Art has a price, both for the artist and for the culture in which that art is created. Sometimes that price is higher for one than the other, especially into relation to what a culture gets out of it. For me, as an artist and viewer of many types of art, this factors into whether that art is what I would consider 'good' or not.
For the record, I believe that ethics and artistry not only do go hand and hand but when divorced create nothing but monstrosity. You can explore the outer darkness of ethics-free art if you like. You have that right, at least in the place where I live (up to a point), but I won't be there with you and I definitely don't think it will ever be anything that's worth what it will cost.
Case in point?
Let us do a study in Amanda Palmer vs. Erykah Badu and the cost of their art.
For those who don't know, there is controversy around both these artists. Amanda Palmer for both her Evelyn, Evelyn project and a statement on twitter critiquing product placement in Lady Gaga's and Beyonce's video "Telephone" and Erykah Badu's video for "Window Seat" in which she walks through Dealey Plaza, the site of President Kennedy's assassination, stripping until she is completely nude and then shot [Trigger warning: disturbing image of a simulated assassination, may be disturbing to some viewers.].
Both have generated their detractors and supporters, both have raised hackles, both have been there to make statements, both are part of what these artists consider their art or their theory of how art should be.
I will say now I consider Badu's works and statements to be what good art should be. I think Amanda Palmer's to be the opposite.
I say this because it occurs to me that the price paid for Badu's works was paid by the artist herself. When a body was put on the line, exposed, viewed, centered, it was hers. When there was a body to be held to the inevitable and often cruel scrutiny of the internet, of the world, when it was time to cause statements and thoughts and opinions to be formed of a body, a gender, a race, an ability, a person, she chose herself.
For that bravery, that courage, that intelligence, that truth I cannot begin to commend or celebrate Badu enough.
And she has paid a price. Both in controversy, criticism, and legal reprocussions, including a charge for disorderly conduct.
I contrast this with the Evelyn, Evelyn project for which Amanda Palmer chose other bodies, not her own body. She chose the bodies of the disabled. When the people to whom such bodies belong raised their voices to tell her that her decision to use their type of bodies in her project had ramifications for them, she remov[ed] the disabled feminists from her mental periphery, @amandapalmer sat down to plan her next record.
I contrast this to Palmer's criticism of product placement of in Lady Gaga and Beyonce's video. Because when it came time to invoke the name of something, to bring up painful, still horribly relevant, powerful history, she chose the KKK. She chose the oppression of people of color - other people - to be her tool. When it came decision time, that was her choice. Not to put herself on the line, not to press herself to make better choices, less hurtful choices. She used comparisons to one of the most devastating domestic terrorism and hate-based groups in this nation's long history of race-based hate and outright attempts at genocide because it was "ironic". When it came time to make a statement about the things that have happened to the victims of these groups, these people swept up in evil and hate and the filth that comes when one group starts denying the humanity of another group, her choice of vocabulary was "ironic". This is doubly compounded as being disgusting and inexcusable given that her statement equates irony with Beyonce giving money to an organization that very clearly desire to see her and people like her dead.
Amanda Palmer sees the image of bodies hanging from trees, the image of a body bound and burning at the feet of that person's murderers and she finds it ironic.
And not just ironic, but laughable. When presented with evidence that her choice of words was ill-thought out, her response? for those of you out there who can't bear the thought of the ku klux klan used ironically...you'll LOVE this!! - as if the pain, suffering, death, oppression and injustice suffered by so many at the hands of people who hid behind white masks could be answered with more "irony" with a link to a video from Jerry Springer the Musical.
I do not know either of these artists personally, I do not know their intents, their inner thoughts, their personal selves. I know only what they say in my hearing, only what I can see of their works and deeds in public. That is all I can judge, and I can say this:
In Badu's video I find an embarrassment of riches of things that have caused me to think about oppression, about awareness, about society, about myself, about what I do, about what I contribute to or don't contribute to enough. That video has made me think of the way in which the media talks about and treats Black women's bodies, about the ways these bodies in all their shapes and sizes and shades and forms have historically and are presently so often used as grist for a mill. Told they are sex objects but not really as attractive as other bodies, told they are comical in relationship to other women's bodies, especially white ones. So much is said by others about their skin, their hair, their faces, their genitals.
I am made to think, via this video, how I contribute to that system as a white woman. What have I said and done to reinforce that stereotype. When I see the willingly, powerfully opened image of Badu's body in front of me, what do I think? Is this thinking that has been drilled into me? What barriers are placed between me and the compassion for another woman's body, for the things that we share, the struggle we have in common, and the differences that I ought to be celebrating not by denying but by honestly saying, "Yes, Erykah Badu, you are beautiful" and meaning it and know it for the truth it is.
