By Nicole Ziegler
Entering Sotheby’s, the art world becomes a marketplace defined by its assets. The upscale vendor’s attention to service, with sophisticated clerks and stately doormen, coalesces in a smug and distancing atmosphere. With a reputation for selling paintings worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the world-famous auction house has fostered an image of inaccessibility.
The first object is not a work of art, but a 1998 McLaurin F1 sports car valued at $12 million dollars. Contemplating this price tag, one makes their way up the escalator to the second floor. Here are the S|2 galleries, Sotheby’s gallery space. It is within these spaces that the ostentatious and disassociated institution seeks to appeal to a younger, broader, and more accessible population.
In the late spring of 2015, the S|2 Gallery’s show “I Like It Like This,” brought the auction house’s plutocracy into contemporary popular culture. The exhibit, which celebrated the work of black American contemporary artists, was both a visual and auditory experience. A “sound station”—a podium with an iPad and a pair of Beats by Dre headphones—stood before the works of artists including Jacob Lawrence, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Theaster Gates.
The pairing of hip-hop music with contemporary art was the work of Grammy-winning musician, Drake. This popular figure brought the world of fine art into conversation with mainstream music, pushing viewers to reflect on the relationship between the two art forms. Just as one experiences hip-hop culture visually through artists like Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, or Lorna Simpson, the pairing of visual and aural culture augments the artistic value of both.
While most viewers glide quickly in and out of galleries, the headphones forced you to stop before a work and look at it. The headphones functioned to mute the outside world, bringing a sense of focus to the artwork. The pairing of Cave’s Soundsuit (2009) with Kendrick Lamar’s “F*ck Your Ethnicity” further demonstrated the diverse manifestations of hip-hop that extend beyond music. The viewer simultaneously absorbed the visual and auditory artworks in a highly fused experience, underscoring the influence that both art forms have on one another.
In the “I Like It Like This” catalogue, Henry L. Thaggert states, “the artwork and the musical accompaniment do not necessarily align in terms of genre or era, but I expect this mash-up will shed new light on the symbiotic relationship between the two disciplines” (pg. 8). While Thaggert highlights the immense value of the exhibit, the “mash-up” between highbrow and lowbrow cultures can take on new meanings within the auction house. The social commentary expressed within a piece by Basquiat may be obscured by the work’s $48.4 million price tag. Drake’s involvement, along with the inclusion of works by popular artists such as Kanye West, Rihanna, and A$AP Rocky, challenged these concerns by bringing a new sense of understanding and approachability to the gallery.
As a business, the goal of this exhibition is transparent. Sotheby’s is engaging with a new, younger, and more diverse population in an effort to sell works to a previously untapped market. Despite the fiscal motivations, “I Like It Like This” also invites a population of individuals interested in contemporary art and hip-hop music to notice and appreciate the value of both art forms and their reciprocal influence on each other.
The exhibit’s success was in its cultural commonality, bringing together the interests of museum-goers, art collectors and hip-hop enthusiasts. An exhibit that emphasized the value of and relationship between both visual and vocal arts, “I Like It Like This” reflects Drake’s ambition “to not make the two worlds seem so distant.”
Image Courtesy of http://www.sothebys.com/