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.

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