HBO's Picasso Baby: Jay Z Raps the Cult of Celebrity


 I’m bored.

That’s my first reaction to HBO’s latest pseudo-experiment in high culture, Jay Z’s live performance titled Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film.

My documentarian eye was jarred by the constant cutting of footage chronicling the rapper’s six hour live performance at Chelsea’s Pace Gallery. Performance art, yes; film, most definitely. This piece was so heavily edited (6 hours down to 11 minutes) that I couldn’t keep track of what was going on most of the time. Look, there he is singing to some well-dressed woman — oh wait, now it’s Adam Driver; now it’s some other well-dressed woman … oh, wait, now its Jemima Kirke, and look … Judd Apatow! The celebrities filtered into the crowd killed the notion that this was art for the people. No, this is art for HBO — so why not plug a few other shows in our lineup while we’re at it?

At one point the velvet ropes are let down and the crowd is encouraged to approach at a safe distance. Jay Z begins to rap about sticking his cock in the fox’s box and we catch a glimpse of one mother covering her young girl’s ears before we cut to a shot of older women dancing with the rap star. How young is too young to be initiated into the cult? When does it become charming to become nothing more than a fox’s box?


Nearly six minutes in, the improvisational rapping stops and we are treated to the worship of Jay Z. Shots of the rapper hugging adoring fans, crowds holding their hands up and outward in awe, bodyguards swooping the artist away as onlookers gaggle their love to the camera. This is spectacle worthy of a high holiday; the gallery is the temple, the priest has left the building. Now, they chase after him as he enters his limo, getting one last glance before they disperse to their holiday meal, spiritually refreshed and glowing.

They have been redeemed yet again. Pop culture has saved them. Because, as Jay Z’s voiceover explains, “you’re putting your fears and your vulnerabilities ..your insecurities all on music and it’s there for the world to see. You’re giving a glimpse of who you are.”  He reveals this as his motorcade drives off into the sunset.

Now the credits roll; all those in the audience who “performed” with the star are named with their professions listed. One is dubbed a “bon vivant” and in my head I dare 10 Jay Z fans to accurately define the French term. As the credits continue and you see who exactly was allowed up “on stage,” you realize that these are no ordinary folk; they are hand-picked from social circles surrounding the artist and the filmmaker. A few children may have made their way in; if their parents aren’t part of that league, perhaps they won a contest or even auditioned for the part. Ah, but I apologize for allowing my filmmaker’s cynicism to taint this holiest of experiences.

Jay Z’s purpose was to perform in an intimate venue that would allow him to marry high and low art. Like the granite isle on which this was made, the film touches the intersection between reality and delusion in style. Is Picasso Baby an art film? Yes. Could it be a statement about art? Not so much. Was it HBO’s Hollywood-meets-New York tent revival for the cult of celebrity? Most definitely. Celebrity preaches celebrity in a high-art forum now available through OnDemand and HBOGo, coming to an iTunes near you. Tithe away and be saved.

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