AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

BEAUTY IN STRANGE PLACES: ART FIRST

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I met a critic, I made her shit her drawers
She said she thought hip-hop was only guns and alcohol
I said “Oh hell naw!” But yet it’s that too
You can’t discrimi-hate cause you done read a book or two
What if I looked at you in a microscope, saw all the dirty organisms
Living in your closet would I stop and would I pause it?
…Speeches only reaches those who already know about it
This is how we go about it

– André 3000, “Humble Mumble

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What follows is a guest post by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò.

This blog recently hosted a post on country music which defended country music partly because of its interaction with the class dynamics between the working class people who listen to the style and the broader culture in which they do so. The author of this piece comes close to a trope I’ve noticed in many online discussions of art, which feature people “critiquing” the performative politics of the authors but not the aesthetics.

It seems to me like some people these days think their political judgments should lead their aesthetic judgments. In the last few years I’ve been in more conversations than I care to remember about why this or that music is good or bad based on the politics or political symbolism of the artist or their work – why we should like this music because it’s made by representatives of this or that identity group, or we should hate that music because it’s “cultural appropriation”. And, worse, I’ve gotten through many of these discussions without drums or melody or harmony so much as being mentioned, much less being the focus. Sometimes, I was myself guilty! Third and perhaps worst of all is something I think of as a predictable result of the social environment helped along by the first two things: A lot of people in various artistic mediums seem very interested in discussing and preening the social significance of their work but uninterested in developing the fundamental skills of their craft. So, in the spirit of self-criticism: I want to try to do all of these things less because I think these tendencies are bad for art. By the end of this piece I want to have explained why I think that.

Here’s a start. If you ask me, the particular way of mixing politics with art where political considerations are supposed to call the shots is a good way to mess up both ends of things. Not only will we misunderstand (if we’re the audience) or muck up (if we’re the producer) the individual pieces of art we’re engaged with, we’ll also fuck the game up for art in general by establishing or reinforcing norms that make art responsible for the wrong kinds of things in the wrong kinds of ways. Nobody wins.

African American political philosophers have had a lot to say about what art is responsible for and whom it’s responsible to – for Black art, at least, but I suspect there are broader lessons to be learned. So I’m going to look at a few examples of different things people have said on this to help clarify what I have to say about how our views on art and politics more broadly best fit together.

What’s Art For?

Maulana Karenga, chairman of the famous US Organization, once rejected the possibility of responsible Black “art for art’s sake.” Art, “like everything else in the Black community”, must “respond positively to the reality of revolution” by contributing to the victory of the “battle for the minds of Black people.” It must “expose the enemy, praise the people, and support the revolution,” and discourages art that, say, paints oranges or trees – that is, unless guerillas are eating the oranges for strength or hiding behind the trees for cover.

In “Criteria of Negro Art”, W.E.B. Du Bois gave a similar take on Black art. The “apostle of beauty,” which Du Bois importantly claims is a “vehicle of universal understanding,” ought to use truth and right to fuel that vehicle. That will, in turn, advance the cause of “colored people.” Like Karenga, Du Bois does not “care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda” in the specific service of “gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.”

Du Bois and Karenga are political instrumentalists: people who would like art to serve conventional political ends, and want these goals to be the most important. Call that politics first. It’s not hard to see why they had that motivation. Both of them lived in politically tumultuous times, through periods of militant organizing and counter-organizing from the far right, and it’s easy to demand all hands on deck – even the painter’s hands! – when it seems like the ship is in danger of capsizing. But I think we should resist this urge. Against them, on my art first team, are Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Audre Lorde.

The title of Locke’s essay “Art or Propaganda” tips his hand. He believes we have to pick one. There are too many prophets trying to be poets and poets trying to be prophets, Locke says, and folks should stay in their lane. Prophets of propaganda are “partisan”: In attempting to convince people of a political message, they commit themselves to a conception of what the truth is in advance of the discussion that could’ve been had around figuring it out. Locke thinks the stuff of art isn’t driven by attempts to influence or convince others but rather to express one’s self. Art that is too “extroverted” or directed at external goals will lead to “shallow, truckling imitation.” He encourages a division of labor on which today’s Black artists work for the group’s flourishing today, and today’s Black politicos and propagandists work to make greater heights achievable for Black artists and other folks tomorrow.

