What makes great art — 1791
Great works of philosophical or intellectual art tend to share one enduring theme: they seek to explore people’s deepest convictions in a way that provokes challenging questions. In this way, the artist channels his own internal strife in his work. The complexity of human beings means that great art should include their inner-struggle, and incorporates their flaws and blind-spots. Once touched by ideology, that work becomes discernibly one-dimensional. From a technical standpoint it can still be of high-quality, but it lacks the necessary component that ensures all people across time can feel its message.
Many people will think to themselves, rightly, that not every artistic endeavor has to achieve this level of meaning. Clearly, things can be enjoyable just for the sake of being enjoyable. A work of literature can be enjoyed on the basis of its storytelling, a work of music for its thoughtful lyricism and well-crafted production, and movies for their cinematography, acting and scripting. Similarly, politically propagandistic works can be enjoyed on those same grounds.
While shallow art produces something that looks a lot like a simulation stocked with lifeless non-player characters, the great artist wants to produce a world that feels alive-a world that is grand and morally complex. In order for such a world to feel alive, though, the characters couldn’t be one dimensionally good or bad. They must undergo personal struggles as well as mortal uncertainty, and the subject they are attempting to tackle should be seen through the same prism of complexity. The answers and resolutions are not obvious to the viewer or even the artist themselves.
Even esteemed politically driven authors like Orwell explained the difficulty in surpassing the simply political and reaching beyond for something of psychological depth. He writes, “looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally…”
For most, the political can be a powerful motivator. It’s not just a set of ideas, but an identity, and that loyalty to your identity clearly drives people to more bizarre acts than writing a book. The rarity of artists capable of serious philosophizing, though, is directly proportional to how many works of that caliber there are — which are seriously few. If someone so high-attaining and worthy of praise as Orwell can’t write without a political motivation, all that does is speak to the temptation. Not only can political art be good, the political statement itself can also be right — but it still prevents it from being truly great on an existential level. The politics of the day change, but our shared psychological conditions and inner conflicts don’t.
And this concept, of course, isn’t restrained to literature. Rap is a subject that, as we’ve talked about extensively, can often capture this sentiment perfectly. Power, referenced in a previous 1791 piece, saw Kanye struggling against his hypocrisies and runaway egoism, while offering a very nuanced commentary on fame’s perils. On a similarly self-reflective level, listeners can turn to Kendrick Lamar’s Blacker The Berry. Though Kendrick Lamar is often driven by the same political ideals most in his industry hold, in this track he grasps at something beyond the purely political and while many of his usual fans reacted angrily, this is when Lamar reaches towards the transcendent.
So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
Many within his political tribe reflexively saw this as a play toward what they call “Respectability Politics,” flowing from the belief that his self-criticism is downplaying the role of slavery in producing violence in black communities. At first listen, it’s easy to see how his verses could be interpreted as a political statement — in the end, it really isn’t at all. He explains that wasn’t his aim and reveals it was a matter of expressing his own internal conflicts, rooted in his own experience.
Abandoning the one dimensionally political makes it understandably human and, as a result, a wellspring of meaning. Now we can contrast Blacker The Berry, which deals with the crisis of violence that black communities are gripped by, with a song that tries to tackle the same subject — but from the vantage of an ideologue. This Is America sees Donald Glover in his rap guise of Childish Gambino. He takes on the role of a shirtless, crazed, shuckin-and-jivin Jesus. At first, all seems well: Gambino is dancing blithely to the backdrop of a guitar. Progressively, the picture-perfect image of what the title leads us to believe America is unravels. The video is embedded with progressive allusions in every frame. The man playing the guitar who is shot as well as the initially blissful America devolving to slaughter are just a couple of examples that are pretty obviously meant to exemplify the black experience through a filter of social justice. Those who agree with Glover’s ideology will gawk at the tragedy of it all. It parallels and references Jordan Peele’s Get Out, an equally ideological work. A plot that holds up the eyeroll that is widely believed to be clever, Get Out turns the white guilt-driven identity politics on its white liberal advocates. While Lamar in Blacker The Berry honestly explores his inner conflicts, both Peele’s and Glover’s one-dimensional thinking only manages to produce an onslaught of ideological talking points dressed up as artistic expression. The NPC meme has taken off for a reason, and it is probably because it accurately satirizes those who find something so unoriginal and contrived in its message so profound. You can appreciate its musical quality and visual technicality, but that doesn’t alter its stale message and overall purposelessness.
Ultimately, Glover’s music video is an opportunistic affectation meant to exploit progressive trends — it isn’t his reality. Glover went to NYU, whereas Kendrick Lamar was raised on the streets of Compton. That’s a reason Glover’s attempt to make art on this topic falls dreadfully short of hitting the same note of emotional and moral complexity — and why it skated by to uniform ideological praise, rather than the kinds of criticism Kendrick faced. The internet’s most prominent music reviewer talks at length about this insecurity-driven appropriation that drives Glover’s work.
In a similar way, Childish Gambino’s superficial portrait of human struggle can be seen in the domain literature as well. For example, Ayn Rand, a politically driven author, wrote several books using this same shallow style. In her book the Fountainhead, Howard Roark is the clear hero, always embodying the ideal without fail, and Ellsworth Toohey is the morally unambiguous villain. Toohey is literally based on Socialist activist Harold Laskey-written after having gone to his lectures, and even changing his appearance to mirror the actual man. Socialism is obviously a villainous ideology, but her efforts throughout all of her fiction were not to reflect the persuasive psychology that motivates the people that adhere to it, but rather to dismantle it. As a piece of political propaganda, this is effective — and her argument is correct. But it doesn’t set out with the same ambition of achieving great philosophical depth.
