Picasso Baby: The New Society of the Spectacle

“Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea. ” ― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

Amir Baradaran.

Amir Baradaran. “The Other Artist is Present,” 2010. Courtesy the artist.

In 2010 we took a group of undergraduate art students to see Marina Abramovic’s performance at the Museum of Modern Art, entitled The Artist Is Present. During Abramovic’s stint another artist Amir Baradaran performed to honor, question and ultimately depart from Abramovic’s performance. The following year I covered Amir’s solo exhibition for the Art21 blog in The Artist is Prescient: Relational Aesthetics and Augmented Reality. Amir (and other artists) foresaw the popularity of art that engages in “the realm of social interaction and content.”

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” ― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord was prescient, as well. Debord, in addition to authoring The Society of the Spectacle, co-founded Situationist International, a post-World War II collective of avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists. Debord and the Situationists rejected the idea that advanced capitalism’s apparent successes—such as technological advancement, increased income, and increased leisure—could  outweigh the misery of social alienation and commodity fetishism it simultaneously inflicted. This group dissolved twenty years before the invention of the World Wide Web.

Jay Z installed his album cover next to one of the four original surviving 1215 Magna Carta documents at the Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, England.

Jay Z installed his album cover next to one of the four original surviving 1215 Magna Carta documents at the Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, England.

Then comes rapper/entrepreneur Jay -“I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man!”- Z. On July 4 Jay-Z and Samsung offered an Android app to give fans a chance to download the album Magna Carta Holy Grail for free. The app failed (I don’t own an Android and managed to get the album on July 4 but don’t ask me how). According to the New York Daily News, what had originally been intended as a pioneering marketing move — to allow one million Samsung smarphone users to be able to download Jay-Z’s new album for free days ahead of its July 7 release — fizzzled when many fans had trouble accessing the record.

“But Jay-Z added that the distribution model was the wave of the future for the music business — once the technology becomes a little smoother. ‘The next person now knows how to go into it better, which is cool and that’s my job. I took the hit for that,’ he said.” –Ethan Sacks, NY Daily News

During the weekly gathering of the Smoke School of Art in Atlanta we debated the early release of Magna Carta Holy Grail and Kanye West’s latest Yeezus. There was nearly a consensus that these rappers, their albums and recent performances were pure spectacle and, according to some, not much else. I was one of the dissenters only in that I share Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman’s opinion that “something lives only as long as the last person who remembers it.”  Or as Goethe wrote, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Which brings me back to the 20th century Situationists and Jay-Z’s marathon performance at the Pace Gallery in New York City. Jay-Z set out to perform his song Picasso Baby from Magna Carta Holy Grail for six hours.

“Performing the track at the Pace Gallery was a natural fit for Jay-Z, whose song name checks a slew of famous artists and their contemporaries: It ain’t hard to tell / I’m the new Jean-Michel / Surrounded by Warhols / My whole team ball / Twin Buggattis outside the Art Basel / I just wanna live life colossal / Leonardo Da Vinci flows / Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes / See me throning at the Met.” –Complex.com

And guess who made an appearance? Marina Abramovic (see the video clip above). My favorite dancer of the moment Storyboard P made an appearance (at 1:58) as well as my associate Sanford Biggershttps://vine.co/v/h7FxDuKWVVF. That’s Sanford seated on the bench next to Jay Z.

Sanford is seated next to Jay Z... I love the lady in the cast scooting around.

Sanford is seated next to Jay Z… I love the lady in the cast scooting around.

The event that I will now call “Picasso Baby at the Pace” brought to my mind some earlier developments in modern art such as:


Happenings took place during the late 1950s through the 1960s. The main elements of happenings are planned, but artists (and the audience) retain room for improvisation. Allan Kaprow argued that once artists have been recognized and paid, they also surrender to the confinement, rather the tastes of the patrons (even if that may not be the intention on both ends). “The whole situation is corrosive, neither patrons nor artists comprehend their role…and out of this hidden discomfort comes a stillborn art, tight or merely repetitive and at worst, chic.”

[This is a placeholder for Ray Johnson’s happening performance in which he beats a box with a belt.]

Ray Johnson in NYCS Exhibition and Valentine's Day performance in conjunction with

Ray Johnson in NYCS Exhibition and Valentine’s Day performance in conjunction with ” Invitation Correspondence” Exhibition, Western Illinois University at Macomb, February 1974. Photograph by John Orandello, Former Professor at WIU.


Fluxus, an international art movement identified with the 1960s, birthed innovations in filmmaking and performance.  They introduced the concept of the viewer becoming the work of art through active participation. Performances were open-ended, experimental events orhappenings that encouraged participants to record what had happened.  Fluxus artists challenged audiences to think in new and unconventional ways.

Second Front

Performance artists have increasingly incorporated technological media into pieces—mainly because they have acquired exponential amounts of new technology. In Performative Interventions: The Progression of 4D Art in a Virtual 3D World (for the Art21 blog) I interviewed Second Front member Bibbe Oh (Bibbe Hansen) who is the daughter of Fluxus member Al Hansen and the mother of of Grammy award winning musician Beck. Second Front bases their performance of Car Bibbe on a script by Al Hansen of Fluxus. Since 2006 Second Front has been one of the first performance art groups in Second Life. Bibbe was also one of Andy Warhol’s muses in the mid-1960s.

Flash Mobs

Flash mobs are modern day happenings. In flash mobs a group of people  assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then quickly disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression. Flash mobs are organized via telecommunications, social media, or viral emails. According to Complex.com news about Jay-Z’s Picasso Baby performance at the Pace spread via social networks. Although not technically a flash mob “Picasso Baby at the Pace” is in the same category or domain with happenings.

I’m not quite sure of what to feel about “Picasso Baby at the Pace”. I like Magna Carta Holy Grail and the album has been replayed frequently (since I downloaded it for free).  I saw Abramovic’s performance live and I couldn’t tell you what I remember from the event except that I was there. Walking in between two nude people in the same exhibition overshadowed everything else. Something Jay-Z said in one of his songs on MCHG kind of summed things up for me: Without all this I’d be invisible. I think he has a point. Remember Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man?:

“I am an invisible man. 
No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: 
Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. 
I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids
- and I might even be said to possess a mind. 
I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.” ―Ralph Ellison

In my opinion this also begs a question: When you insert race, class or gender into the “spectacle” of the art world is the outcome or impact the same?

  1. #1 by ASY on August 11, 2013 - 7:16 am

    I have a question: is it possible for race, class, or gender to be *absent* from the spectacle of the art world? Or did you mean the insertion of actual persons whose race, class, or gender draws attention?

    • #2 by nettrice on August 11, 2013 - 11:28 am

      Consider (with the latter question) art critic, Jerry Saltz, who described his encounter with Jay Z as “tribal,” inducing in him a desire to “dance barefoot.” Or artist Marina Abramovic who said, “For me, it’s very important that the rapper community and the Twitter [community] actually start Googling to understand what performance art is” as if Jay-Z’s community isn’t already aware of performance as an art form. When Abramovic performs she is not performing as a community and it is automatically assumed that she knows her craft because of the space she is in. Not so with Jay-Z. It is not only his rap persona that is on view. His entire community becomes spectacle. He is a curiosity because of his race/gender. It is not possible for race/class/gender to be absent.

  1. Jay-Z vs. High Art: The Spectacle of Negro Business | @iamkingcarla
  2. Hip-Hop as Performance Art: Jay Z, Appropriation, and Critiques of Whiteness | The Feminist Wire

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