Langston Hughes gives a similar account in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” but one more strongly rooted in a conception of the artist’s individuality than Locke’s. Because of class differences in the psychological effects of racism on the Black artist, he seems to think Black working class artists are in a better position to make genuine art. In contrast, the middle class “respectable” types treat whiteness as a “symbol of all virtues.” They work and socialize with white people to a far greater extent than do the “low-down” Blacks, and as a result cannot see beauty that is not presented “according to Caucasian patterns.” This class of Black folks also serves as a material barrier between Black artists who do not refine their work for white sensibilities, making commercial success almost unreachable for Hughes’ preferred kind of author. Working class Black people, on the other hand, can see a whole range of beautiful things.

One more fancy famous person, if I may: Audre Lorde also gives a take on expression that helps the art first view in “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Lorde claims that oppression distorts and corrupts the sources of power within oppressed groups, and that this fact plays an important role in perpetuating systems of oppression. Qualities associated with oppressed groups are stigmatized, and this can give rise to the belief that those in the oppressed group need to distance themselves from these qualities – importantly, from these aspects of themselves – in order to be “truly strong” and to escape the associated contemptibility.

Lorde focuses on the erotic, which is or has an aesthetic quality. The stigmatization of the erotic, partially through its association with women, has caused it to be misperceived even at a purely descriptive (as opposed to practical) level. Many, she alleges, can no longer reliably distinguish between the erotic and the merely pornographic. Properly understood, the erotic is or is associated with a deep sense of self-satisfaction and engaged feeling that can one can demand from their lives and associations with others, while the pornographic is its opposite. Although Lorde is concerned with the erotic and pornographic, it’s easy to extend her view to other stigmatized aesthetic qualities.

All of these figures agree that political context is important for characterizing artistic acts and works. But politics first folks like Karenga and Du Bois think of political context as itself the rightful target of art, not just something that helps us understand it. This politics first view may be a background commitment that people have – one that explains why they try to make political judgments lead their aesthetic ones, both on the front end of the artistic process (by trying to influence how artists produce) and on the back end (by trying to motivate politics first judgments and interpretations of artistic products). Unlike Karenga and Du Bois, the squad of Lorde, Hughes, and Locke don’t see the point of art as direct intervention on that context itself. Instead, they see that context as a backdrop against which art pursues its own, independent ends. (Join us!)

There’s one general thing that Lorde, Hughes, and Locke seem to agree on. Aesthetically relevant qualities associated with the oppressed are likely to be misunderstood in two ways. One, people will just misunderstand the art that uses these qualities: An aesthetic associated with oppressed people will often be misinterpreted, often by confusing it with some different, usually worse quality. Two, this environment of oppression will lead to the wrong judgments about what we should do: We’ll fail to appreciate the value of qualities associated with oppressed people, and tell people to stop doing things they should do or fail to encourage actions we should stand by.

I call practices that embrace and make use of such stigmatized aesthetically relevant qualities counteraesthetic practices. These qualities and ideals are counteraesthetic not because they are opposed to aesthetic ideals – they are aesthetic ideals – but because of the role they play in the context of a more broadly oppositional relationship to the dominant culture. I think counteraesthetics help explain what goes wrong when we let our aesthetic judgments be led by our political judgments, as politics first folks often do.

What’s Politics Got to Do With It?

That was a whole lot, but stay with me, because we’re about to get to why it was worth it to trudge through all those views. If some music is lyrically and otherwise oriented around counteraesthetic ideals, then this might be the right way to look at all of its elements, including occasional political speech. Criticisms of social conditions or government might be best thought of as tools to help the song be the best version of what it is: an attempt to instantiate aesthetic ideals (in this case counteraesthetic ones), rather than a strategic step toward reaching concrete political goals or even self-expression in the sense of, say, a street protest. If that’s how things work, then neither the articulation of a political project or program nor the consequences of having done so are incidental to the aims of the art in question – even speech that succeeded anyway at articulating, defending, or clarifying political points. Take, for example, this verse from the hardcore subgenre of hip hop, by Jus Allah of the group Jedi Mind Tricks:

