Not All Critics Are Being Critical Enough

Jay Z and Marina at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea

I’ve been thinking a lot about art this summer. With fabulous live music all around Durham, several massive summer album releases, and a renewed interest in performance art, my brain has been awash with thoughts and questions about the role of art in my life and my role in art. I’ve been thinking more and more about the responsibility that viewers have when viewing art and how our perceptions inhibit or enable us as an audience.

All of these questions went from backburner to full boil last month when mega-rapper Jay-Z created a six-hour performance piece in New York which featured iconic performance artist Marina Abramović.

This is what happened when these two forces collided-


In a six-hour piece  it was a small ode to the woman who was foundational to modern performance art. So why did it get this response?


This is in addition to an article an article on art blog Hyperallergic called, “Jay-Z Raps at Marina Abramović, or the Day Performance Art Died.”

This struck me as odd because, as artists Abramovic and Jay are more similar artists than they would first appear to be.  If like myself, you have ever rapidly vacillated between listening to a Jay Z album and watching the Abramović documentary The Artist is Present similar themes become very apparent. Coming from hard lives, working hard to perfect their craft, they both consciously engage with their own success. Abramović opens the documentary by talking about striving for recognition and yes, fame. Jay raps about trying to become a king. Abramović and her gallerist created an entirely new market for purchasing pieces or photographs of performance art, which has made Abramović wealthy. Jay Z disrupts the hip-hop game with unconventional release schedules that have catapulted him to the Forbes’ most powerful list. They both constantly talk about ego and what it means to be an artist and how the ego helps and hinders their process. They both use the ego as their main mode of connection. Marina’s body is her art; Jay’s life is his.  These are two individuals who are constantly in contact with their views of the world and their role in it.

What’s interesting is that the audience, which seemed to scoff at the combination presented, was not doing the same thing. The questions I had been asking myself about an audience’s responsibility was right in front of me- in order to accept and receive a work we have to combat the cultural biases around art. Because we’re more comfortable with hip-hop and artists like Jay on the radio and at the Grammys, we become disconcerted when he steps into a gallery space. We are more comfortable when Abramović collaborates with other high artists and keeps her work reserved for the audiences who are fortunate enough to be in her presence, not when she is commercialized and recorded.

When we bring ourselves to this work, we have to confront what makes us uncomfortable. Is it the removal of a vocabulary with which we’re contextually familiar? Is it the merging of seemingly separate worlds? Is it sense of superiority that many art critics and enthusiasts feel in regards to low culture? The reaction to the collaboration showed a classist discomfort with a unique combination of luminaries. These are reactions which we have to question in both others and ourselves in order to be responsible audiences. We reflect ourselves in our perceptions of art. Though not a universal opinion, I would argue that perception and reception are what make all art possible. As viewers and listeners and participants we have a responsibility to constantly examine how we engage with what’s being presented to us. Because it isn’t as simple as we would like to believe. There is a personal ethic to viewing art. How we see and why we see are inextricable from our experience of art. We bring our own prejudices and thoughts to this process, and to the aes/ethics of that are integral to living a life that understands what is being put in front of us. While this is necessary for art, this lesson is also imperative elsewhere. At Kenan, I’ve learned and tried to process what it means to live a good life, and often it means being reflective of the things we’re told to accept outright, even if it’s just a man rapping for six hours in Chelsea.