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Jay-Z admiring an untitled painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1983)

For too long there has been a large divide (whether real or imagined) between visual art and music. After all, what we’ve come to call art most likely formed out of traditional ceremonies in which music, dance, shrines, costumes, and ritual objects all work together. For whatever reason, visual arts became largely separated from music, except for costume and stage design for musical performances. Recently, however, I’ve noticed popular musicians embracing the visual arts once again. Like many old boundaries that have been collapsing, today’s musicians and artists often work with or reference one another in an increasingly direct way.

Screen capture from the music video for Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” (2009), referencing Andy Warhol

I was really inspired to start looking for examples of this cultural collapse when I saw Rihanna’s music video for “Rude Boy.” In it, the singer had several obvious nods (like the one seen above) to pop artist Andy Warhol, especially his “Marilyn Monroe’s Lips” (1962). Rihanna also makes a great reference (see below) to Keith Haring‘s intricate drawing style and body-painting practices (see this photograph by Annie Leibovitz for comparison).

Screen capture from the music video for Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” (2009) with homage to Keith Haring.

Jay-Z was recently featured in an advertisement (seen at top) for a fancy cognac called D’Ussé. The rapper is pictured while admiring a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Untitled,” (1983) (hat tip to Benjamin Sutton at ARTINFO, here). The ad is no surprise, considering Jay-Z has rapped about famous artists in the past. For instance, in Kanye West and Jay-Z’s single, “Who Gon’ Stop Me” (2011), Jay-Z raps, “I’m riding dirty, tryna get filthy, Pablo Picasso, Rothkos, Rilkes / Graduated to the MoMA, and I did all of this without a diploma,” (lyrics via Rap Genuis).

Nicki Minaj, “The Boys,” (2012) featuring Cassie, inspired by Yayoi Kusama.

In keeping with Nicki Minaj’s absurd pop style, her track “The Boys, (feat. Cassie) (2012) has a video that includes a Yayoi Kusama-esque installation (seen above) as a backdrop. Minaj is not alone in finding inspiration from her visual-art Pop counterparts. For “Teenage Dream” (2010), Katy Perry commissioned an album cover with a painting by visual artist Will Cotton (seen below), who also directed the music video. I enjoy this collaboration between artists of every order. What is considered popular today doesn’t necessarily make any distinctions between fashion, music, and art. It’s all combined together in life, so it makes sense for the artists to work that way as well.

Will Cotton, “Cotton Candy Katy,” (2010) (Image from Willcotton.com)

What I like most about Katy Perry’s album cover is that it is a total collaboration. Cotton and Perry both saw in each other similar motifs and aesthetics that they could work with. This is a very different relationship than merely referencing or appropriating an artist’s work. Kanye West has also been eager to celebrate contemporary artists like Takashi Murakami, George Condo, and Vanessa Beecroft by featuring them in music videos, on album covers, and by buying their work. Beecroft worked as art director for, “Runaway” (2010) (seen below), which resulted in a beautiful video for what Rolling Stone considered the best song of 2010.

Screen capture from Kanye West’s, “Runaway,” (2010) with art direction by Vanessa Beecroft.

Of course, this dialogue is also operating the other way. Rashaad Newsome and Theaster Gates are both visual artists whose practices are deeply entwined with music, both old and new. Newsome’s video for “The Conductor (Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi)” (2005-09) uses classical music and rap music to make a compelling collapse of both high and low music and audio and visual aesthetics. I am sure that there are some who think that popular music is denigrates the works musicians reference, but I am not one of them — the collaborations and collisions empower both.

What struck me most about preparing for this article was how many of the musicians were of African descent. Maybe one could find more meaning than just trash talk in Jay-Z’s line, “Graduated to the MoMA, and I did all of this without a diploma.” For an African American from a poor family in Brooklyn, the MoMA could have been perceived as the pinnacle of high class. To move from being a drug dealer in Bed-Stuy to buying Basquiats and Warhols for your home must feel like a collapse of high and low. At the same time, the proclivity to adapt visual art and its aesthetics was probably always there.

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Ben Valentine

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...

7 replies on “Pop Music’s Love Affair with Contemporary Art”

  1. Funny how the first 3 artists referenced are all dead and their work is about 30 years old, at least. I’d also be a bit more interested in and concerned about the fascination contemporary art has with pop music and pop culture.. to the point that much of it is just riffing on pop culture and fads (see Ai Wei Wei’s excretable “gangnam style” reference).

  2. Amen. The ONLY reason Basquiat is still considered even slightly relevant is because collectors who paid huge sums for his work don’t want them to become nearly worthless and the auction houses and galleries don’t want that either.

  3. I had not seen the Minaj video boys and am grateful to you for that experience:) There was maybe a James Turrell’s PS1 skyspace installation there in the barbershop too.

    This is an interesting trend. I think beyond the two way street of visual art referencing music directly there is another way contemporary art might speak to pop music. It has in many ways, blurred its narratives as so many artists deliberately make work that is aesthetically distinct but speaks to multiple interpretations. This is what pop anything thrives on. Recognizable, Accessible Attractiveness. Let’s just keep working to bring some depth and humanity in the mix!

  4. Basquiat made a lot of beautiful work and his influence on many contemporary artists, street and studio, is undeniable. If you don’t like his painting that’s fine but calling it garbage is straight up cruel.

    1. Basquiat’s work attracted me to art when I was young. I like it’s rawness and freshness, I think it captured a ton of energy that was going on at that time in NYC. The low-talent argument is one thrown at many important artists and isn’t very interesting. If you want to talk about craftsmanship then we should look at furniture builders more than most artists. Also, if you write off all the artists who have drug or alcohol problems, you’re writing off a many important artists, that’s an attack on their private life not their work, obviously he paid the price for his addiction. I won’t argue that Basquiat was lucky to quickly attract some famous dealers and buyers, but attacking his addiction is cruel and saying he is without talent would be hard.

  5. I’m not sure there were any musicians, much less their decisions, mentioned. this is all pure drivel. listen to hawk and a hacksaw or susurrus station. this stuff is all just crass business.

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