Pop Music’s Love Affair with Contemporary Art

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

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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