On 10 July 2013 US-American rapper and music producer Jay Z presented his track Picasso Baby in a six-hour-performance at the New York Pace Gallery in front of selected representatives of the art world. In the track’s lyrics, the rapper presents himself as an insatiable art collector who declares the works of classical modernism and contemporary art, perverted to the status of consumer goods, as objects of desire. The chorus „Picasso Baby“ permeates the track like a modernist mantra and highlights Pablo Picasso as a reference figure and synonym for the contemporary art business. In the last lines of the track – and climax of the performance – the lyrics culminate into Jay Z’s final statement: „What’s it gonna take / For me to go / For you to see / I’m the modern day Pablo / Picasso baby“
In entering, intruding and using the gallery space and monopolizing aesthetic codes from the art world, Jay Z resumes the motivic strategy of the track’s lyrics. As an outsider, he enters a predominantly white art world, a conservative realm with strong codes of distinction and a tight social hierarchy. For this reason, a performance by a black rapper who grew up in a Brooklyn housing project, occupying the gallery space and claiming to be an artist; even comparing himself to Picasso and calling himself his successor and reincarnation, was in the art world received as the deliberate provocation that it was partially intended to be.
But why Picasso, one might ask. Critics have explained this by accusing the rapper to be an ignoramus „Nouveau Riche“, using Picasso as a reference just because he is one of the most expensive artists one could think of – a painting by Picasso being of course an ultimate „trophy“ in hip hop, where materialistic wealth and property is often synonymous to success. When Jay Z not only boasts about possessing an exquisite art collection, but identifies with Picasso himself, claiming to be his successor, a more in-depth analysis is needed. In his self-proclaimed identification, Jay Z finds in Picasso a congenial partner, an accomplice, in spite – or maybe because – of all their obvious differences.
Picasso’s identity and its construction and reconfirmation of the virile and strong “genius” itself is closely linked with the confrontation, occupation and sublimation of the “otherness”. In his primitivist works, Picasso elaborated questions of identity in psychological and aesthetic terms – in a time when conceptions of both psyche and art were transformed, not least by colonial encounters. In Picasso’s concept, the fetishized “primitive” object is repulsive and desirable at once and his idea of appropriation – possessing, taming the object and enhancing oneself – is not unlike that of Jay Z’s with modern art objects.