I inhale toxins
Drunk off blood from dead cops and
The watchmen, that kill us in this maze we locked in
Side Cobra Clutch, only truth can sober us
Wild cause we know there’s no Jehovah watching over us
Only 10 percent that’s controlling us
Try to take our souls from us, while they stay patrolling us
Caged in we break barriers, change to new areas
Dodgin’ the pigs in chariots out to bury us
Jus Allah don’t make threats
Leave your fuckin’ necks clipped
Have you speakin’ the manual alphabet
Seein’ me is def not repeated or done twice
I laugh as I cast the first stones at Christ
Joint in ace bands, you move to Graceland and Satan
Mics spray then, bury flesh in wasteland
Infect you
Inject you with the gunpowder pegs
Indent your forehead with hot lead
Whether in the abode of the dead
Or resting in the Zions
Allah stay chasin’ the dough like wild lions
Unchained tearin’ your flesh we unfed
Flyin’ through, like birds we takin’ your daily bread

– Jedi Mind Tricks, “Muerte

There’s political speech here, sure. Jus Allah identifies police officers as “the watchmen that kill us” within a “maze we’re locked in,” likely a politically loaded reference to the “ghetto” that betrays a criticism of the broader social power structure. But Jus Allah’s discussion of the ghetto is not Tommie Shelby’s. Trying to explain the entire verse as a defense of those elements, or as organized around or aimed at political movement, wouldn’t work. These political lines are, after all, separated by the bursts of vivid hyperviolence standard to this subgenre (“leave your fuckin necks clipped,” “indent your forehead with hot lead”) that are hard to interpret as attempts to intervene in political consciousness.

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The political speech isn’t the point. It’s just being used to paint a certain kind of aesthetic picture, and that’s the point. The political comments are not digressions, diamonds in the rough of hyperviolence, rare moments of moral responsibility and dignity that might redeem the rest of the verse. They are just lines of a verse, like the other lines, serving the same aesthetic purposes that the rest do. Had Jus Allah just wanted to communicate “The police are an occupying force that I don’t much care for,” he could have just said that, with the sort of directness we might expect and value in speeches or political pamphlets – and without paying for studio time. Instead, he wraps his political speech in vivid imagery and intricate internal and external rhyme. It may not positively contribute to the battle for the minds of Black people, in Karenga’s terms, but it succeeds in making a good song. The politics first people ought to tell us why this should have gone differently.

Jedi Mind Tricks provides an especially good example of where an art first approach is, at least, more interpretively helpful than a politics first approach. Jedi Mind Tricks’ chief producer Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind (subtle!) often provides conventionally beautiful, harmonically ornate beats as the bedrock for their hyperviolent lyrics. In this aesthetic world, the beauty of the intricate rhymes and of the odd classical Spanish guitar is a match, consonance and not dissonance (take this extreme example, with some gorgeous guitar and vocal samples and politically … irresponsible lyrics). But even more on the nose lyrically, take the verse from his Jedi Mind Tricks group-mate Vinnie Paz:

I’m tasteless, there’s beauty in strange places
I find beauty in razors
I find beauty in blood drippin from your faces
I find beauty in the Qu’ran and all of its Aramaic equations
I find beauty in twelve gauges
I find beauty in teaching you what the definition of pain is
I find beauty in stainless –
Steel that can kill and reveal the front of your grill, you’re brainless

– Jedi Mind Tricks, “Blood Runs Cold

This is an even more convenient verse for my counteraesthetics point, since the idea that hyperviolence is used counteraesthetically is damn near said outright – the point is that Vinnie Paz can use stigmatized things, the sort of things that “tasteless” people are into, to write tasteful bars. I’ll have another.

Should We Want Overtly Political Music? Nah.

Your whole approach to rappin is ass crack backwards
Cats’ll see me in the spot and act salty
Stressing you’ll ‘save hip hop’, you can’t even save a wack party

– Brother Ali, “Star Quality

So, why is trying to press art into the service of political ends bad for art? Why art first and not politics first?

