Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Louvre: A Timely Reminder of Art Museums’ Racist Past

By Wiebke Kartheus

Beyoncé and Jay-Z posing in front of the Mona Lisa

The Louvre is the most famous and most visited museum in the world. Arguably, it is also the most prestigious one. So what does it mean when two of the biggest cultural icons of the 21st century shoot a music video there? What does it mean when Beyoncé and Jay-Z, under the name “The Carters,” present themselves in the Louvre in their “Apesh*t” video released in June 2018?

In some ways, this video is revolutionary because it includes black bodies, quite literally, in a place from which they have been excluded for centuries. Also, The Carters’ music video is political: It celebrates black bodies in the colonizing institution of the art museum by strategically positioning them in front of art historical masterpieces, such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Géricault’ Raft of the Medusa, and David’s Coronation of Napoleon. In front of these ‘emblems of Western genius,’ Beyoncé and Jay-Z forcefully claim their space in a surrounding that for centuries wouldn’t recognize black people as worthy of being in art’s vicinity – as artists, as audiences, or as complex subjects. (In this context, we could also think about the subversive potential of the song’s title, “Apeshit.”)

Because the video draws the viewers’ attention to the rather troubled history of art museums, it has received a lot of positive press. Publications ranging from the Atlantic  and the New Yorker to art publications like Frieze, to Artnet and Hyperallergic have explored the many angles of how the video addresses some of the most pressing, yet seldom discussed problems of Western art museums today: Its long-established and barely noticed racist structures, exclusionary politics, and reductionist canons. If nothing else, this video has started a much-needed public discourse about the racial and representational politics of Western art institutions.

The video, however, should also be understood in the larger context of both Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s careers as well as other artists’ involvement in the Louvre to evaluate important nuances of “Apesh*t.” For example, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have both situated visual promotion in fine art settings before: Beyoncé, on occasion of revealing her second pregnancy, staged herself in a photo like Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and Jay-Z performed his song “Picasso Baby” at a New York gallery for six hours alongside Marina Abramović and Fred Wilson in 2013. Also, in 2014, they took a private tour at the Louvre and posted several photos of their visit online – most famously their selfie in front of the Mona Lisa.

The Carters, however were not the first Hip Hop artists to shoot their videos in the Louvre. In 2016, will.I.am published two videos for his song, “Mona Lisa Smile,” that were shot in the Louvre and literally replaced white bodies with bodies of color in a number of infamous artworks. So rather than claiming space in the institution – like Beyoncé and Jay-Z did – he re-inscribed bodies of color into art history, thereby powerfully emphasizing their absence and calling out racism.

Looked at from this point of view, there is a different way to read this video, a way that focuses more on Beyoncé and Jay-Z themselves: In a very declarative fashion, they utilize the Louvre’s global reputation and prestige to suggest that they have matched the famous museum in its glory and cultural importance; they have reached its threshold of celebrity and cultural capital; and they have made this video to both prove this accomplishment and capture the moment it happened. As they proclaim numerous times in the song, they have “made it.”

What the video demonstrates is Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s power and iconic status within society. The combination of lyrics and image powerfully shows that their audience goes “Apesh*t” at their concerts just as much as others were thrilled in front of the Mona Lisa. They don’t borrow cultural capital from the Louvre – it’s rather the other way around: The Carters add new connotations to the artworks, start much-needed discussions about issues long avoided, and keep the Louvre current and up to par with new societal developments. (The Louvre has acknowledged that their record visitor numbers of 2018 are due to Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s video.)

Like most important cultural works, The Carters “Apesh*t” video does more than one thing on more than one level: It depicts Beyoncé and Jay-Z as cultural icons of the 21st century by aligning themselves with cultural icons of centuries past. And by triggering much-needed cultural discussions, it draws attention to the ongoing exclusionary and racist structures of Western art institutions. Could the video have been more political? Yes. Could it have shown more solidarity? Yes. Could it have been more current? Absolutely not.

 

Wiebke Kartheus is a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the Institute for North American Studies at the University of Göttingen where she works on an interdisciplinary project with the working title, “Museum Studies as American Studies.” Wiebke received her M.A. in American Studies from Leipzig University and her B.A. in World English Literatures and Cultures and Art History from Saarland University. Besides U.S. art museums, her research interests include modern and contemporary architecture and the politics of exhibition making, art criticism as well as postcolonial, feminist, and queer theories as they relate to the dynamics of the art world. She is also very passionate about academic (online) publishing and has worked, among others, as assistant editor for the peer-reviewed, online journal American Studies Journal since 2016.