An age old conversation is what is the responsibility of the artist. In a post-Warhol world, where celebrity and artistry are often synonymous, the role of the public and visible artist is often muddied beyond recognition. If you are learning in public, you are a teacher. If you are performing in public, you are an ambassador for a people. If you are displaying a particular behavior in public, you are a role model.
There are limits to this cultural practice of how we treat the artist. I am reminded of this when I witness people discuss Kendrick Lamar and his latest album, DAMN. I believe art should be examined, critiqued, and pushed; I believe this is the only way we can elevate art and arrive at better creations from our artists. However, I believe, the ways we expect artists to exist must be examined. If Kendrick Lamar is an artist who has decided to learn in public, should we then hold him responsible in the same ways we hold up a teacher? A teacher is someone we give the responsibility of sharing accurate information and insight on a given subject matter in order to help advance their students. Does the artist who is curious about history and makes work around their exploration automatically regarded as a history teacher because they are doing it publicly? When is it critiquing and when is it robbing someone of their development? As someone who is in both the position to create art and critique artistic productions, this question haunts me the most because I realize the inherent contradiction to myself in both positions if I were to associate with them exclusively.
In one half of my imagination, I believe people should be able to exhume the body of Lamar’s work. Once he gives it to the public, it is ours to interpret and wrestle with; to break and to kiss. Once an artist makes a thing, that is only 50% of the artistic process. The other 50% is the way the public responds to the content. The public and the artist are in a tango with one another and it is not truly being danced without both partners. This is to say, what made the Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, the Campbell Soup Cans were only partly because of the actual creation, but because of the public response to the artist and the portraits. The public is an undeniably paramount part of the artistic process and it is our right to critique and reckon with what we have been offered. It is our gift to the artist to push them to arrive at better art. It is our protection of our taste and culture.
In the other half of my imagination, I know that it is the exploration of themes, problems, and ideas that fuels creativity, and often when you are exploring things, you land in the space that is not right. I think about the freedom I had to explore my beliefs around gender and how I often arrived at a transphobic space or a misogynistic space or simply a non-factual space, but without that exploration I would have never evolved. If I were to have been silenced and policed out of the conversation or expression of my creative impulses, I know I wouldn’t have been able to arrive at work that people find healing, revolutionary, or elevating the cultural thought. I respect this process, not just because I understand this process, but because I absolutely needed this process in order become a good writer and thinker. I am often uncomfortable when I see people policed out of this development.
“I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more, that word is only a color, it ain’t facts no more,” Lamar raps on the space-y “YAH.” that sonically resembles a LSD trip through Compton. Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics and material on DAMN. around the Hebrew Israelite beliefs made many uncomfortable for two reasons; one is the fact that a lot of the beliefs are unfounded and erase other identities. The other is because the people who usually adopt this belief system often also adopt behavior and rhetoric that is violently patriarchal, capitalistic, and anti-intellectualism. On songs like “FEAR.”, Kendrick explores the idea that black people’s systemic oppression is not just a political thing, but a more spiritual, immaterial curse that needs to be reversed in order for us to be free. I don’t think my opinions on this belief systems are important, but I do believe the memories these beliefs spark for me are important.
I remember in high-school, feverishly reading Dr. Cress Welsing, who was a brilliant academic and a violent patriarchal homophobe/transphobe, and believing and using the work she produced to help craft my relationship with my blackness and the world around me. As scholarship, the work I wrote about inspired by Welsing’s work was absolutely weak and underdeveloped. However, as art, I think it was beautiful, and more importantly, necessary for my development. I can’t imagine being robbed of that moment.
The reality is, I have no answer of how to uplift the artist’s right to develop and the public’s right to critique. My best thought is that I think our expectations should align with what an artist is here to do which is to be curious and to create out of that mysterious space where experience and inspiration meet. DAMN. resonates with me as a piece of work that is emotional and curious; it feels hell-bent on expressing itself and Lamar seems to desire to want to define his world for himself as opposed to letting other powers do it for him. He desperately wants to share his point of view. This resonates with me as an artist. The artist that is curious about history is not then a history teacher. The artist that is interested in performing a certain behavior is not then a role model. The artist that is interested in being in public is not then inherently an ambassador for others with the same sociopolitical identities. Perhaps, with this kind of clarity of expectations of the artist, critiques will take different forms and we won’t expect flawless theory or politics, but we will instead be looking for that curiosity that ironically often leads to work that is both beautiful and sound in theory and politics.
Myles E. Johnson is an Atlanta, Georgia-based storyteller. He is also the creator of the literary project, Dear Giovanni. You can follow him on Twitter @HausMuva.
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