I can’t think of a more triumphant testimony to the late art theorist Arthur Danto’s essay “After the End of Art” than the recent Ricky Saiz-directed music video “Apeshit.” In it, the Carters—a.k.a. Beyoncé and Jay-Z—pose haughtily in the Louvre, commanding the building in a manner true to its original function as a Crusades-era royal palace. The video is a series of striking tableaus—with the couple figured as statuesque against wide shots of the museum’s most iconic artworks and interiors—and in that sense, the art is resplendent. But it’s also hollow. The juxtaposition of the Black performers and the European art collection, much of it created during the reign of African conquest and slavery, is immediate and pointed. The Carters’ revenge is to render the artwork as part of a luxe aesthetic for a song full of boasts about their material wealth. A Da Vinci painting, a Phillippe Patek watch, a Lambo; it’s all glamour. This is an iconoclasm of a gentle form.
This, of course, is upsetting to those who wish to keep art unsullied by commercialism. In a New York Times review of the video, after admitting to a distrust of the pair’s interest in visual art, “whose appeal has too often seemed to be its prestige and expense rather than its meaning and beauty,” the author concedes, “But here the pair admirably let the art speak for itself.” This is the sneer of an ideology, that art’s value should float somewhere above the market, and, what’s more, art with commercial appeal is not only not as good but manipulative and wicked as it ushers unsuspecting consumers to stadium shows, car dealerships (and art museums?). Moral judgments aside, critics and advertisers alike hold that art, and more broadly, images are ripe agents of capitalism (the idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” was first a publicity maxim).
This belief in the power of images has roots in a theory of commodity fetishism. In Marxist thought, when an object becomes a commodity, i.e. valued for its marketability over its usefulness (or perhaps its meaning and beauty), it becomes endowed with a sort of mystical subjectivity akin to a religious fetish. For Marx, this was the process by which the actual labor invested in the object disappears from view. This happens most absurdly on the modern art market, where that mysterious element that separates great art from the rest—coupled with a complex equation of art historians, curators, dealers, and collectors—can mean that a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting sells for $110.5 million in 2017, while graffiti remains a criminalized art form. And somewhere in that process of fetishism, following Marx but also a common attitude toward the state of commercialism today, something disturbing happens to our humanity. Marx called it alienation; others call our society image-obsessed, distracted, and anxious.
The political question is, what now? If images hold this special power over us, should we engage in a harsher form of iconoclasm? Stage a crusade against false idols? Make it an ethical cause to separate the good art from the commercial muck, as did the New York Times writer?
When Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote about the “culture industry” in 1944, they were disturbed to find that what had happened to the tables and chairs of classic industrial manufacturing had happened in the realm of culture: factory-like production and standardization in the endless pursuit of a wider market and greater profits. Against Design, a 2000 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia supported by a grant from the Tremaine Foundation, raised questions about the relationship of art to industry by going back to those earlier kinds of commodities. Design here means industrial design, and most of the works played on familiar domestic objects like bedroom sets, bean bag chairs, and coffee tables. The exhibition shuttled between the two senses of its title: against as in oppositional to and against as in alongside. Some works repurposed mass-produced materials like IKEA shelving units, while others, like Andrea Zittel’s collapsible A-Z Living Unit, had the appearance of a machine-made object but were in fact crafted by hand.
In 2012, at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, another recipient of a Tremaine Foundation grant, paperless, set itself between two epochs. It marked a time when talk of paper’s imminent extinction runs concurrent with an ecological crisis aided by the ongoing mass production and waste of paper. In an Artforum review of the show, David Lubin wrote, “Archaic as well as nonecological, paper is dirty, a material that some have come to regard as fragile, antique, even abject.” Many works, such as Natasha Bowdoin’s The Daisy Argument (Revised) and Simryn Gill’s Paper Boats, dealt with the relationship of paper to knowledge production and archiving, whereas others, such as Peter Cullesen’s Fall directly addressed the ecological legacy of paper.
