I’ve been talking to a friend about what makes art powerful, which is to say, why does it even matter? She works at a gallery that upholds no standard for art submissions, exhibiting whatever comes their way in the name of being anti-establishment. It’s anarchy! As a result, there’s a lot of mediocre artworks for people to ignore, over cheap wine as they talk over each other, send texts and make passes, at the weekly exhibitions. It’s anarchy.
“So what’s your work about?” I ask a tall guy with shaggy blond hair. His painting is directly behind my head but I haven’t noticed it yet.
“Oh you know…” the conversation rotates. “Just about my thoughts and stuff…yeah.”
I nod and look off awkwardly and then sip my drink because nothing is being said.
Nothing is being said.
My friend and I, and the bulk of my Facebook contacts, unanimously agree that Childish Gambino’s “This is America” music video is great art. Gambino’s song does not really shout any kind of explicit opinion, but merely, presents us with ourselves. It holds up a mirror, and in it we see our muscular thumbs tapping and scrolling and bending and pulling triggers.
We are dancers. We are dead. We are distracted. We are animals.
It leads me to an idea: the best art is a mirror. One in which we can see ourselves, maybe not always clearly, always through a lens or two, but regardless, we are seen. While functioning as mirrors, these artworks leave their audience with the agency to interpret and respond to the image of their own self that they’re encountering and choose a course of action on their own. This is not to discredit art with very explicit messages or calls to action, but simply suggests those works that are just mirrors, and thus less manipulative, are more powerful in that they do not particularly exert any kind of thought control. They present us with something in which we can catch a reflection of who and what we are as a society, but leave us with full agency to make do with this image however we see fit as individuals. They don’t interfere with the line of connection between artwork and viewer, letting it manifest and permutate as organically as possible.
In Gambino’s video, and other masterful artworks (Claudia Rankine’s poetry, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, George Orwell’s 1984 etc.), there is the sense that the artist is fully aware of their intentions with the work. Every shot of “This is America” matters; blink and miss a scene, and you lose an important piece of nuance. Maybe this supports my theory that every good artist should read and understand at least a few good poems. Poetry, of words or in filmed images or in the harmonization of painted colors on canvas, teaches us to pick only the most important and powerful, thus minimal, selection of words to create the maximum level of meaning, nuance and impact. The artist must know and understand the role of every single word or element of their work and how it functions within the greater piece. This understanding of one’s own art may not necessarily be fully-formed before or during the process of creation, but once it’s done, an artist should be able to spend time editing, revising, analysing, pondering their work in depth in order to arrive at a set of personal meanings and intentions they wish to portray. These intentions do not have to be exerted upon every viewer of course (and can certainly change over time), but instead enable the artist to comprehend and defend their creation while recognizing the potential ways it may impact its viewers. Gambino does not shoot a row of gospel singers in his video without a purpose. He does not include a shot of SZA dressed as Lady Liberty for no reason. He does not move his body in certain ways on screen without certain reasons.
Now more than ever, race and identity politics are at the forefront of our global political climate and conversation, so it’s natural that a lot of art, especially music, indulges in topics of representation, cultural encounters, sexual orientation, race, mental health and xenophobia. 20th century jazz has given way to hip-hop as one of the primary platforms for communicating experiences of marginalization or living in such a tumultuous global moment, nowhere better foreshadowed than in Baz Luhrmann’s decision to have an all hip-hop soundtrack for his modern film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, a tragedy originally set in the Jazz Age. The “modern youth” share Kendrick Lamar lyrics on the daily, and pound rap at their weekend parties, not always entirely aware of the intellect, urgency and political potency of both the history and production of rap and hip-hop as an art form.
Hip-hop seems to be our protest music du jour but for another generation, it was rock ‘n’ roll. In the wake of all-out wars, the youth of the 60s, 70s and 80s gathered with the same raised fists to channel their anger and desire for anarchy, which is to say a freedom or untethering from unjust control and power structures, in the shout-song of a long-haired rockstar, the aggressive riff of an electric guitar, the poetry of lyrics borne from mass trauma, the coalescing of collective hope and pain in a crowd surging at the foot of John Lennon or Hendrix. Today, we rap to say the same things as our parents. But like most cultural springs, rock ‘n’ roll lives on, adapting to the sinews of the modern/postmodern digital age in new, sometimes quieter ways.
