by Chuck Kleinhans
Because subversion or opposition begins with difference, with being “the opposite” of the dominant, the normal, it is easy to slip into the thought that anything that is different is then in fact subversive. [open endnotes in new window] That posits an abstract dominant and imagines an abstract resistance. But the historical world is much more complex than that. And what something “really is” is itself always contingent, that is dependent on time and place, on an evolving situation. That’s the more difficult thing to grasp because it means not thinking about “essence” but rather thinking about “process.” About change.
We might remember that in the darkest days of the rise of Nazi Germany, driven into exile Bertolt Brecht wrote about what kind of message politically committed artists could make in their work. He said that under the circumstances the most radical thing that could be said within Germany was to speak of change. Against Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, the artist could simply say that things will change, that the future will be different. I think we can use that thought today as well. In a time when the campaign slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” seems pretty worn out even to Obama’s liberal supporters, what can we imagine? What new change can we imagine and work for?
One great advantage of media art—of sound and moving image based art—is that it is essentially, inherently a time art, and time is dynamic. Media art almost always accommodates and implies change: of time, of place, of rhythm, of things represented or expressed. Time arts lend themselves easily to the representation of change. To understand this with more depth, it means that we can see “subversive”—that which is against the existing dominant order—as always contingent. Subversiveness depends on multiple relations, on multiple factors, and those things are in process, changing.
To be subversive, artists are often inspired to find new forms to express new ideas. The traditional ways are not working. And new forms can and do have a certain shock effect. They are startling, attention-getting, and in turn can confuse or shock audiences used to and comfortable with traditional forms. Sometimes this leads to thinking that formal shock is in and of itself subversive, rather than seeing artistic innovation more accurately as a means to achieving a more sophisticated end, one with a more historical view, a longer view. Not just shock for shock’s sake, but thinking of the aftermath, the lasting effect.
To unpack my argument a bit more: I’ll put forward three propositions, and then test them with an example.
One. A radical form can be a powerful expressive means, but it does not guarantee a truly subversive artwork. The formalist fallacy confuses a device, a technique, a style, with its effect.
Two. A powerful or shocking content can produce a spectacular reaction for the viewer, but that does not automatically make it deeply meaningful or politically effective.
Three. An artist’s Sincere Intention, especially when delivered with strong sentiment, does not guarantee a truly subversive artwork. Intention is not meaning. Sincerity is not enough.
First, I want to test these three ideas against a well-known recent rap music video, “No Church in the Wild.” It is five minutes long and performed by Jay Z and Kanye West with Frank Ocean and The-Dream. The song was the opening track on a new collaborative album, Watch the Throne (2012), and the music video has received over 30 million views on YouTube as of this writing.
I’m not an expert on rap music and I won’t try to discuss the music, the vocal performances, and the way the specific song fits into the careers of its two central performers. But I will note that Kanye West in particular contributed a new strain to rap by taking on issues more typically seen in religious themed art: such personal morality, conventional pieties. The title itself, “No Church in the Wild,” refers to a trope found in some branches of Christianity, pointing out that Jesus himself did not have a church and thus calling into question the need for an institutional church, such as the Church of Rome. The song’s lyrics include typical rap themes: positing an authenticity in solidarity with one’s fellows, and opposition to the dominant order, celebrating rule-breaking hedonism and brotherhood, and drug use. The distinctive Kanye West themes are rejection of formal religion and conventional pieties (e.g., monogamy). But more important than specific details or lines in the song are the vocal performances of Jay Z and Kanye West who dominate the audio, presenting themselves as strong black men who are in control, in charge, aggressive, and self asserting. This mode of presentation fits West’s star image, in particular, which includes well-known public scenes of his extreme macho behavior and arrogant declaiming.
The song was released as part of a complex marketing strategy (detailed in Wikipedia), that released different album tracks in stages leading to a full album release. The music video followed later. The film was made autonomously without the onscreen presence of West or Jay Z. Romain Gavras, son of the 1960s-70s director Costa Gavras, produced it in Prague. The visuals show an all male street confrontation between heavily armored riot police and a crowd of protestors who attack and are attacked in turn. At some moments the lyrics seem to be (vaguely, associatively) linked to an image, or an image seems to echo/reinforce/connect with lyrics. But there are many in which there is no connection. This in turn produced various critiques, such as hearing Kanye describing lines of cocaine on a Black woman’s skin as like stripes on a zebra while we see the fierce clash of police and protestors.
Overall the music video is direct, powerful, well shot and edited. The imagery appropriates anarchist Black Bloc tactics (more familiar in Europe than the United States) in which all protestors are dressed in black with masks, sunglasses, etc. hiding their faces. This tactic makes the group anonymous and harder to identify later, and also it’s more threatening at the moment of the confrontation. Of course the police, with face and body shields and gas masks, also lose individual identity and also become part of a mass. This effect in the video is exaggerated, with the confrontation being filmed in increasing darkness with figures often in silhouette when shown, and with smoke (from tear gas) also obscuring detail. Cutaways to neoclassical public statues, as if they are onlookers, provide spare recognition.
The strongest and most emotionally effective part of the video is the representation of defiance to constituted authority (the state, the police) by the demonstrators who commence the street fighting. The most powerful leading image here is the very opening in which a single figure with a Molotov cocktail lights the incendiary weapon, approaches the police line, and hurls it at the cops. The male figure is marked as a large black man whose figure is an associative visual expression of the voices of Jay Z and Kanye West, themselves large strong black men, whose lyrics here are bold, aggressive, defiant.