The latest video by the Carters, aka Beyoncé and Jay-Z, is a treat. Filmed in the Louvre, “Apesh–” begins with close-ups of various old master paintings. A bell tolls atmospherically.
And then, out of nowhere, comes a moment of pure swagger.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z, sumptuously dressed, stare out diffidently, like a royal couple posing for a baroque marriage portrait. Behind them, out of focus, is the Mona Lisa. The gallery (which was once, of course, a royal palace) is otherwise empty.
Given how hard it can be for the rest of us to get anywhere near the Mona Lisa without having to jostle through dense crowds with camera phones, not bothering to face the painting is a statement in itself.
The Carters decline to look because they can. Because right here and right now, they are the focus.
And it stays that way, more or less, for the rest of the clip. Beyoncé gyrates, Jay-Z gesticulates, and the two strike poses, advertising their iconic marriage, restored to good health (phew!) in front of some of the Louvre’s most famous works: the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus di Milo, Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” David’s “Coronation of Napoleon,” Veronese’s “Wedding at Cana.”
The video is swagger, from start to finish. “I said no to the Super Bowl” raps Jay-Z. “They need me. I don’t need them.” “Stack my money fast and go,” sings Queen Bey. “Fast like a Lambo.”
Why film a visual ode to yourselves in the world’s most prestigious art museum?
Like monarchs before them (though perhaps with a healthier sense of humour: Beyoncé can switch on an ironic smile to rival the Mona Lisa’s), they feel drawn to art’s matchless ability to propagandize on behalf of the powerful, to project charisma, mystery, sensuality, and impunity.
Swagger, the defining characteristic of our present cultural moment, is an attitude that refuses to accept things as they are. Instead, swagger competes with reality, takes it on. It leapfrogs naysaying (“Did you just say we can’t film in the Louvre?”). It floats over facts, generates new realities.
All of which makes it a source of tremendous energy. And inherently political.
America’s capacity to define its own reality is admired all over the world – especially by the oppressed, who want – and need – a new reality, and the energy it takes to assert it. But that same capacity is also what terrifies the world. (Just ask the other leaders at the recent G-7 summit.)
In art, swagger isn’t a quality you find only in the Louvre. It has a special place in contemporary art, where it has decades of pedigree and a strange habit of prescience. You have to have chutzpah, let’s face it, to sell air, as Yves Klein famously did; or cans of human waste, as did Piero Manzoni. (Without precedents like these, it is hard to imagine the Kardashians.) You have to have swagger, too, to sell celebrity portraits made with silk-screens to an entire class of the rich and famous, as Warhol did.
Jay-Z himself fed off all this with his 2013 performance, “Picasso, Baby,” filmed in a New York gallery in front of a crowd of artists, celebrities, and dealers. “Marble floors, gold ceiling, oh what a feeling,” he rapped. “Jeff Koons balloons, I just wanna blow up. … I’m the new Jean Michel, surrounded by Warhols.”
More than Warhol, Koons is the key to understanding the connection between politics and the art world today. With his giant sculptures of balloon dogs, of Michael Jackson with Bubbles, and of himself and his ex-porn star wife having sex, Koons effected in art what Donald Trump later effected in politics. He choreographed a total collapse of the culture’s distinctions between achievement, fame, wealth, taste and success.
In the spirit of Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” Koons launched a one-man revival of the Rococo, the favoured style of France’s corrupt Ancien Regime, for a new Gilded Age – New York in the 1980s. That’s why the curators at Versailles invited him to have a show there.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s latest video has a different agenda, but it is an exercise conducted in the same spirit. Colonizing the Louvre for a music video is the equivalent, in pop cultural terms, of showing balloon dogs in Versailles or, in politics, of having a palatial hotel with your name on it on Pennsylvania Avenue, down the road from the White House you occupy as president. (“Motorcade when we came through,” raps Jay-Z. “Presidential with the planes, too.”)
Swagger’s main strategy is confusion: Is he serious or is he messing with our minds? What makes swagger hard to read is that it is the favoured strategy both of the historically oppressed (if your inherited reality is awful, you have a strong interest in asserting a new one) and the enormously privileged.
The Carters fit both descriptions. “I can’t believe we made it,” intones Queen Bey in the chorus. “Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apesh–?”
So swagger is political. It’s funny. It can be great. But could it be that swagger is also the source of America’s biggest problem right now?
You can disrupt, after all, you can swarm the end zone, bamboozling everyone, destroying assumptions about what is and isn’t tasteful, what is and isn’t possible. (“Who says I can’t buy the Louvre for a day? Who says I can’t pardon myself?”) But swagger’s attack on reality is so relentless and so aggressive that sooner or later you find that there is no longer any agreed upon reality.
And that’s when new, pseudo forms of reality rush in. Money, prestige, glamour, the rush of critical approbation, the ego boost of being at the centre of the conversation, the social-media feedback loop – these phenomena become the new reality.
When Koons exhibited at Versailles, he displayed a giant metal balloon dog and a cartoon animal’s head made of flower pots under the title, “Let them see kitsch” – a reference to something Marie Antoinette supposedly said (but probably didn’t): “Let them eat cake.”
Artists and pop stars who utilize swagger, in other words, know what they are doing. They are smart about it. They’re savvy. They are having their kitsch and eating it.
The best moment in the new video comes at the end. The Carters turn away from us to face one another (“I can’t believe we made it”). After a slight pause, they continue to turn until they are both looking right into the knowing, smirking, sfumato-edged eyes of the Mona Lisa. It’s a moment of recognition.