I like to joke that none of the boys I liked appreciated The 1975, an alternative rock band I fell for at 16, and that’s why it never worked out with them. They were soft, intellectual boys, both too mature and too immature, hardened by some incomprehensible thing I can’t describe so I’ll settle on naming it “maleness”. Over the years, The 1975 has gained star status, establishing itself as a highly influential alternative rock band with a huge international following, decent critical acclaim and a hefty amount of cultural currency. They’ve managed to embed themselves as part of the counter-culture’s infiltration into pop culture, a curious osmosis involving aesthetics of angst, anger, existential frustration, love, escapism and isolation becoming important elements of modern youth cultural display and both online and offline interaction. Or in short, the rise of the alternative hipster. Full disclosure, I wore all black and leather jackets throughout one whole high school year in order to display my aesthetic identity as a disgruntled, philosophizing, frustrated young person who listened to the The 1975. But back to less superficial matters: perhaps what those same disgruntled boys I liked missed was the threads of pain and beauty and poetry in the words, that were less hidden more embellished, with often discordant and jarring musical instrumentation. I not only saw meaning but immense intention in The 1975’s music. I found not one, but many, mirrors. And I wished those boys had looked. I wish they’d stood next to me and looked, into the mirror, at us.
The same gallery assistant friend and I sat up last night listening to “Love It If We Made It”, The 1975’s new song off their upcoming album “A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships”. On first listen, before paying attention to the lyrics, I feel nothing but mild annoyance at the aggressive, often repetitive drone of synths and electronic layering. My friend opens up a lyric analysis and starts gasping so I listen again, the poem at the core unfurling, like petals fresh out of the winter. The surrounding, insistent look-at-me pulse of the music, sharp and electronic, becomes purposeful, representing the colonization of technology upon the 21st century imagination.
“Love It If We Made It” is an anthemic stream of consciousness, befitting the fragmented flow of media-spattered thoughts out of the brain of a modern youth with an Instagram.
“say controversial things just for the hell of it” in our clickbait-hungry headlines.
“sell melanin and then suffocate the black men”, how we profit off black culture, their big booties, big lips, big dreads, big dreams, do you remember Eric Garner now that he’s dead?
“start with misdemeanors and we’ll make a business out of them”, incarcerate black blood for things we could get away with, smear that blood on the money we’re making, sitting in jails.
“can find out the information, access all the applications that are hardening positions based on miscommunication”, swipe swipe swipe into an artificial ecstacy where we are so right so right so right that nothing else could be truer than this.
say “fuck your feelings!” to anybody who feels. We don’t care for nothing, just facts. It is a fact that Milo Yiannopoulos felt he was in the right when he said “fuck your feelings” to a protestor, when Ben Shapiro said “facts don’t care”, no you don’t care don’t care don’t care.
say “poison me daddy” to whoever shows us an escape. We drink kool-aid everyday.
“write it on a piece of stone” when we kill somebody else.
see a “beach of drowning 3 year olds” through the epidermis of a screen and congratulate ourselves for living, we’re so different do different be different.
ask “Jesus save us!” we’re desperate, don’t know ourselves, how do we know him, how do we love our neighbor without feeling?
are “kneeling on a pitch” and raising our fists, with the players, while daddy looks down.
say ‘Thank you Kanye, very cool” everytime he acknowledges our existence, who else will play us, play us like a spinning vinyl disc?
“know the war has been incited, and guess what, we’re all invited”.
know “modernity has failed us” and we type it out, a caption to make ourselves fail a little less, or at least look the part.
And after all this, the fucking and tweeting and singing and killing and art-making, I’d love it if we made it out, fists high in a surging crowd, more hope than hopeless.
Photograph courtesy of The 1975