Still from “Apeshit” music video.

The Unlikely Connection Between The Carters’ “Apeshit” and 1960s French Marxists

Did Beyoncé and Jay-Z pull a détournement at the Louvre?

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Jun 18 2018, 12:46pm

Still from “Apeshit” music video.

Radical gestures roll in on a mightily slippery sliding scale these days, don’t they? We’re far past any cultural division between high and low or pop and art at this point, and artists on the charts are also sniffing out their next inspiration, album cycle, or comparison to their own personal affairs in the grander schemes of culture and history. You’d be hard pressed to find a more hallowed repository of the West than the Louvre, so of course that’s where Beyoncé and Jay-Z have rolled up to set their new music video for the track “Apeshit” from the fresh album they dropped like an anvil right on top of your weekend.

Of course this isn’t the first time they’ve been there, nor the first time some Pop-ish upstarts made a Major Statement at the French museum, but it would seem to be a major escalation in the Carters x Louvre relationship, to say nothing of the pride re: their own marital ties that the album and video are so keen to showcase. When worlds (and genres) collide is still a strong trend across multiple spheres of art and culture—turning meaning and message into something of a competitive game of Russian nesting dolls or an arms race of spectacle-based oneupmanship—but what might we make of this night at the museum if considered in light of the 1960s Marxist avant-garde French Situationist International?

Founded in 1957 by Guy “Barrel of Laughs” Debord and Asger “Beware the Palette Knife” Jorn, the Situationists were guys and gals, but mostly guys, who wanted to, as the name would indicate, create some situations and elevate to the level of philosophy the notion of taking a freaking walk outside. But they also had a strategy! And key among their techniques, to which you can probably attribute the rise of “culture jamming” and just whatever Banksy thinks he’s doing, was the détournement. Discussed in chapter 8 of Debord’s 1967 tract The Society of the Spectacle, the technique calls for taking advantage of existing cultural objects or canonized art, rerouting their message, and even advocates for theft: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It sticks close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.” You would not have wanted this guy for your editor, but if you were looking to smash the state (of meaning), Debord was your man.

There she is, the cover of the first edition of The Society of the Spectacle (1967). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

So, if “détournement serves as a reminder that theory is nothing in itself, that it can realize itself only through historical action and through the historical correction that is its true allegiance,” then is the spectacle of “Apeshit” a glam, historical correction of the Western assumption that houses of European culture contain the highest achievements of man- and womynkind? Beyoncé and Jay-Z have more clout and pull at this point than a merely rich person or garden-variety aristocrat putzing around the Cotswolds or Monaco, and they built that for themselves. When they pull off a stunt like this, it feels like another chime in the prosperity gospel that Doreen St. Félix examined in the arc of Rihanna’s career, as well as further evidence that the ability to make a compelling spectacle of oneself, to write a personal narrative as large as that of the progress of a civilization, is success.

“Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It sticks close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.”

The false idea here is white supremacy, and perhaps the correction then is that European colonialists may not have had the time or the means to make their masterpieces if it weren’t for the economic boon of slavery and historical pillaging of resources from southern and eastern continents for the benefit of countries like France. The Situationists didn’t really like spectacle much (“The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living”) but they recognized that it was inescapable in modern society (“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”).

Given this circumstance, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, god bless them, would appear to be doing their best to create a spectacle that people who look like them can see themselves in too, as opposed to the near uninterrupted stream of black death spectacle the media and world is awash in on a day to day basis. Look forward to hearing this jam blasting out of car speakers this summer—it’ll be a real situation.