It’s a tough time to be a superstar musician. It’s too late in your life cycle to cash in on a high-publicity transition from kid star to sex object. Popular taste is so fragmented, you have to enlist an army of co-writers to craft songs that can rule the Top 40 day in and day out. Popular attention is so scattered, if you’re not topping yourself, you’re bottoming out.
Your one certainty in life? You’re losing your edge. While your label is shelling out millions and you’re singing in space, random teenagers from New Zealand are making mega-hits in their bedrooms.
So it only makes sense to feel some strong human sympathy for Lady Gaga, whose ambitious and costly new record ARTPOP is, we are told, the year’s most important flop. If you’re wondering what caused this vast debacle, there’s no shortage of answers. But as blame is assigned, the critics are at risk of missing out on their most teachable moment so far in this disorienting 21st century.
The lesson? For big time pop stars, “serious” art—the kind that sells for millions, made by celebrity artists—is more dangerous than heroin. And if we don’t make sense of why, Gaga won’t be the last musical A-lister to die trying to infuse pop art with the coveted status of “serious” art.
Even now, she’s not the only one struggling to do just that. Jay-Z is falling into the same trap. “Jeff Koons balloons, I just wanna blow up,” he raps on “Picasso Baby,” name-checking the artist famous for making giant reflective metal versions of twisty inflatable animals. Blabbing away with Pharrell, another art-validated pop impresario, Koons explains the human element in his work: “What I love about the reflective surface is that it affirms. It’s about you. You move, all of the sudden the abstraction on the surface moves.”
Yet in the hands of Gaga and Hova, the ostensibly playful Koons isn’t a resource for deepening our sense of love or spontaneity. His specially commissioned sculpture of Lady Gaga is so denuded of life and humanity that it deadens ARTPOP before Gaga even has a chance to get out a note. In Jay-Z’s hands, Koons is like a bigger, better version of his own $800 black-leather-and-python Yankees hat (available now at Barneys!)—just another way to proudly flaunt that your relevance. Jay is so relevant he can drop four and a half million dollars on a Basquiat painting, and star alongside Pablo Picasso himself in a Google Glass project set to dazzle the Right People at Miami Art Week.
At least Basquiat and Picasso knew a thing or two about how to use visual art to communicate powerful sensations about what being human entails. Not by coincidence, they were first and foremost actual painters—not high-concept stunt artists. Whether it’s coming from Koons or Damien Hirst, today’s reigning “serious” art largely revolves around sensationalistic banalities, gimmicks that try to breathe artificial life into inert objects ranging from fake balloon animals to real embalmed animals. Such art tells us very little about ourselves as human beings. I suspect this is because it wants to be liberated from any “traditional”-feeling “obligation” to do so.
But America’s most daring, abstract, and tradition-destroying modern art connected on a human level with great, enduring force. Painters—yep, painters—like Jackson Pollock and (Jay-Z-approved) Mark Rothko moved people on such a universal level that the CIA secretly bankrolled their international promotion as almost literal posterboys of America’s creative prowess and intellectual freedom.
Can you imagine anyone spending a dime to do the same with today’s art stars? Today, of course, there’s no Cold War to clarify the role of creativity in modern life. Capitalism may have helped unleash art’s full potential. But today, at the top of the art world, art has become a repository for capital first and a repository for culture a far distant second.
Today, art attracts money because it attracts attention. That much is clear—and fair enough. But it’s not at all clear why today’s “serious” art attracts that attention. Perhaps that’s why such art is a small game, its market value aside. Only a tiny slice of humanity really cares—and many of those who do care do so on a level whose shallowness might be deeply appropriate, but which deprives those who associate with it of the shareably human depth that defines our most beloved musicians.
For pop musicians, the consequences are predictable. Taking your cues from Koons is like singing inside a balloon. Wrapping yourself in “serious” art is like rapping behind a Rothko. At its elite heights, pop music uses its visceral, universal, and vulnerable character to draw moving surprises from a fidelity to form. At the heights of “serious” art, we have the reverse—a total rejection of the discipline of form, with a total loss of human impact, human relevance, and human accessibility.
That’s why Gaga and Jay-Z are foundering while Kanye West is killing it. Like anyone famous, they’ve all got their share of haters. But instead of dry-humping the art world, Kanye is planting his music in the richly fertile soil of religion and fashion. Not in terms of units moved but humans moved has Yeezus blown ARTPOP and Magna Carta Holy Grail out of the water.
That’s not just a lesson for the critics. It’s a moment of clarity for everyone, musicians and visual artists alike.
And, not least of all, the audience.