One of the few authors who accomplished this great achievement would be 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, who, if anything, is obsessed with the duality of man. Having been a socialist, and later a strong Orthodox Christian, few understand human psychology as thoroughly as he. His work The Double, for instance, is driven by the psychological aspect of man’s dual nature. But what highlights this difference best is probably his final, and possibly most praiseworthy work, The Brothers Karamazov, which sees the character of Alyosha pitted against his Atheistic brother Ivan. Ivan’s rationalistic and moral arguments against God are as strong in this work as people find them to be today, and Fyodor made no attempt to diminish this fact even though Alyosha is the protagonist and represents his deeply held religious convictions. Alyosha was depicted, despite the author’s own beliefs, as being the inferior debater. The beauty of this move is that it allows his position to be strengthened the more it is battered by a seemingly stronger argument.
This crafting of morally complex landscapes can be seen as well in acclaimed graphic novels like the The Killing Joke, and the film The Dark Knight. In The Killing Joke, Batman represents one set of moral ideals — fundamentally summarized as a belief in good, and the Joker another, that there is no such thing and that anyone is just “one bad day” from falling into the throes of evil. Joker’s argument is perhaps convincing, no matter how sympathetic nearly all of us are to the idea of absolute good. It ends on a note of ambiguity, where we aren’t sure if Batman gives in to Joker’s nihilistic worldview by snapping his neck — hence, “The Killing Joke.” The point of this is to display how obviously villainous ideas are depicted with as much weight and persuasion as they realistically have, driving the reader, listener, or what have you to question their own values.
Two other parallels to rap can be made: Joyner Lucas’s popular but somewhat controversial track I’m Not Racist, as well as Kanye West’s Ye Vs. The People. The first saw a stereotypical depiction of Trump’s fat quasi-racist supporters struggling against an equally stereotyped dreadlocked black man. Though his depiction of the Trump supporter was intentionally unsympathetic, the fact that he made a few convincing arguments made that irrelevant to many of its critics. It seemingly humanized his position when, after emotionally expressing their respective sides’ point of view, they hugged it out. It was essentially put down for engaging in “Respectability Politics”… which you might recall being a point of criticism against Kendrick Lamar.
At the core of those who evoke the idea of “respectability politics” is an ideological hostility to serious engagement with uncomfortable disagreements. Naturally for many, this level of self-reflection is exhausting. The very idea that our difficulties can be resolved through dialogue itself apologizes for the position they oppose, according to this line of thinking. It doesn’t matter if that position is held by someone on the left or the right, even if it’s obviously most often the latter. Art that attempts heartfelt, genuine thought of human issues runs afoul of this ideology, which makes it one of its targets. That is the central point Kanye West strives to make in his spur-of-the-moment rap battle with T.I.
Kanye is clearly not a political actor. He has only ever tried, and succeeded, to make meaningful music that uplifts his listeners. That’s what motivated tracks like Jesus Walks and Ultralight Beam. It is likewise what motivates him to write lyrics such as:
“I know everybody emotional
Is it better if I rap about crack? Huh? ’Cause it’s cultural?
Or how about I’ma shoot you? Or fuck your bitch?
Or how about all this Gucci, ’cause I’m fuckin’ rich?”
A lyric like this reflects on what has and always will drive Kanye to write music — it is in’t political, it is meaningful and often self-contradicting. Sometimes, but rarely, those two motivations coincide. Nevertheless, the political will always run secondary to philosophical depth. Almost everyone will see that Kanye is by no means perfectly spoken, but what can be seen in spite of his mistakes is that his efforts are motivated by a sincere conviction to address his critics with honesty and to grasp at something he likely doesn’t fully understand — as nearly every true artist does in one way or another.
Only when he was pushed by a political ideologue in the direction of mouthing political talking points similar to Gambino did his authenticity and impact fall into question. Candace Owens, spokeshole of Turning Point USA, foolishly believed that she could exploit his celebrated artistic career to sell political merchandise. Naturally, Kanye objected, and pulled away from politics altogether, which was never his motivating impulse to begin with. It only became his motivation when he saw grave dysfunction and a bullying bias within the political sphere. And despite being well integrated in an obviously left-wing musical and entertainment culture, he was able to identify his conflicting feelings on the issues surrounding the black community as did Kendrick Lamar in Blacker The Berry.
Thinking is itself struggle, while nothing is more self-assured than ideology. When it comes to ideology, the positions have already been thought up for you and are assorted neatly, not having to be seriously thought through. Ultimately, if your work aims to talk directly about the human condition, it should reflect the reality that you don’t have all of the information, and that your perspective isn’t absolute. This is what strikes at the core of the human condition. Short of that, you have little more than a work of well crafted propaganda, that leaves your target audience in thrall, because they haven’t heard anything they wouldn’t have elsewhere. And the ability to introspect this honestly is a rare quality, which is why this type of art is only very rarely created and encountered. Spanning every domain of art, this can be seen and few artists have achieved this feat.