, and when they later gyrate in formation in front of Jacques-Louis David’s immense 1807 canvas commemorating the coronation of Napoleon, their abs are as prominent as those on the Greco-Roman statues. Throughout the video, the flesh of the performers echoes the realistic figurative representations, whether in paint or stone. The emperor himself said of David’s 20-foot-high, 32-foot-long painting, “What relief, what truthfulness! This is not a painting; one walks in this picture.”
Of course Napoleon hadn’t imagined anyone dancing into it. And, as with almost the entire canon of Western art, the assembly on David’s canvas is all white. In contrast to the song’s lyrics — “Have you ever seen a crowd goin’ apeshit?” — this is a staid bunch, in their regal and clerical robes, lit as if by a passing sunray. Throughout “Apeshit,” the choreographed moves of black performers are entwined with the eternal poses of the white figures, the two now preserved in an art form unknown to the classical masters.
And while Palo Veronese’s monumental The Wedding Feast of Cana (1563) depicts Christ’s miracle of converting water into wine, it also celebrates conspicuous consumption on a level any successful rapper could savor. Bey amps the mood with her blistering rap:
“Poppin’, I’m poppin’/My bitches are poppin’/We go to the dealer and cop it all/Sippin’ my favorite alcohol/Got me so lit I need Tylenol/All of my people I free ’em all.” The wealthy partied hard back in the day — Veronese transported the biblical scene from Galilee to palatial digs in Venice. So perhaps Beyoncé’s last line references the few dark-skinned figures serving food and drink at the lavish banquet, even as her flowing finery marks her as an equal with the sumptuously garbed swells in the painting.
There is precedent for this mix. The great African American painter Kerry James Marshall once wrote me in an email, “There is such scant representation of the Black body in the historical record, that I believe I have a duty to advance its presence using every means at my disposal.” Marshall has achieved this goal through compositions that thrum with a pictorial force grounded in classical figurative traditions, even as they push space into new realms of abstraction. And Kanye West took a fascinating leap into the baroque era when he donned a hoodie adorned with Caravaggio’s Deposition for his performance at the “121212” concert, re-creating on stage the chiaroscuro illumination that gave that hard-living master’s compositions such dramatic presence.
Sonic rumbles drift through “Apeshit,” as if the music were being played in some far-off hall (one scene was shot in the Louvre’s basement), a bit of melancholy that chimes with most listeners’ knowledge of the marital problems the couple has experienced. (Their new album, Everything Is Love, has been released under the joint moniker the Carters, and completes a trilogy about their down-and-up relationship that began with Beyoncé’s 2016 Lemonade and has continued with last year’s 4:44 from Jay-Z.) Now, when Bey lip-synchs to Jay’s voice — “Have you ever seen a crowd goin’ apeshit?” — the high-living couple seem again to be joined as one in the spotlight.
This notion of resurfacing stronger is driven home in a number of ways. For instance, the artist who sculpted Winged Victory of Samothrace more than 2,000 years ago never expected it to be displayed without a head — as it has been since its discovery on a Greek isle, in 1863 — yet the statue now stands as a beautiful survivor of whatever troubles once buried her in the earth. Director Ricky Saiz calls back to the winged young man in the video’s opening scene while giving the ancient figure new life through the line of dancers’ heads that weave before it in graceful arabesques.
The video cuts a number of times to David’s 1799 Intervention of the Sabine Women, another tale of fraught relationships. The painting’s narrative is set after the Romans’ abduction of the women of the neighboring Sabine tribe. Time has passed, and Hersilia the daughter of the Sabine leader, is married to the Roman leader Romulus. Hersilia is the painting’s central figure, voluptuous and regal in clinging white dress, her arms outstretched as she interposes her own body and that of her children between the two men in her life in order to convince them not to kill each other. The canvas had a personal dimension for the artist — he painted it partly in an effort to reconcile with his estranged wife, who disagreed with his vote to guillotine the king during the Revolution, and also as a symbol encouraging the French people to heal that conflict’s bloody wounds on the body politic. More drama, no doubt, than even rap’s most prominent power marriage can boast, but like the artists who have made the cut at the Louvre, Bey and Jay haven’t gotten where they are by thinking small.
So when Jay-Z raps about being dissed by the Grammys last year — eight nominations/zero wins — as he stands in front of Géricault’s gargantuan Raft of the Medusa, knowledgeable viewers might flash on a sense of disproportion. (And Pogues fans will recognize the canvas from the cover of that band’s 1985 Rum Sodomy & the Lash album.) Géricault’s 1819 painting portrays the grisly tale of a French vessel running aground, with the ship’s officers, connected politicians, and upper-class travelers escaping in lifeboats while the crew and poorer passengers were cast adrift on a makeshift raft. Murder, mayhem, and cannibalism ensued, making for a political scandal upon which Géricault heaped more controversy by placing a black man as the hero signaling the rescue ship, which also signaled the artist’s abolitionist sympathies, as France wavered on ending slavery. We are in different times, but by pulling us into this painting (and including a cut to a kneeling statue), Jay is reminding us of the blatant racism of slavery then, and of the NFL’s collusion against players who act on their conscience today. “I said no to the Super Bowl: You need me,” he raps, “I don’t need you/Every night we in the end zone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too.” History, the video tells us, is always present.
Back in the winter of 1992–’93, I was at the Museum of Modern Art getting passes for the big Henri Matisse retrospective. The joint was jumping, with crowds surging through the lobby and — a bit north of their usual haunts — large men with serious bling on the sidewalk calling out, “Matisse tickets. Who needs tickets? Who’s got tickets to sell?” When I finally made it to the head of the line, an elderly gent in a suit was stammering to the young man at the information desk, “Do you know what’s happening? It’s an outrage…there…there are people out front scalping tickets! This is an art museum.” The MOMA rep and I looked at each other incredulously, and I said, “You’ve never been to a Knicks game?” (Those were the days when you could actually turn a profit on Knicks tix.)
Henri no doubt would have appreciated it. After all, what artist wouldn’t love a crowd going apeshit over his or her — or their — art.