The revolted faces of the four members of the Smith clan really say it all when it comes to the latex-clad antics of a “twerking” Miley Cyrus during the “We Can’t Stop” / “Blurred Lines” / “Give it 2 U” medley at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards. But the real highlight comes when, halfway through the hard-to-watch mash-up, the camera cuts to Robin Thicke surrounded by an obligatory bevy of babes wearing red “Baywatch”-style swimsuits. But wait. What is that they are waving above their heads? Ah, giant, sparkly, cardboard signs that resemble a Rolex watch, a champagne bottle, a credit card, a yacht, and, wait for it, a Picasso painting.
In light of the fact that Marina Abramovic has hung out with both Lady Gaga and Jay Z in the last couple of months, the presence of that Picasso really comes as no surprise. The commercial art world and the commercial music industry have lately proved to be a match made in heaven and art references are by now a definitive pop music trend. The whole thing just takes Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” stunt at Pace to an even larger and more televised stage.
The performance ends with Thicke at the center of a swirling vortex of half-naked women, twerkers, giant credit cards, and, right smack dab in the middle of it all, Picasso. The message here is pretty clear: Just like yachts, Rolexes, and women, art is simply another object to be owned and flaunted by successful pop stars.
While Lady Gaga uses arty antics — and, last night, an apparent reference to Jeff Koons’s gazing balls — to legitimate herself as a performance artist, Jay Z lists his purchase of auction house favorites like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat to not only show that he is rolling in it, but that he also has good taste. The recording artists’ embrace of contemporary art is a clever marketing strategy for what they think is high-brow legitimation.
The VMA show, however, is a bit more honest about its intentions. Thicke, Cyrus, and 2 Chainz make no overtures to mask that a Picasso is interchangeable with a yacht or a rolex as an over-the-top status symbol. It’s art ownership as just another form of dick waving.
My distaste at the presence of the Picasso has nothing to do with the merger of two art forms that might traditionally be perceived as high and low, but rather how far-reaching the power of the commercial art world has become. When a Picasso becomes no more than a lurid symbol interchangeable with a dollar sign, we have to look at the vertiginous auction prices that have made it so.
With Thicke’s horrific finale, the worst of the commercial blue-chip art world meets the worst of problematic and what many have called “rapey” pop music. What’s next? Marina and Miley twerking at the Marina Abramovic Institute? Now that would be something to see.
— Ashton Cooper (@ashton_cooper)