the carters in the louvre: the medicis of 2018?
We went on the museum's new "Beyoncé trail" to find out.
“Follow this trail to discover the iconic artworks from JAY-Z and Beyoncé’s music video Apeshit.”
The Louvre’s introduction to its new Beyoncé trail is lacklustre, contextless. “Well, here it is”, it seems to shrug. If only it would tell us what we’re looking at.
Kaila Philo wrote for Noisey in June this year that the Apeshit video is “art, not activism”. As she explains, “Beyoncé is excellent at producing work that instills black people with a sense of pride but [does so] … within the confines of a capitalist system that she praises in the same breath”. Her point was that though Beyoncé's political presence is both powerful and important, it is also incoherent. Can the same be said of her artistic one?
The ascension of Beyoncé's image to the most hallowed halls of high art is surely the most important event in visual culture in 2018. From the Louvre’s hand-wavy presentation of their new trail, it seems they don’t think so. Notice their use of the adjective “iconic” applies to the artworks -- not the music video.
Hovering on the steps in front of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, perhaps the most memorable Apeshit visual and the first step on the trail, there is a silent whisper among some bystanders -- an invisible crackle of electricity. Some tourists seem oblivious, indifferent.
But off to the side, a small group of young 20-somethings attempt to perfect their angles with the sculpture looming in the background. I don’t need to guess why they’ve chosen this particular backdrop for an Instagram. When I mention Beyoncé, one of them lights up. “She was here!” they vibrate in unison.
"The white silks that she flailed around her in front of the famous sculpture leant the space a dynamism and airiness that is now absent -- one wonders who was really elevating whom."
Gigi is 21 and visiting from London. As she talks to me animatedly, I realise she’s wearing a purple suit and jewels around her neck - she’s planning to recreate Beyoncé's still in front of the Mona Lisa. “She’s an icon,” Gigi enunciates slowly. “She has vision that the masses relate to.”
The Louvre presents the Beyoncé trail as a mere vehicle through which to present higher art, a low road to the youth market, a revenue stream they don’t rate. I ask their press representative what the trail means to the museum and what its significance is to its history. Their response: “Some of the artworks chosen by Beyoncé and Jay Z are very famous and easy to find, but some are less known. The visitor trail helps to find these artworks in the galleries.” Only, to many young people like us -- she is the one we came to see.
The staircase that formed the centrepiece of the Apeshit video seems dull and cramped without the high production values and Beyoncé-grade artificial lighting. The white silks that she flailed around her in front of the famous sculpture leant the space a dynamism and airiness that is now absent -- one wonders who was really elevating whom.
If anyone truly captures the zeitgeist of 2018, if anyone deserves to appear in museums in 2228 as a representative of our era, isn’t it Beyoncé? “I think in the future people will definitely refer back to her,” Gigi nods. “She’s opened doors for ethnic minorities, she’s going to be remembered for that. Lemonade made her a true artist -- she was able to turn her pain into a conversation. It wasn’t just like ‘my husband cheated on me and I’m so angry’, it was like different stages of what a person goes through, and what a black woman feels. She incorporated so many parts of her identity, she dug into poetry. It started so many different conversations.”
All the way back in 1999, Emmanuel N. Arinze, the then President of the Commonwealth Association of Museums, said in a public lecture on the role of the museum in society that “early museums were elite, uninspiring, and aloof”, and that contemporary museums needed “to redefine their missions... to reflect the expectations of a changing world… they must mirror events in society and become instruments of progress…” The Apeshit trail is an attempt at this ethos in practice. But it is also cultural foreshadowing -- the Carters may be marketing tools now, but their work may well be the front and centre exhibits of the museums of the future.
During the Renaissance, artists referred back to the ancient history of Greece and Rome to inspire their work, using these historic references to impose new meaning and bring new techniques to bear on old stories, and in doing so, change the conversation. This cultural revolution was led by families of wealthy patrons like the Medicis, who curated the most talented artists of the time, making them part of their exclusive courts, and used their massive capital to commission these artists and push the cultural revolution forward.
There are clear parallels between these historic figures and the Carters today. They position themselves at the centre of a network of the world’s most talented photographers, producers, directors, and writers -- they too are becoming patrons, launching the careers of black artists whose work they admire (see Beyoncé's Vogue cover photographer by Tyler Mitchell -- of whom she said: “It’s important to me that I help open doors for younger artists. There are so many cultural and societal barriers to entry that I like to do what I can to level the playing field”). To this day the term “Renaissance woman” refers to a polymath, someone who has mastered multiple skills -- Beyoncé is the ultimate Renaissance woman, acting both as patron AND artist. With Lemonade and Apeshit, Beyoncé reached back into history to change the context of old artistic references, and in doing so, as Gigi said, changed the conversation.
As Dr. Jill Burke, a senior lecturer on art history at the University of Edinburgh, recently wrote: “What it seems the Carters are doing... is making visible the exclusions of traditional art history, disrupting a narrative that has claimed to be objective.…” Beyoncé is doing in 2018 what Renaissance artists did in their time -- there is no doubting that everything from her Apeshit visuals to her pregnancy photos are the museum fodder of the future.
In fact, the process of Beyoncé's preservation has already begun. I spot Ryan Richmonds, 25, from Philadelphia, also taking enthusiastic selfies in front of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. “At the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, Beyoncé’s portrait is already included. She’s already up in museums,” he corrects me with a proud grin.
His boyfriend Paul Lyons, 24, from Washington, agrees that Beyoncé's museum-ification is set to continue in the future. “I think it’s gonna move a lot towards digital, and the photography and visuals and social media of today, that’s what people are gonna look back to,” he says. “The biggest thing for me is that, when I walk through the halls of a museum like this or the Vatican Museum in Italy, to see all the white faces there -- for her to shoot a video and for it to be so powerfully black, but also showcasing the art that’s already here, and showing that she’s creating a new wave. For people like us to come over here and see ‘Beyonce was here’ -- it seems so trivial, but it means a lot."
His point is exemplified by three young women I spot at the foot of the staircase -- as they enter the space, they fling their hands over their mouths, eyes bulging with excitement. They immediately whip their phones out to capture the moment. Charlène is 21 from French Guiana and decides to act as the trio’s representative. “She made black people like me own this space,” she says excitedly. Does she think Beyoncé is destined to hang in museums forever more? “Yes!” she declares unequivocally. “What she did in the Apeshit video was a huge shift. We can’t forget the past, but she added something to it. It will remain in the memory.”