Friday, February 19, 2016

Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Kehinde Wiley, and the Incomprehensibility of High Art

Like the rest of America, I've been following some of the biggest stories to affect us all during this super-intense month of February.

No, no: my hysteria and histrionics have nothing to do with the primaries. Like my fellow Americans, I've tuned that mess out. Instead, I've been obsessing over the live performances of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar.

There's been so much good coverage on these two figures, so I feel almost silly adding my two cents to this public conversation on their music. But something that I've been wondering about lately is if people are freaking out about Beyoncé and Lamar so much because they're producing high art.

High art rests on the premise that the cultural product being produced somehow surpasses or supersedes our aesthetic expectations. We believe its content contains moral, spiritual, cultural, aesthetic values that go beyond commercialism. High art is not here to entertain us. It demands more from us. The more beautifully rendered the work of art, the more it has the ability to mess with our heads.

We admire high art for its beauty, yes, but also for its sophistication. Works of high art often unapologetically demand that the viewer or listener experience the cultural product more than once before it will be comprehensible to them. And high art often simply resists comprehensibility at all. I'm sure we could all come up with a list together of works of music, poetry, or visual art that people have struggled with and written about for decades.

Moreover, there's an unapologetic nature to high art. By the early 20th century we came to accept that Art is Art, and it's not the artist's fault that you can't understand it (see: Milton Babbitt's polemic, "Who Cares If You Listen?"; Duchamp's "The Fountain," et. al). I also blame Richard Wagner for this (but I blame him for everything, soooo....).
Marcel Duchamp, The Fountain (1917)

So I wonder if high art's refusal to apologize for its incomprehensibility is why people are freaking the eff out about Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. Beyonce's music video, Formation, and Kendrick Lamar's latest Grammy performance felt incomprehensible to people. Both artists presented works that were not immediately accessible, and they have refused to apologize for that.

For a variety of reasons (none of them good), American culture (both "highbrow" and "lowbrow") has a really hard time seeing black artists as creators of high art. Their musical works, iconography, and texts are supposed to always be accessible because their main purpose is to entertain. People have also identified that this is a problem of commercial music (pop/hip hop/etc), too: we don't think of it as worthy of the label "high art." Hence, Zoe's posts earlier on Lady Gaga and Britney Spears and Sia.

But there's also something more specific here in how we understand black artists and what they are capable of/who they should be speaking to. The poet Harryette Mullen articulated this point back in the 90s in her analysis of contemporary American poetry:
Harryette Mullen

She writes: “The assumption remains, however unexamined, that ‘avant-garde’ poetry is not ‘black’ and that ‘black’ poetry, however singular its ‘voice,’ is not ‘formally innovative.’” Black creativity, high art, and the avant-garde cannot mix.

Kehinde Wiley's paintings of black subjects in highly-stylized 18th century European art forms also point to this fact, too:
Kehinde Wiley, Officer of the Hussars (2008)

His work initially shocks and stuns the viewer. Using huge canvases that hang on the wall like medieval tapestries, Kehinde Wiley creates portraits of black figures who are comfortably nestled into a baroque, ornamental setting. His work appears to us as a contradiction. And his message is clear: we're not used to associating black figures with high art.

I think Beyoncé's video, Formation, functions in a similar manner. We see a mixture of aesthetic historicism in her representation of 19th century New Orleans that requires the viewer to be able to make historical/cultural references:
But we also catch a glimpse of her politics when she uses graffiti to write "Stop Shooting Us."
Kendrick Lamar's Grammy performance was equally astounding in part because of its reverse teleology. Beginning in a prison and ending in Africa, his Grammy performance narrated a different story of black history that we haven't quite unpacked.
But I think my point is that it's ok if we haven't figured out what they're doing with their art yet. It's okay if their works feel incomprehensible. Even better than that: it's a good thing. Recognizing black artists as multidimensional beings who use their amazing brains and talent to creatively share their experiences with us is wonderful.

But it's also precisely because their works are high art that people are uncomfortable with them. Their unapologetic incomprehensibility is audacious to those who are terrified of black creative agency and its power. People don't want to take their art seriously because of the assumptions about blackness, creativity, and entertainment that their work threatens to undo. I think that's why people are having meltdowns. It's not just because their works are politically charged that people are becoming hysterical. It's because they're aesthetic masterpieces, too.

High art is immensely powerful. Aesthetics have so much power. And it's really interesting to reflect on who's found ways to tap into that power and how people have responded to them. The more we recognize that, the more we can see the importance of supporting black artists in whatever field they're in. One can be black and create high art. That is not a contradiction. It's a cause for celebration. Let's figure out how to applaud them louder.


  1. If I may take a moment to talk about talking about great art and how hard it is and how sometimes that's part of the point. The idea that art has shock value was hardly new or unique to the twentieth century, and one might immediately think of the extravagances of seventeenth-century Baroque art to recognize that "shock and awe" has long been an aesthetic category. I mean think: Versailles or Hellbrunn. Subtlety, restraint, understated are probably not words that come to mind. But also seventeenth-century literary theorists, especially Tesauro, theorized a concept of meraviglia, that is "the marvelous," which has many similarities to the sublime. The marvelous described the effected created by a poet by writing a paradoxical metaphor that forced readers to shift their conceptualization of the object described in some way – usually via a shocking-but-true juxtaposition (icy-hot was a cliché of the time). But also, the experience of the marvelous – or its enactment: “marveling” – referred to the experience of being dumbstruck by a thing. Quite literally, when one marvels at art one cannot of speak about it. And I wanted to toss this idea into the mix here because I thought it would be fun to point out that your experience would seem to prove that: In fact, Beyoncé is marvelous!

  2. Holy crap that is amazing. I definitely need to ponder the experience of "marveling" more. Do you think this also ties into Kantian theory of detachment in aesthetics? Or am I making too much of a leap?

    1. OH. I totally think there are Kantian hold overs about the sublime and how the (semi-autonomous) art object changes us in your theory. I just didn't want to get into a whole long thing because, well, sort of by definition, aesthetic theorizing *means* telling people what the feel about art and I decide that in this scenario it was, perhaps, not my place.

      To me, the next question is to ponder the specifics of the sublime you are experiencing and talking about. For Kant, the sublime was really weirdly cerebral and mathmatical (because KANT!). So for him, the sublime object was so large that it forced someone to stop thinking about individual particulars and to conceptualize infinity itself. (Again, it's weirdly mathematical for a theory of how to appreciate art and/or nature, but that's who he was – Aufklarung and all.) But what I take from Kant is the way art objects can cause us to contemplate "the big picture" and/or "the system itself." And so perhaps what is also happening is that the aestheticization of blackness forces people to consider the social systems of race that they live out.

      But so yeah. I think you're going in this fascinating Kant-meets-Adorno (who was also into art challenging people) place that speaks to how the aestheticizaiton of blackness. This post also made me wish that someone like Wynton Marsalis might make a similar kind of art work in which he too, like Beyoncé, "comes out" – so to speak – a black. Because the gradual elevation of jazz into the arena of "high art" has come with a process, as many scholars point out including Kim Teal, of whitewashing the genre. And in doing so, we also create semi-revisionist histories that posit earlier jazz performers as avant-garde but under appreciated in their time by white people. (Not unlike Bach and his posthumous apotheosis.)

    2. I would count "Blood on the Fields" as this kind of project for Marsalis. Perhaps what it needs is the visual component-