The Universal Notebook: The art of Beeple and ‘WAP’

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Who’s the bigger fool? The guy who paid $69 million for a collaged work of 5,000 digital images? Or the guy who thinks a work of digital art couldn’t possibly be worth $69 million?

And while we’re at it, what’s happened to American culture that a pair of female singers can simulate sex and sing a song about aroused female genitalia on the Grammy Awards and not raise near the ruckus that erupted in 2004 when Janet Jackson had her minor “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl half-time show? 

We live in troubled times, but then we always have. So the fact that American culture has become credulous and coarse should not surprise anyone.

I mean hats off to Beeple, the 39-year-old graphic designer in suburban South Carolina, who managed to sell “The First 5000 Days” at a Christie’s auction for $69.3 million. Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelman, is a computer nerd who creates art for other computer nerds – in this case, a non-fungible token, or NFT, consisting of 5,000 images Beeple has created daily since 2007. What the anonymous collector bought was essentially a line of code that says he owns the virtual artwork.

At the Grammys, which people who know about such things say was a huge success, rappers Cardi B (born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar) and Megan Thee Stallion (born Megan Jovon Ruth Pete) gave an explicit performance in primetime of their X-rated hit “WAP,” which stands for, well, look it up.

“If you have small children in the room,” Grammys host Trevor Noah advised, “just tell them it’s a song about giving a cat a bath.”

Is this what it’s come to? A culture in which excess and profanity rule? I insist I’m not a prude, but “WAP,” both the lewd lyrics and lap-dance performance, did embarrass me. 

I admit I am not a fan of hip-hop or rap. They don’t even seem a category of music to me, just a minor talent for rhyme put to electronic sound. “Musicians” don’t even have to be able to play instruments. But hip-hop is a huge force in Black culture, so does disliking it make me a racist? I don’t think so.

I love blues, gospel, R&B, and soul and I’m not a fan of country-western or opera, so I would argue that there is no racial component to my musical biases.

I remember the 1950s when rock ‘n’ roll was considered the devil’s music by Christian fundamentalists, and the 1980s when Tipper Gore led the charge against violent and sexual song lyrics. I’m not in favor of any kind of artistic censorship except self-censorship. That’s another way of saying “good taste.”

When it comes to cutting-edge art of dubious aesthetic and monetary value, art history teaches us that scoffers tend to end up eating crow. People feared that they were being put on by Impressionism, for heaven’s sake. Now everyone loves Impressionism. But Abstract art is still suspect a century later. Dismissing things you don’t understand is an unattractive quality of the smug-minded. 

Still, do I think a Beeple jpg is great art? No. Do I think it could be worth $69 million? No, not really. Could I think of better uses for $69 million? Yes, absolutely. But, hey, it’s not my money and it’s not my art. I guess I’ve just become too old to appreciate a culture in which people with phony names create art and music that isn’t real.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.