Monday, August 13, 2012

Beyoncé in Marfa

Robert Boyd


According to her Tumblr, Beyoncé|I am (from which I took all the above photos), pop superstar Beyoncé is (or was) in Marfa. I'm in Marfa, and I haven't seen her around, so I suspect these photos are a little back-dated. (Which is probably wise--why give stalkers any hints?) Still, I like the possible coincidence that she could be in the same tiny town at the same time as me.

It's not usually my business to speculate about celebrities, but this is the second Beyoncé-checking-out-art thing I've seen recently. First was about a month ago when she got a guided tour of the Menil. Is Beyoncé reinventing herself as a collector? This process requires educating oneself before buying--hence guided tours of museums and visiting art holy sites like Marfa. If you don't do your homework, you are likely to buy work that reflects poorly on yourself.

Someone like Beyoncé is similar to the robber barons of the 19th century. They all had wealth but no pedigree. Good taste, reflected in owning the right artworks, is a way to acquire a pedigree--to acquire class. Buying such work is "conspicuous consumption," which was a behavior discovered by Thorstein Veblen a little over 100 years ago. (Just as a side note, why is it that when art is "theorized" these days, to use a little IAE, that Veblen is never one of the theorists? Not French enough?)

However, I may be reading to much into Beyoncé's art excursions. Maybe she just likes art but has no particular ambition to be a major collector. A normal person just goes to a museum--a major celebrity like Beyoncé gets a guided tour and it gets written up in the newspaper. And then know-it-alls like me idly speculate about what it all means.

(Hat tip to Matthew Couper.)



  1. I suspect this has more to do with the late movement by mainstream (corporate-endorsed) art institutions to integrate other forms into their programming. I went to a DJ Spooky talk several years ago at Artpace; virtually all the major and independent institutions here in Austin host concerts of some type; see recent NYT profile on MOCA Denver's Adam Lerner:

    It's been happening in one form or another forever, but has become commercially viable only lately. Some artists have a vested interest in name recognition (see last week's New Yorker profile on Tino Sehgal) and don't really give a shit about the consequences for the rest of us.

    1. Your theory is probably true if it was Chinati or Ballroom Marfa that brought Beyoncé to Marfa. But if she decided to go on her own (and that's what the photos look like, but who knows?), then it's she that is gaining cultural capital from the visit instead of the other way around. And that's what I think it happening.

  2. Really? One's choice of art may "reflect poorly on yourself", or, if you adhere to someone's subjective and incredibly elitist evaluation of what the "right" art is, you gain class? Part of me wants to believe this is incredibly subtle and biting satire.

    1. It's not satire at all. It's about the social signalling that certain activities and attributes have. One is certainly permitted to like any art you want, but if one's favorite artist is Patrick Nagel, for example, that will signal something about oneself to other people.

      We are social beings, and we live in a society that divides us by class on several bases--wealth, obviously, but not exclusively. In aristocratic societies, the division was primarily about ancestry. But the U.S. kept churning up new rich in the 19th century--people who had no class by virtue of their ancestry. So to be accepted by the "old rich", the "new rich" adopted the right clothes, the right schools for their children, and the right cultural accoutrements--the lifestyle, in short, of the old rich. They hired art historian Bernard Berenson to go out and buy them some class by buying great works of European art. This was all about having the "right" tastes and thus signalling both your class and you wealth. (And because these insecure millionaires hired Berenson, we have many great works of European art in the U.S. in our museums today.)

      What this is about is a mismatch between one's wealth and one's appearances. Obviously there are rich people who don't care what anyone else thinks. But many, if not most, do. So they try to have their tastes and appearances "catch up" in a way with their wealth. The classic comics strip, "Bringing Up Father" is all about this mismatch--Jiggs wins a lottery and becomes fabulously rich. But he still wants to have the habits of an Irish American working class guy--playing poker with the boys down at Dinty Moore's. His wife, Maggie, however, is a social climber (but an inept one) and is always trying to get Jiggs to join her in wearing the right clothes, displaying the right manners, having the right tastes for the class to which she aspires. This conflict is the source of the humor in the strip.

      That's what I suggest might be happening with Beyoncé (although I really have no idea if this is so and think I made that clear). Whatever else she is doing, Beyoncé is displaying somewhat sophisticated tastes in art by visiting the Menil or visiting Chinati. I'm not suggesting she is a "Maggie," who is unconvincingly faking it. But it does suggest that she wants not just to be a person with certain tastes, but to be SEEN as a person with certain tastes. As I said, it's a old story.

  3. Well her husband spends a lot of money on art and raps about it a lot: "Banksy, bitches, Basquiat", "Im riding dirty, tryna get filthy, Pablo Picasso, Rothkos, Rilkes."

    Complex magazine did a slideshow on the topic last year.