Among the Musical #2: Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Albert Murray

Three or four years ago, coming back from hip surgery, I put in a stint of physical therapy. The assistant trainer, a 24-year-old named Caitlin, was a big pop music fan, as am I, although, to borrow from one of Hank Williams Jr.'s songs about his daddy, Caitlin's kind of pop and mine ain't exactly the same.

One afternoon at Procore Physical Therapy, the talk turned to Beyoncé and Jay-Z's video, shot in the Louvre, for their 2018 collaborative single "Apeshit," released under their marital name, the Carters. Caitlin didn't bat an eyelash at the idea of pop music's power couple posing themselves and their dancers in front of some of Western art's signal achievements, including the Mona Lisa, except to think that it was a cool idea.

To Caitlin, the Carters' ouevre, solo or as a duo, is entirely on a par with da Vinci's. To me, Caitlin's thinking exemplified a disturbing, growing refusal to distinguish between levels of aesthetic experience. Their terrific chops notwithstanding, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are essentially (I didn't say entirely) a commercial enterprise that designs and constantly retrofits its products to make as much money as possible. The Mona Lisa is ... not that. The Mona Lisa's value, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars or more the painting would bring on today's insanely inflated art market (Jay-Z, ever the shrewd investor, is reportedly an avid art collector), can't be quantitatively measured. Its value is in the serene, at bottom ineffable, lift it provides the informed viewer. In da Vinci, phenomenal genius intersected with intimate familiarity with millennia of richly woven tradition to create works that have resonated, and will, across centuries.

I tried to convey to Caitlin, though I was so worked up I made a mess of it, how, to me, putting Beyoncé and Jay-Z on the same aesthetic level as da Vinci was infuriating, another token of our long, downhill cultural slide.

I had as much chance of getting through to Caitlin as I had of doing 50 situps fast. She gave me a look of disgust and said, "Well, I guess you and I have nothing to talk about." From then on, we stuck to leg lifts. But the episode lingered, finally prompting me to sit down and try to clarify my thoughts about the varieties of artistic achievement and aesthetic experience.

The only mentor I've ever had was novelist and essayist Albert Murray, in whose book-lined Harlem living room I spent many Saturday afternoons in the mid-to-late '90s. In his long, productive life—he died, at 97, in 2013—Murray wrote deeply and influentially about music, especially jazz. (See Stomping the Blues, his take-no-prisoners overhaul of jazz criticism—hell, aesthetic theory, period.)

No populist, Murray made no bones about establishing an aesthetic hierarchy. "Art," he told me in one of our first conversations, "can take place on three levels. There's the folk level": the Guthriesque strummer, with his/her three chords and six-note melodies. "There's the pop level," he continued, "which has the widest appeal, but its bane is ephemerality." That would be Taylor Swift, Phil Collins, the Carters. "The highest level," embracing Faulkner, Cezanne, or Murray's hero, Duke Ellington, "is fine art. That's the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement." Those three words were Murray's mantra. The more skillfully an artist extends, elaborates, and refines a work's basic theme, the more profound—the finer—is his or her art.

Murray's system is too rigidly constructed. Robert Johnson, whom Murray scorned, was a folk artist who broke through repeatedly to high art. When the great Mississippi Delta bluesman wrote, in "Me and the Devil Blues," that "me and the Devil was walkin' side by side," he was using a metaphor, a beautifully terse image, to give listeners a glimpse into his conflicted self, equally capable of good and evil. The guitar solo with which Jimi Hendrix, pop flotsam to Murray, closes "Bold as Love" (from 1:49 on) is a gorgeous, stately, ennobling melody that's always sounded to me like something Bach might have written. Aretha, with her 20 #1 R&B hits, was a pop singer. And a fine artist, whose gospel album Amazing Grace (her biggest seller) is as sublime a religious work as any of Mozart's.

But despite our many disagreements, I will go down waving Albert Murray's flag. Make no mistake, there is indeed an aesthetic hierarchy. All art is not equal. Lester Young's tenor saxophone solo on Billie Holiday's 1939 release "You're a Lucky Guy"—just one chorus, 27 seconds in which Prez gallantly shrugs off his many cares—is on a higher level of grace, sly wit, and harmonic sophistication, acquired over thousands of nights of hard work on American bandstands, than anything either Carter will ever create.

Is it a question of better or worse? That's a toughie. One can certainly say that some art requires a high level of sophistication, which not every listener/viewer/reader achieves, to fully absorb. What I am not doing is denigrating aesthetic experiences of lesser extension, elaboration, and refinement. I've been deeply affected by Howlin' Wolf's "Moanin' at Midnight" since I was 12. It makes my hair stand on end. Does it require a high level of sophistication to fully absorb? It does not. But it is one powerful haunting.

Actually, "Apeshit" represents a cultural advance for Bey and Jay. They'd posed once before in front of the Mona Lisa, in a viral 2014 selfie in which they stood, hogging the frame, their backs to La Gioconda. What chutzpah. This time around, the final shot is of the pair turning toward the painting and, for five seconds (that's a long time in a music video), quietly taking it in. Of course the Carters belong in the same room as a Leonardo: as viewers in search of enlightenment.

cafe67's picture

Overexposed overrated under talented gimps

volvic's picture

And spot on!

