Artistic Responsibility and Unexamined Art


I recently read an article which took the time to compile a series of tweets between Lupe Fiasco and Talib Kweli, discussing the prevalence of violent and abusive lyrics in rap and hip-hop (instigated by a recent song by Rick Ross that contains a glorification of date rape). While their conversation applies specifically to rap/hip-hop, it’s a subject I hear discussed heatedly, in waves: artistic responsibility, or the lack thereof.

Art is never divorced of its context. The art you create is informed by your life experience, by the world you live in, the language(s) you speak, and, importantly, the art you yourself have consumed. In my opinion, this is a good thing, and the greater variety of voices and backgrounds we can bring to the table, the more varied and wonderful our art will be. But unfortunately, some people come from toxic environments of varying categories, consume toxic art of varying degrees, and they either do not have the ability or do not take the time to examine these things for their flaws. Instead of critiquing their context and art, their art will at best present them without comment, at worst celebrate them.

It’s really inevitable, there will be art that doesn’t examine context. Art that degrades instead of uplifts. Art that abuses and hurts instead of empowers and cares. Is this art a symptom of the negative things in the world we live in, or a cause? And what do we as fellow artists do when confronted by this art?

The first question, asking whether hurtful art is a symptom or a disease, well, I feel like it oversimplifies the issue, demands that art as a collected body be only one thing for all of us. Art is both a symptom of our context and a cause of it. Repeatedly, in books, television, film, we see people of color as villains, as sacrifices, as helpers, as secondary characters, never as heroes. We see the tragic gay romance, if we see one at all. We’re lucky if we see a disabled character.

People learn from stories. We have fairy tales to pass down our learned cautionary tales. It’s how we gain insight into the experiences of others. How we learn where we “fit” in the world. And if we see these persistent messages of the inferiority of specific people based on traits they were born to rather than the content of their character, and if we refuse to examine these messages, we are more likely to act them out in reality.

If we truly believe that people should be judged based not on their gender, sexual preference, skin color, or dis/ability, then it behooves us to examine our art. Writing, painting, photography, film, any medium we use to convey our thoughts to the world at large, we should understand how these things fit in a greater context, and what our use of them says about our beliefs.

So what do we do when we see this art? More importantly, what do we do when it’s pointed out that our art failed to be aware of the negative aspects of the context it emerged from?

We as a community of artists really have three choices here. One, we can ignore these transgressions, perhaps out of apathy, or indifference, or a tired hope it will go away. Two, we can shun these artists, reject them entirely. Or three, we can engage them on their craft, thoughtfully critique them, and attempt to work with them on being more aware of their art and the context it is in.

I’m sure you can guess where I stand on this one.

It’s of course optimistic to say that we can engage artists on their hurtful art. It’s a fact that many of them will not be able to see past their own context, or will simply not care to. And it’s even more optimistic to think that when we as creators are confronted about the failures of our art, that we will be able to respond graciously and thoughtfully. But optimistic as this may be, it’s something we should strive towards, in the effort of making art that challenges, art that confronts the negative, art that investigates our world and reveals it for what it is.

And what if my aim is not for great art? you ask. What if I just want to entertain? Well, in that case, how do you expect to entertain when your art is hurtful? How do you expect to bring a pleasant distraction when your art uncritically reflects these painful realities? Even in entertaining, it behooves you to be critical. It behooves you to examine your art. Like the unexamined life is not worth living, unexamined art is not worth creating.