Unless you have been living in a cold, dark hole with no Internet the last 24 hours, you may have heard about an impromptu performance given by one of music's most important men at the Pace Gallery in New York City. Jay-Z showed up at the space wearing a crisp white Theory button-down with a bunch of handpicked art-scene notables — think Ryan McNamara, Jim Jarmusch, and, most notably, Marina Abramović. Jay's people called forth both known commodities and fans, creating a sort of weird, pop-meets-art performance. Alanna Heiss, founder of MoMA's PS1 and Arts International Radio motored around on a broken leg. Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner sat unmoved. And Jerry Saltz, one of New York's most formidable art critics, found himself absolutely enthralled with the proceedings.
Initially non-plussed, Saltz showed up suspicious and slightly confused. But as Jay-Z kept his commitment to performance and energy, Saltz found himself taken by Hova. He writes for NY Mag, "Jay stepped down from the platform and stood right in front of me … and the instant before the music started, I heard these words come out of my mouth.
'I'm an art critic ... so watch out.'"
Jay-Z, the man who has performed in front of millions, didn't seem phased by one of New York's most recognizable critics. As Saltz admits, he doesn't know much about rap music, but performance art? Well, he has a thought or two about that. However, it doesn't mean that the human, the one who feels excited by celebrity, senses the crowd's emotional response, and understands the power of a man like Jay-Z, can't get swept away a bit. He writes:
"He started dancing. So did I, or at any rate what passes for an older balding Jewish man trying to bust some moves. When he got to Koons, I said, 'Yes, even though he really is annoying.' At George Condo I went, 'Eh, okay.' I gave a big no to Art Basel; at Christie’s I said, 'I hate auctions.' By then, somehow, he'd taken me around my waist, and we were strutting around the room. My hands were ice cold. I was shaking. My reactions were shot. The entire time we're together, there was no doubt in my mind that he was controlling me, taking my energy and giving it back, manipulating the space around us. I felt like my internal ship was on fire and useless. I loved it. And him. And this."
The comments on the NY Mag piece are eviscerating, with voices comparing this to a nightmare, urging real artists to leave the corporatized New York, and calling Mr. Saltz a narcissist. One commenter even remarks that Jay-Z's appearance at the Pace Gallery is absurd because Jay-Z has nothing fresh to say about art. Except, Saltz isn't calling his performance a game changer. He isn't saying that good art can't be made without celebrities, and only celebrities make good art. He was talking about the communal experience of pop music, of fandom, and musical appreciation, as mediated by the forum of art.
Being a part of the art community in New York City is tough and filled with egos. But the idea of Jerry Saltz dancing with Jay-Z, just like a regular fan (of which there were many — Saltz snuck in a security guard who also happened to be a big fan), feels both positive and populist. One commenter writes, "In other words, here is a man who so desperately wants to sound erudite and cultured, but really, he's just traveling down the artistic path of least resistance." Then another says, "Jay-Z name drops the great masters! Genius! Is there anything he can't do?" Perhaps by inviting art-world impresarios, Jay-Z implicitly admitted that he has some sort of "insider knowledge" of the art world, but by rapping to them, and encouraging singalongs, partnering Heiss up with dancers, or making Jerry Saltz boogie, he managed to infuse the "low" with the "high" — and force people who believed in such distinctions to rethink their approach to music. Which is enough for Saltz.