Well, for starters: I think we should want willing converts to the church of wokeness, not people muscled into the pews by colonizing missionaries. For a while, if things are going well, we would guess that an art form led by an oppressed group is going to display at least some of the political “impurities” of the group of people they come from (to borrow a term from Tommie Shelby). (Similarly, we would guess that art forms led by culturally dominant groups will display some of the characteristic political impurities of these groups: individual and cultural narcissism, inattention to social injustice in the framing of their own lives and problems, tropes that are just as dominant in their art forms but rarely scrutinized to the extent that art made by oppressed folks’ is.) This is not because oppressed groups will communicate or otherwise achieve some grand progressive idea in virtue of openly demonstrating their moral flaws. But it is because artists will be too busy doing what’s required with their limited social and emotional resources in order to actually accomplish the wonderfully difficult objective of succeeding as art, rather than meeting the political and ethical litmus tests of cultural critics. Exactly this laser focus might be necessary for their art to succeed as art, which I also think is necessary for artists to produce something engaging and inspiring enough for it to succeed at any secondary political objectives. Of course, we shouldn’t accept this forever – but recall Locke’s point about division of labor. There should be people, “prophets”, whose job it is to enlighten us about the political and moral truths, and we should not confuse these with the “poets”.

Maybe I’m making too much out of this division of labor point. After all, no one is just a rapper or just a political actor. One is also a sibling, a cousin, a parent, a voter, and these identities make normative requirements on a person that bear meaningfully on their decisions as an artist within a specific cultural context.

It’s a good point. In principle, one could both have great music (for example) in terms of rhythms, melody, and harmony, yet also have thoughtfully articulated political and moral commitments. But in practice, there seems to be a very clear trade-off when we socially signal that people should focus on the second list of things instead of the first. There are only so many years you can suffer through unlistenable but politically “woke” albums before you start to think you’ve been played somehow. It’s as though the artist is assuming that one day we will be woke enough to realize that time is a white, Western construct (that’s why it is okay that they are never on beat), and in the meantime we are supposed to sit through troves of cage- and cruelty-free, farm-to-table artisanal wackness. And can you really use art to win the “battle for Black minds” – or anything else – if it’s wack?

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Political education and artistic development are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they equivalent. The time, effort, attention, and scrutiny put directed to one of those might well trade off with what’s left for the other. It’s no accident, I suspect, that the “Internationale” doesn’t even slap. No amount of appreciation for its message will change that. The challenge for politics first folks is to explain how they can avoid this result in practice – you know, the place where revolution would have to happen – and not in theory where we can move conceptual pieces around the notional chess board without having to consider real life trade-offs. (I’ll wait. My DMs are open.)

Don’t get me wrong. There are, of course, notable exceptions, artists whose music is both aesthetically excellent and involves thoughtful and progressive social commentary. These include Janelle Monae, J Cole, Logic, Jill Scott, Kendrick Lamar, Noname, the artist formerly known as Mos Def, and plenty of others. But even these people are only speaking politically at some times and moments (I wouldn’t start with the track “Ms. Fat Booty” for the purposes of building a gender analysis, maybe just go head and read Black Feminist Thought instead?) and I believe those artists are getting it right by allowing themselves to go wherever inspiration takes them.

I think we go very far wrong when we characterize and attempt to evaluate music in terms of its political content, as though it were an attempt to change the world. It isn’t. It’s an attempt to use the world – even the parts that the dominant culture doesn’t like, even the parts that are stigmatized – to do the otherwise very regular thing that art does: be something that looks, sounds, or feels some type of way. A genre or community that is given the space to be organized around counteraesthetic ideals is one that is given the space to succeed as art, on the terms that art must succeed at – which is, I think, necessary for it to succeed at anything else. Political instrumentalists put the cart before the horse, and that’s no way to get anywhere.

So, my guess is that if we really want art that is both aesthetically excellent and also thoughtful and politically progressive, we’re better off demanding the aesthetically excellent part than the progressive part, and waiting patiently for the tools and skills to trickle to someone who will be progressive for their own reasons. In the meantime, what we get may not be emancipatory, progressive, or revolutionary. But it will be good at being what it is – art – and that’s its own reward.

Update: A previous version of this post claimed that the Internationale doesn’t even slap. We stand corrected.

Notes on the Contributor
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is a PhD candidate in UCLA’s philosophy department and incoming Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. His research interests include meta-ethics and social/political philosophy, especially as they intersect with post-colonial thought and the Black Radical Tradition.

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