Art History, or the Illuminati? What Jay-Z and Beyoncé Are Really Up to With Their Viral New Louvre Video

Three ways to look at the 'Apes**t' video.

A still from the video for "Apesh*t."

The world is going apeshit over “Apes**t.” Unleashed on Saturday to go with the first track from Everything Is Love, the new joint effort from Jay-Z and Beyoncé (aka the Carters), the characteristically regal music video for the song uses the Musée du Louvre in Paris as backdrop. It starts and ends with the Mona Lisa, with stop-offs at the Nike of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo, the Oath of the Horatii, the Wedding at Cana, the Raft of the Medusa, and more masterpieces besides in between.

If you want to “read” the symbolism of art in it, as many have, what do you get?

Compare “Apes**t”’s shot of the Mona Lisa to the couple’s 2014 vacation pic in front of the Mona Lisa. There, they look like tourists, strikingly ordinary for all their natural charisma. Here, in the video, they are fiercely and effortlessly aristocratic in their powdered pink and green suits. (The Louvre says Beyoncé and Jay-Z have visited the museum together four times, pitching the concept for the shoot when they swung by just last month.)

Awol Erizku, Beyoncé and Jay Z in front of the Mona Lisa. Courtesy of Beyoncé via Instagram.

Awol Erizku, Beyoncé and Jay Z in front of the Mona Lisa. Courtesy of Beyoncé via Instagram.

On the “Picasso Baby” track from the 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail (cover art: Battista di Domenico Lorenzi’s Alpheus and Arethusa, from the Met), Jay-Z rapped the line, addressed to his daughter Blue Ivy, “Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner / Go ‘head, lean on that shit Blue, you own it.” In “Apes**t,” the Carters turn the chamber in front of the Great Sphinx of Tanis into a nightclub, while a line of dancers shimmies dangerously close to David’s The Coronation of Napoleon.

The message is the same, the art-history equivalent of the song’s lyrics about being too good for the Grammies or the Super Bowl—“you need me, I don’t need you.” Translated: We own this shit. We’re that powerful.

Probably the greatest moments in the video are the line of men taking a knee, à la Colin Kaepernick, and the image of the woman lovingly styling a man’s hair with an afro pick in front of the Mona Lisa (the single’s cover). As Danielle Dash wrote in the Independent, the “Apes**t” video is about “welcoming black people into the Louvre and telling them they are valuable… more valuable than Mona Lisa, in fact.” That’s a pretty cool way for the Carters to use their unprecedented visibility.

Cover image for the Carters's <em>Everything Is Love</em>.

Cover image for the Carters’s Everything Is Love.

But let me suggest two other ideas about how they are putting art to work here.

The first is the Illuminati conspiracy-theory angle. Jay-Z and Beyoncé have made great sport, over the years, of playing teasingly with Illuminati conspiracy theories. An entire genre of YouTube videos sees amateur symbologists go into an interpretive frenzy every time a pop star covers one eye, reading it as a reference to the Eye of Horus, or seeing every checkerboard floor as a nod to the Masonic Lodge (it signifies the balance of good and evil, don’t you know).

Controversy is good for traffic, and this particular controversy is bought cheap, given the fever swamp that is the internet. Stars from Kanye to Kesha have made a habit of injecting Illuminati symbolism into their videos in hopes of getting a viral lift.

Voyaging into the Louvre at night, we are in deep Da Vinci Code territory—Illuminati Conspiracy Theory Central. By the time the first celebratory “Apes**t” hot takes were on the internet, they were met by their shadow-world accompaniment of paranoid occult readings.

The video begins with the image of a fallen angel… Could it be, Lucifer??

There are exactly 13 dancers writhing through the video, an unholy number! Coincidence?

And there is Jay, boasting in front of the Louvre’s I.M. Pei entrance—a classic prop for Illuminati conspiracists, with its pyramidal form and supposed 666 glass panels (a number some killjoys contest).

Maybe these associations are just a kind of bonus—but, then again, the Carters are too self-conscious about this stuff for it not to have at least come up in the shooting. Perhaps, then, the message comes back to their Olympian cultural status. They know very well about their “haters” with their “Illuminati mess”… and they reply: Feast your eyes on this hit parade of conspiracy-theory provocations, you hateful nerds.

So: The Louvre here is both a figure of ultimate cultural status and a font of teasingly demonic viral memes, allowing them to speak to both the gatekeeper critics who confer mainstream legitimacy and the hordes of ultra-engaged wonks on Reddit and YouTube.

Then there’s the third link in its symbolic function: Art as the ultimate unique good.

Here’s an enigma about the new album: Everything Is Love was released as an “exclusive” on Tidal, the music streaming service the couple part own, before, confusingly, being released to Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services today. It’s not clear what that weird zigzag means, except that the music business is a very disorienting place right now.

Tidal is a maybe quixotic attempt by musicians to take control over their own business. Its track record has been mixed, and to date it probably has a million subscribers at best, according to Digital Music News. Although Beyoncé explicitly disses Spotify on another track in Everything Is Love, the Carters probably need the wider exposure to promote their “On the Run II” tour (which has been hit by reports of lackluster ticket sales, believe it or not).

The entire problem that subscription streaming music services were solving in the first place was that the internet had reduced intangible goods like music to data flows. Infinitely replicable at no marginal cost, music effectively ceased being a viable commodity. Ultimately, any music you can buy, you can also torrent. So, somehow, you have to reanimate the mystique of actually paying to be associated with it, despite the fact that you can potentially get it anywhere.

Which is where art—or the mythology of it—comes in.

The soaring art market quite naturally presents itself as the opposite pole to the internet’s tendency to reduce everything to free—artworks are natural “monopoly goods.” There is no substitute for owning the original; a million postcards of the Mona Lisa only make seeing the real thing more valuable. The close-ups of paintings that flicker through the beginning of “Apes**t” look like nothing so much as the kind of details you get in auction house catalogues—they are about the cult of Presence.

Musicians like the Wu-Tang Clan have even looked to the model of auctioning off an individual unique album-as-artwork to the highest bidder as a new business model for musicians (with disastrous results, since Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was bought up by grotesque “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, to the group’s dismay).

The trick is finding some impossible way of splitting the difference between actually making music into a restricted object which people have to pay for, and letting it circulate so that you can compete for visibility. And surrounding yourself with the most canonically, absolutely singular works of art in all of history, at the world’s most-visited museum, magically combines the mystique of absolute exclusivity with absolute mass appeal.

The intensified exaltation represented by the Louvre takeover is the flipside of the intensified devaluation of music that the Carters are pushing against; association with priceless art may be a way to make a case for music that has any price at all.

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