Since December 2013, Tumblr user Fly Art Productions has been overlaying seminal works of art with some of the dopest verses ever spit, bringing together two vital parts of culture: art and hip hop. This project, brought to you by Gisella Velasco and Toni Potenciano, was inspired by similarly-themed Tumblr accounts such as Modern Vampires of Art History, Swoosh Art, and Carter Family Portraits, all of which destabilize the lofty domain that art occupies by using highly recognizable imagery newly made available by an increasingly connected world. In the short time since it first appeared, web users met this tumblr account with great enthusiasm, which eventually led to a collaboration with Rad, an online fashion retailer that has conveniently made wearing these productions a reality.
Each image demonstrates a careful execution of juxtaposition between art’s rangy iconography and hip hop’s catchy lyricism wherein both texts are neither suppressed nor negated, but rather, obscured in order to create a different relationship between the image and the spectator. Lyrics that once floated freely through our ears become physically bounded and constituted by their surroundings, putting them in a fresh, new perspective that resonates. Master works are reintroduced to the viewer with an airy, even humorous, type of flair that helps lift some of the pressures that are often associated with viewing art. In viewing each image, one bears witness to what feels like a perfectly paired interaction between two texts that are worlds apart, yet still breathe seamlessly into each other. In a society where going mainstream is typically understood as an artist’s crowning achievement, the project has positive yields for both hip hop and art enthusiasts who enjoy exploring new possibilities for each mode.
It would be imprudent, however, to claim that all of the reception to the project has been absolutely positive. Whereas some viewers have found meaning in the project’s attempt to construct a new way to value both texts, others have dismissed it as being tasteless, with some even going as far as to claim that it is an affront to the works of art featured. Ultimately, it becomes clear that at the root of many of these judgments is the underlying notion that art is far above hip hop in terms of stratum, and that by associating the two, the former is somehow “cheapened”. This, in turn, warrants substantive interrogation of the ways in which valuation systems (in particular those having to do with different cultures) are negotiated. This is not to imply, however, that there is any “right” or “wrong” way of responding to these images. Although commentators are certainly entitled to their own opinions, it is how they go about forming them that is the subject of this consideration.
History demonstrates that these systems of evaluation are often standardized on middle and upper class sensibilities that repeatedly overlook and sometimes outwardly suppress anything considered to be “deviant”. With respect to art, this often manifests as a vague understanding of what is considered to be “high art” and what is not. Art institutions, art history courses, and governing art discourse are some of the many ways in which this exchange is allowed to endure without being made immediately clear to its spectators. It is years of this interplay that has fostered what feels like a natural proclivity to think of certain cultures as being “lesser” than others despite the lack of intrinsic value.
It should come as no surprise, either, that these appraisals are often given to traditionally marginalized populations, with a particular emphasis put on those of distinctly black cultures. Such was the case with jazz music in the 20’s, rock ‘n’ roll in the 40’s, and hip hop today. It is only after they’ve proven their longevity, more often than not through sustained marketability, that these cultures are allowed to pass through these boundaries, and even then they are still subject to a brutal process of condemnation wherein every aspect of it is thoroughly examined in order to be chastised accordingly.
While it’s undoubtedly important to underline the issues in contemporary music, we must also acknowledge that there remains a deep chasm between the ways in which hip hop and other genres are branded. For all their success at generating widespread popularity and acceptance into the American cultural fabric, modern-day hip hop artists are still met with intensely pathological and stigmatic associations with violence, drug abuse, misogyny, homophobia, and a litany of other societal mores. All the while, their predominantly white, rock-singing counterparts receive no such treatment from mainstream discourse and are allowed to remain relatively unscathed. This brand of conduct is observable in nearly all facets of everyday life.
An aptly-titled study by Virgil Griffiths, a software application manager, found that people who listened to hip hop artists such as Lil Wayne, T.I., and Beyonce performed far worse on the SAT than people who listen to Radiohead, U2, or the Counting Crows. Aside from the fact that the data used was gathered from Facebook and legitimized by a standardized test shown to have it’s share of flaws in evaluating the aptitude of racial minorities, it’s scrutinizing efforts like this that continually remind us how low our society ranks hip hop on the culture capital totem pole. It’s no wonder, then, why certain people are quick to call Fly Art’s mashups disparaging to the artworks featured.
Despite all of this, one can’t help but think of the prospects that this interaction could have for groups of people who are still denied access into the elevated realm that the art world seems to be. Although Fly Art’s productions might just be one amongst many in a string of fads that come and go, it has people’s attention, even if only for a moment. We should seize this opportunity to find constructive ways of tearing down the hierarchical divides between culture systems and question the rules that we silently adhere to.