The Art of Balkanization

I argued a while back that the increasingly dominant character of the art championed by our cultural elites is didacticism: “an absence of substantial or profound artistic content, compensated for by loud, didactic political messaging. We know what we’re supposed to feel, whether or not the work of art actually makes us feel it.”

By contrast, “Good art does not have to avoid philosophical and political themes. It can certainly convey the artist’s perspective, but it does so by showing us the world as seen from that perspective. It starts by showing us characters and events that are interesting on their own terms, not merely as illustrations to accompany a treatise. The wider intellectual themes should emerge from the details, not be imposed on them. Good art shows before it tells.” But nowadays we cannot merely be entertained by a good story. We must be lectured.

Now along comes an example of this that is so extravagant, I could not have invented it. An actor named Donald Glover, who raps under the lame pseudonym Childish Gambino—no, I did not make that up, either—released a video that went viral, getting fifty million views in just a few days and being extravagantly praised by various elite or semielite cultural publications.

By now you should know to click on it at your own risk, but also be warned that there is a certain amount of gratuitous violence.

For those who prefer not to bother, let me sum it up for you. The music itself, if you can call it that—and I would prefer you didn’t—is of no interest at all. I would probably say this about most of today’s popular music, particularly anything in the genres known as “rap” or “hip-hop.” But friends who take this kind of music more seriously generally agree that the piece is unexceptional even by contemporary standards. Moreover, the mumbled lyrics are mostly gibberish, except for the repeated, spoken refrain, “This is America.”

It is spoken, not with pride, but as an indictment, and that gets to the real content of the video: a series of images that are supposed to be biting social commentary on racism and violence. But an ordinary viewer would easily miss at least half of it. This also is widely acknowledged, because numerous people have put out guides to the video (like this one) purporting to explain the social and political significance of everything in it.

The symbols seem either too subtle or too ham-handed. On the one hand, were we really supposed to recognize that the initial pose of Glover’s weird twitching dance style is supposed to be borrowed from the “Jim Crow” caricature of a 19th Century minstrel show performer? On the other hand, when Glover shoots a group of gospel singers with a machine gun—the wrong gun, albeit—it seems to be ticking off the “mass shooting” box a little too obviously. Certainly, many of the explanations seem strained—the warehouse in which the video is shot has white columns, symbolizing the fact that white supremacy is America’s foundation! They seem like attempts to read in a social message that is not plausibly there.

But the important thing is that people believe the message to be there, and they believe this hidden, symbolic content is what gives the video value and makes it great.

References and allusions and what are now called “Easter Eggs” have long been a part of art and literature. But you can see a Shakespeare play and still get the story if you don’t know Hyperion from a satyr. The references enhance the story for those in the know, but there is more to the story than a pastiche of references, and the allusions merely serve the communication of the artist’s own unique message.

What is the message of “This is America”? That racism exists? It reminds me of the comment about Aziz Ansari’s shtick that inspired my earlier observation about our didactic culture.

Dev learns a lesson. The lesson is that sexism exists. Presumably viewers are to learn this also. It is difficult, though, to imagine a viewer likely to be simultaneously surprised by and receptive to such lessons. This is not a blow to the patriarchy; this is “Sesame Street.”

All the earnest guides to the hidden symbolism of “This Is America” remind me of what Tom Wolfe said in The Painted Word. Modern art galleries have it all wrong. They put the Jackson Pollock painting up on the wall at full size, with a little block of text explaining it off to the side. To really capture the spirit of Modernism, Wolfe argued, they should reproduce the painting in a little box off to the side, as a mere illustration, and put the words of the critics and theorists up on the wall. In this case, the only appropriate way to watch Glover’s video is in one of those tiny boxes off to the side of a webpage, while you read all of the notes pontificating about its historical references and hidden messages—because they are the real point, not the video.

If you object that this is just a music video—well, this is what I thought, until a bunch of people started telling me how important it was. But I suppose that’s where the logic of Beyoncé thinkpieces takes us: we have a culture that is both lowbrow and pompously didactic at the same time.

Then again, you might object that I am not the target audience for this video and that it was made to speak to a narrower audience that would get the references. But didn’t we all decide a while back that being trapped in our own cultural “bubble” was a bad thing? We already have too many people talking to their own in-group in an esoteric code accepted by each other but unconvincing to anyone else. We already have too much of that on important issues, and far too much of it on the topic of race.

Didacticism is the art of balkanization and tribalism. Because it shouts the same message over and over again, it appeals only to those who already want to hear it and repels those who don’t. You will see exactly the same thing with “This Is America.” Those who are inclined to write off America as inherently racist will watch it over and over again. Those who are not will merely find it irritating and ignore it. It will serve as yet another signifier of tribal identity, rather than a story that is capable of reaching across entrenched lines.

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