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I’m Rick James, Bitch…?

This past weekend, at the suggestion of Ms Makeda, I went with my sister and dragged my niece to go see an art exhibit featuring contemporary black artists, called 30 Americans.  This truly is a great showcase (and recommended by yours truly without any reservation), from Glenn Ligon to Basquiat and many others in between.  One of the most striking and perplexing and jarring and confusing installations was a series of silhouettes by Kara Walker.  It showed fairytale like pictures of a slave being ridden like a horse by her slavemaster, but also a woman biting a man’s stomach and the sacrifice of a baby.  I was to later be educated by an artist friend that it is because of these depictions that Kara Walker is a lightning rod, both hailed for her creativity and reviled for it at the same time.  Some critics, such as fellow black artist Betye Saar have gone so far as to call for boycotts of her shows, saying:

 “I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.”

That last sentence stuck with me. While Saar was basically accusing Kara Walker of doing a Bamboozled act through her work, I didn’t necessarily care whether that was correct or not.  Instead, it conjured up a larger question that I have frequently turned over in my brain when it comes to art, and black art more specifically, and hip hop in particular.  The question of how kosher it is for (black) art to be consumed by non-(black) audiences.  (fill in the parentheses with whatever “group” you’d like actually).

This may seem out of bounds.  Who would ever limit the consumption of art?  No one should.  Clearly.  Yet the discomfort I feel is real in that, if one cannot understand the art, then should one really be the main consumer of it?  And if you are the main consumer of the art, then does that become problematic?  That’s what jumped out at me about the Kara Walker controversy. I didn’t really care whether her work was revolting or not, but did fear the ramifications of presenting such a complex display that “the white art establishment” was fawning over when they may not understand all of the nuances that Walker was trying to convey.

"Do they understand what I'm saying?"

That fear for me originates in what I’ve seen in hip hop.  The genre has evolved into a huge business, albeit with (or because of) a majority of the music (some say up to 70%) being bought by white consumers.  Certainly anyone who has been to a hip hop concert recently has realized that frequently, most of the people in the audience don’t look anything like, or have the background of who’s performing on stage.  As I was reminded though, black people are a minority so that’s likely to happen in most of what we do with respect to performance.  In sports, movies, television, paintings, anything really.

That’s true, but in art, as opposed to sports, it’s particularly troublesome, because the art conveys meaning.  It’s not a competition, it’s expression.  It’s not black and white, it’s grey.  It can be so hard to “decode” at times that even Jay-Z needs to provide a translation.  Speaking of translation, I recently attended a play about Iran and couldn’t understand any of the Arabic which was spoken.  So how could I really understand the play?  At it’s worst, if the art’s meaning is misconstrued or simplified or goes over someone’s head, it can have the opposite effect than what was intended by the artist.  Call it the Dave Chappelle syndrome (which people who don’t understand then label as “crazy”).  Create a masterfully funny but serious take on society and race, but then realize that people aren’t getting it, and instead are only screaming, “I’m Rick James Bitch!”

Further, the lack of understanding can push the art in directions that are far different from it’s origins to its detriment…for instance…

But, like I said, while there is responsibility on the part of the consumers, limiting their consumption is not an option.  So, it really is more about the artists.  First, the artist (think 50-Cent) may not care or may vacillate back in forth in a state of liminality of getting paid and keeping it real.  And as I was challenged, does anyone ever know exactly what an artist is trying to convey?  Well…the artist does.  I’m not an artist (though sometimes I pretend), so I don’t want to be providing prescriptions, but at what point does the artist have a responsibility to stand up and say, you are not understanding the work (perhaps more importantly, you are not really trying to understand the work) and you are actually twisting it in a way that I (and my community) don’t feel comfortable with?  That we’re both laughing at the same joke, but for different reasons?  And your reasons for laughing are problematic?

I guess it’s kind of like getting a tattoo of a Chinese character which is visually appealing and a book told you signifies “tranquility.”  I bet you wish someone had stopped you before you made that decision.  Especially when your new Chinese friend sees it years later and tells you that it actually means “fooled.”



2 thoughts on “I’m Rick James, Bitch…?

  1. One characteristic of art is that it essentially ceases to belong to the artist once somebody else “sees” it. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a Czech woman who lamented the fact that American (and others, too, I’m sure) readers of Milan Kundera tended to read his work as “cute” or “funny”, where Eastern European readers were able to see the very dark aspects of his novels. You can find examples of this everywhere, where deeply personal or political art becomes co-opted by the mainstream and used to fill gaps in the action during sporting events.

    That said, I’m going to have to reference a story I once wrote (so old I can’t even find it on the webs) arguing that Eminem (and hip hop in general, I suppose) holds such strong appeal to young white men because of how many traditional channels of creative self-expression have been denied to them through a narrowing definition of masculinity. Basically, men can’t play most musical instruments anymore, can’t write poetry, can’t dance most types of dance, etc., without having to face questions about the masculinity and sexuality. Hip hop is pretty much the last refuge for mainstream (or should I say straight) males to express emotions.

    So unless people are missing an essential irony (taking the “modest proposal” at face value), I’m not sure anybody has to correct anybody else’s interpretation of art. Of course, that doesn’t excuse bad art, especially on the level of “Pretty Boy Swag”. But this is why arguments about authenticity are so important.

    Posted by robertkelleya | November 22, 2011, 4:35 pm
    • Really interesting thought about hip hop and emotive straight males. Never really thought about that element in that way, but it makes sense. There really aren’t a lot of “acceptable” creative outlets out there anymore. Maybe that’s why Ochocinco and T.O. feel such a need to do their thing on field…or used to do their thing I should say.

      I agree with you that examples of misunderstanding are everywhere. And I am not advocating limiting people’s access or interaction with art or censoring stuff in any way. More than anything I’m just saying that it seems to me that people should try to understand the art they are consuming as much as possible and there should be some sort of responsibility the artists take to ensure that 1) those that the artists intended their art for have access to it and 2) if the train goes off the tracks and their individual art (or worse an entire genre) starts to be used in “socially irresponsible” ways as chappelle put it, that this is addressed in order to either provide a teachable moment and / or to make it responsible again…

      Posted by chico | November 22, 2011, 7:06 pm

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