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.

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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.