In both exhibitions, materiality was the basis for their explorations of industry, commodification, and art. But, as Frederic Jameson wrote in Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism in 1991, the mark of the present era of global capitalism is the commodification of culture itself, which doesn’t depend on the production of physical objects. What distinguished postmodern culture from modern culture, for Jameson, was the end of artistic styles proper and their mutation into a set of codes in the service of artists’ personal and political agendas. This is roughly what Danto had in mind when he announced the end of art. But whereas Danto celebrated this fact, as it meant that artists no longer had to privilege a concept of art history in their creative goals, Jameson saw the crumbling of the barrier between “high” and “low” (i.e. mass, commercial) art more as a strategy to appeal to an even wider market. This happens at all levels of culture, but nowhere more explicitly than in the realm of pop music, where star worship and the glamour of wealth are its bread and butter. By that token, the pop star is the ultimate fetish: an image (with a bevy of PR professionals to help groom it) and an actual person all at once.
Yes. But. Now I have to confess a profound love for pop music and its stars (and I’m thinking of pop less as a genre than a category—I consider Jay-Z a pop star). There are many factors that make a truly great pop star, but one of them is their open and full embrace of themselves as stars—as brilliant images—which often includes an embrace of their material wealth. So, let me say it: I’m a fetishist. But that doesn’t keep me from being self-aware or critical of capitalism, and I suspect the same goes for other commodity fetishists. Therefore I’m skeptical of the political posture of most critiques of commercialism and visual culture. Simply put, it’s just not clear that exposing the seductive nature of images or even commodification at large will do much at all to change the surrounding social conditions.
Seeking an alternative, I found an approach to images that felt truer to the actual experience of beholding them by way of the scholar W.J.T. Mitchell, who suggests that perhaps images are not as powerful as we make them out to be. And he goes on to offer a weird methodology for understanding pictures: ask them what they want. In doing so, he shifts away from the model of images-as-dominant-powers-sent-to-control-us-and-make-us-buy-stuff to a model of images as the abject and marginalized subject whose power derives from its lack and desire. In his 2004 book What Do Pictures Want?, he argues that the in literary and art history the power of pictures has been modeled on the power of women and of people of color, who throughout the Western art canon mostly play the role of images and not of image-makers. Images, like women, are meant to awaken desire in the (male) viewer without showing signs of their own desire or even an awareness of being viewed. (In just the paragraph above, I wrote of the seductive nature of images). The ultimate sin of images is thus to gain pleasure in being viewed—to be an exhibitionist. Tellingly, the New York Times writer praised the final gesture of the “Apeshit” video, when the Carters turn their backs to the camera to look at the Mona Lisa. When they famously visited the Louvre with their daughter in 2014, they were mocked for taking so many selfies during their private tour.
And so, finally, this offers another entry point into “Apeshit.” What does this picture want? If another way to ask that is—what does it lack?—it clearly wants representation of Black artists in hallowed halls. The video also obviously lacks a crowd. This is a turn up song about their relationship to the crowd (“Crowd better save her—or, savor”), and the Louvre is conspicuously vacant apart from the video crew. Ultimately, the desired audience for this art is not the solitary museum-goer but a dancing, adoring, wiling mass.
We don’t have to reach far to make conversation about fetishism with this video—it draws blatant parallels between its human cast and the works of art. Jay-Z and Beyoncé sport outfits that mirror adjacent artworks and in one darkened hall a group of dancers perch on pedestals. The video strikes sharp contrasts between stillness and movement, as if bringing statues to life. Beyoncé is a master of these quick shifts in mood; she plays aloof and withholding in one scene and growls with desire in another. Here it is, a clue to understanding the power of pop stars, which is to say images: Beyoncé, a Black woman, dares to acknowledge, even enjoy, herself as image and to reveal her own sense of desire. If one learns to do the same by example—or mimicry, one connotation of the song’s title—perhaps that is the kind of liberation she offers (“All my people, I free them all”).
Capitalism will not. And the Carters—as any successful artists, pop or not, to some extent must be—are capitalists. They are the first to tell us, even celebrate, that fact. Maybe what they offer is merely a bribe, fleeting joy as compensation for oppression, but—as Ellen Willis so brilliantly articulated in her 1970 essay “Women and the Myth of Consumerism,”—“like all bribes it offers concrete benefits.” After all:
“Have you ever seen a crowd go apeshit?”