I am made to think about what the site of her video means, that she overlays the site tied to the history and assassination of President Kennedy with the artistically rendered (and thankfully NOT real) assassination of herself. Is this post-mortem praise of Kennedy, who was troubled and promising in turns? Is this the declaration that in the history of a time and place thought of white and male, the black and the female existed, exists, will exists. Is this a bold stake, to say that we have worshipped the ground where one man died without realizing how many other men and women have died unremarked? What does this mean, what does this say about fame, about history, about cultural recollections, about the way we piece together the stories of how we were?
This video made me think very hard about my attitudes toward nudity and the body in general, and the reactions of the crowd, about what it means when a woman - of any color - owns her body so completely and what it means when society is offended by this. I am left with so many swirling thoughts in my head about why it is acceptable when a woman's body is bared for the purposes of others - in movies, music videos, television shows, even medical imagery - but when she uses the power of her own self, her own being for her purposes and her purposes alone, that offends so greatly that charges must be laid against her.
I could go on for days the topics and thoughts and awareness that is in my mind because of that video, I really, really could. This wealth was made available to me by Badu paying a cost, opening herself not when asked, but at the time and place of her choosing. There is such a fierce dignity, a ferocious intelligence, a searing declaration in her act. To quote a poem by e.e. cummings, there is something faithful and mad. That video makes me want to write poetry about it, about so many things. Badu could only have been too aware of the risk she took both large and small (and even in that, so many thoughts and statements about the cost of just existing openly as a Black woman in our society!), of the stir it would cause, of the backlash that would come storming down to find her.
The scene of the assassination in the video is powerful for me and I will post a trigger warning for it, because I know it can be disturbing for those who have seen and lived with the legacy of bodies like her shot down, not in art, but in reality. I certainly felt a visceral jump, a hard twitch of my body, the flight response in myself sparked for just a moment at the crack of a gun and the fall of a body that I had become attached to, a body I had come to see as worthy and beautiful and, as the mark says, "evolving". But even in her (again, thankfully) fake death, there is something unteneable and true and I'm running out of words because this goes beyond my vocabulary, this forces me to learn more, to speak a better tongue.
To be fair I have not followed closely how Badu is responding to those who found her video obscene or absurd or dismissable, but I do not know that so far her responses have not been so hurtful as to become internet controversy.
I know that there are so many things in Badu's video relating to Blackness, to being a woman of color, things that I will miss entirely because I come from a privileged, white point of view. But even my privileged self, who's privileges have come at her expense, am free to view this and think of it, to accept or reject, to hate or love as I will. I know the cost of such a bold thing was paid, almost entirely in full, by Badu herself. When statements and opinions and hateful responses about Black people and women are made, Badu will be the one getting hit in the face.
As I know that with Palmer's projects and statements, there are things I might miss because I am able bodied, because I am privileged as Palmer is herself. I know that I have been made to think about the ways I think of disabled bodies and about the history of racial violence and murder in this country. I have been forced to examine myself, to see the ways in which I am no better (or maybe worse) than Palmer. But when the time came and is still coming that opinions about the disabled, about them speaking up for themselves are formed, when people insult and laugh at and ignore and disregard the disabled, accuse them of faking it or belittle them, or use them as tools to be "inspirational" to able people, it will not be Palmer who bears that cost, who gets hit in the face. When it comes time for people to handwave away murder and torture and the history of racial violence in this nation and how the images and words connected with it still hurt for some but are meaningless for others, Palmer will not be hurt by that. Palmer will not pay the price for it. Palmer will surf the wave of controversy and sadly free publicity to interviews and sales and she will laugh all the way to her bank.
Because it comes down to this, as I've said before. When the price for art and statements about art came around, Badu paid up, in full, on time, and without hesitation from her own metaphorical coiffers, and it is becoming a steep price. Palmer passed the buck onto those who have already paid so much for the statements and "art" and "irony" of others. The price is steep, but she is not and never will truly be on the hook for it. Because she chose other bodies, other selves to put in the line of fire.
That is part of what I believe divides good art from bad art. The good artist pays up out of their own pocket and does not ask others to sacrifice to unwillingly, unknowingly things for them, does not force people to become participants in something by virtue of ramification. The bad artist? Makes sure the check goes to another table, makes sure they get a free ride, ropes people into being part of their art whether they want to or not.
The good artist is not afraid to do what is brave, what is true, to sacrifice from the self. The bad artist is only too willing sacrifice anyone but themselves.
ETA: As reminded in comments, I have edited the entry to make sure I reflect that Beyonce, a Black artist, collaborated with Lady Gaga on the telephone video, and that, as stated in comments, it makes Palmer's remarks concerning the KKK that much worse.
- The cost of art