Chervokas's picture

This is the kind of snobbish, gate-keeper, my-aesthetic-taste-is-better-than-yours attitude that made Murray's writing on music so tedious too.

Of course you know it's likely that the Mona Lisa was a commercial venture -- a commissioned portrait that for some reason never wound up finished and in the hands of the husband who commissioned the portrait of his wife. It was a commercial enterprise, like lots of Italian Renaissance painting by artists who commonly designed and refitted images, styles and compositions for people who would pay them the most. Sound familiar?

Honestly, the reason people don't differentiate between "levels of aesthetic experience" in an aesthetic hierarchy is because there are no differing levels of aesthetic experience. It's not a thing that exists in nature. It's just someone's taste and preference. There's the work as done by the artist for the complex mix of commercial and aesthetic and other reasons that motivate an artist's choices, and then there's all the crap that we -- audience, critics, politicians, marketplace, whomever -- project and pile on to the art. But these things are coming from outside the art, they don't really matter to the art, don't really change the art, they likely didn't inform the art (like, you know, outside of Wynton Marsalis, few if any musicians ever made jazz with Albert Murray's aesthetic prescriptions in mind), they're not even really about the art. They're about the person projecting themselves and their opinions onto the screen of the art.

They're being projected on to this art usually for a lot of the same human reasons people always try to puff up their opinions and feelings as fact ("Make no mistake," Scherman writes, "there is indeed an aesthetic hierarchy" as if his aesthetic preferences were forces of nature like gravity or magnetism or time that could not be denied) -- ego, the need to feel validated and important, the desire to matter beyond one's own momentary existence, etc. But those opinions don't really matter to the art. The same work of art is still there and is exactly the as it always was, regardless of whether or not one person comes along as says A is a higher level type of art than B. (And of course those things -- unlike the art itself, are mutable, and reflect the opinion makers and their times, just like how Moby Dick when from being the dizzy philosophical romance that destroyed the career of a once promising travel writer to the Great American Novel without a word of the book changing and with the author dead and gone!)

I appreciate that those of us who are older and grew up constantly being told there was a canon, and living with centralized gatekeepers of bourgeois "good taste," and aesthetic authorities telling us what "matters" and what doesn't -- whether that was our schools or just the mid century mass media environment that turned magazine publishers into "tastemakers" -- maybe struggle with an environment in which everyone and anyone is a "tastemaker," in which the idea what's in the canon isn't just shifting but even the idea of a canon itself, where these people might say "aesthetic relativism had destroyed our values," blah, blah, blah. But it's really just the latest chapter in the age old story -- told in writings that literally go back at least to the times of Seneca or Socrates -- of old man yells at cloud, of old man talking about how crass and venal the new culture and young people are compared to the golden values of the past that upheld some kind of standards that are now lost. It's just a story about human beings coping with loss and aging and feeling left behind as they outlive the popular culture that shaped them.

wonko's picture

Give Chervokas a column. The bar is clearly much lower than his abilities.

oldslat88's picture

I recognize falling into this same trap and appreciate you pointing out the likely impulse.

"...young people are compared to the golden values of the past that upheld some kind of standards that are now lost. It's just a story about human beings coping with loss and aging and feeling left behind as they outlive the popular culture that shaped them."

ok's picture

..seneca and socrates were actually right.

thethanimal's picture

Mr. Scherman’s opinion piece certainly stirred many opinions of my own while reading, many of which Chervokas has aptly addressed in his response above. I won’t repeat his points here but I wholeheartedly second them.

In addition to the claim that most of the works in The Louvre were not motivated by commercial interests, another failure of the argument is the disregard for how the passage of time allows us to view an artist’s work in context and to trace their influence, or lack of it, in future cultural generations. Casting any judgement, whether positive or negative, upon a work’s historical significance while in media res seems, to me, the acme of gatekeeping arrogance. You may not enjoy the music, but it’s place among the great music of the 21st Century is for our great-grandchildren to decide, not us.

Mr. Scherman says the Mona Lisa’s value can’t be quantifiably measured, yet suggests that The Carter’s value can be measured. The implicit racial bias in that comment, as well as that embedded in the indignation of a talented and powerful Black couple sharing the stage with influential White artists, I don’t intend to dignify with comment. But perhaps if he spent more time listening to The Carters’ album inside the story arc of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and Jay-Z’s “4:44” he’d find raw emotional experience, tenderness, struggle, humility, forgiveness, and redemption laid bare through Black musical expression on par with what any White guy accomplished in two dimensions during the Renaissance.*

But you can still not prefer the style of music. And history could prove you right, or wrong. I recently attended the ASO’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and was bemused by a quote in the program of a contemporary music critic who said of the piece, “Here is music which actually assaults the ears.” The performance almost brought a tear to me eye.

I find life is best lived with open hands, and open ears.

*When you’ve finished with that triptych, take a deep dive into Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning DAMN.

Jim Austin's picture

... there's an aspect of your argument that you need to reconsider. Tony is claiming that (two examples he explicitly cited) the work of Robert Johnson and Duke Ellington is superior to that of The Carters--and you see this as evidence of racial bias? Sorry, that's just dumb. If you study Tony's published works, you'll find that most--perhaps all--of the musicians he most reveres are African-American. Please keep BS racist claims to yourself. There's a high bar for that kind of nonsense.

Jim Austin, Editor