Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Polanski/Brown Corollary

Continuing the discussion of dirtball artists for just a bit longer, Jonah Weiner wrote in Slate this past week…
If your stomach turns a little at the thought of ever hearing Chris Brown’s voice again—or, for that matter, his name—get ready for one nauseous winter. The R&B singer, who pleaded guilty in June to beating his ex-girlfriend Rihanna during a February argument, is set to release his third album, Graffiti, in December. Last month, the lead single, “I Can Transform Ya,” hit radio, and the follow-up, “Crawl,” came out last week. There’s something audacious about Brown’s return, and not just because it took a scant three months for him to slide back into album-promo mode after entering his guilty plea. Brown has been exposed in the Rihanna saga, after all, as more than an abusive boyfriend. Promising affection and pleasure in his music but brutish and violent in real life, his love oil turned out to be snake oil: An R&B loverman best known for a domestic-violence conviction is an insupportable contradiction…

But Brown is also a major star (his first two albums have sold more than 4 million records combined in the United States), and he clearly isn’t ready to give that up…He may not know how to nail a contrite interview, but he does know how to deliver a first-rate pop song
[the aforementioned “I Can Transform Ya”]

The song raises an old question with no easy answer: What do we do when a bad person makes good art?
Let’s set aside for a moment the notion that Chris Brown makes good art. Weiner does ask an interesting question. Since the end of WWII, with the birth of teenage culture and rock and roll and the rise of television and all of the rest of it, the idea of celebrity has become practically inseparable from popular art—combine the two and you have the foundation for pop culture. And until the last decade or so, celebrity was so effective because it was easily manipulated and controlled by the artist and his/her backers (agents, studio execs, producers, etc.). The salacious details were always kept under wraps, leaving public consumers with glossy puff-pieces in the pages of Teen People (or its antecedents) or music videos that controlled all aspects of the artist’s visual image and personality. This type of control not only bred financial success; it also made questions about the artist’s actual personal character irrelevant.

But along came new media and TMZ and Twitter and the E! Channel. Now the celebrity dirt that once only kept grocery store tabloids alive has become big business. The demand for the type of material that, in the past, would have destroyed an artist’s career now competes with the artist’s actual output (see reality television). The old adage “Any press is good press” now reaches grotesque extremes. It’s often important for an artist to maintain some sort of scandalous side in order to justify their status as a celebrity.

Bringing this back around to Chris Brown, what are we, the listening public, supposed to make of his new music? Weiner avoids a straight answer, first broaching the idea that listeners compartmentalize their knowledge of Chris Brown-as-woman-beater so they enjoy “I Can Transform Ya” as a guilty pleasure, only toss out this idea with the hope that maybe a remix of the song will eventually see release, one that scrubs Brown’s vocals from the track altogether.

It’s a cute little dance, but seeing Weiner refuse to answer the relatively important question he poses is disappointing. I get it—to honestly answer this question is very difficult. It involves introducing ethical arguments into what is supposed to be the most mindless and easy form of enjoyment we have—the consumption of popular entertainment. Who wants to complicate things like that?

I could sympathize more with people who feel this way if I were more convinced that the “art” Chris Brown produces is, as Weiner ranks it, good. If there were some objective criteria, some transcendent quality that elevated the grating rhythm and lyrics of “I Can Transform Ya” to the status of art (not even good art, just art), maybe then I could entertain the setting aside of ethical questions about Chris Brown’s character. But Chris Brown and his collaborators and producers make a specific type of music for a specific type of musical demand. To put another way, Chris Brown and company would not have produced “I Can Transform Ya” if this musical demand did not exist. By every available definition, Chris Brown does not produce art. He produces Top-40 R&B/hip-hop that will exist and slide out of the pop culture canon relatively quickly. Using this criterion, I think it’s self-evident that Chris Brown-as-woman-beater in no way merits exclusion from value judgments about his work. The guy is a misogynist scumbag and, really, his music is an exploitative extension of his personality.

But say this is wrong; say Chris Brown is a producer of good art. In other words, let’s put Chris Brown in the same class as Roman Polanski. What now? This is where being an appreciator of good art in the twenty-first century becomes fraught with complication. It would be so nice if all great artists remained veiled in anonymity the way Stanley Kubrick was and Thomas Pynchon still is. But that is not the case with either Polanski or Brown. We know their dirty laundry just as well as we know their creative output. The two are forever intertwined.

Now I really see why Weiner danced around a clear answer. In my case, I really admire much of Polanski’s work. Chinatown and The Pianist are both incredible works of art. How can I reconcile my enjoyment and appreciation of these films with my knowledge that their creator was, at least for one night in 1977, a pedophilic rapist?

Great art is often so powerful that we forget that art itself exists as a form of human expression. Humans, in other words, come before the art that they produce. A thirteen-year-old girl in 1977 Los Angeles and Rhianna in 2009 Los Angeles come before a handful of great films and a few albums worth of forgettable R&B tracks.

So to answer Jonah Weiner: no, it’s not okay to like this stuff. But how can I un-like films like Chinatown and The Pianist? What if I lived a life of willing ignorance of pop culture? What if I knew nothing of Chris Brown’s and Roman Polanski’s personal lives? I think this is a conversation worth having and would love to hear other’s opinions, thoughts and comments.


Benny Paul said...

So first I want to make sure I get the idea that's being introduced.
Chris Brown's music does not justify forgiveness because it is not art. But since Roman Polanski makes art, the jury is still out on whether his product justifies forgiveness?
I think that it is tempting to associate Chris Brown's personality with his non-art because both are worthy of scorn, just as it is tempting to distance Roman Polanski from his art because, while his behavior is worthy of scorn, his art is not.
I think that in both cases, the product and the producer are equally separate.
Roman Polanski forces many artistic-minded individuals to make a choice: Would I rather watch Rosemary's Baby or would I rather be consistent with the values I hold? I myself would rather watch Rosemary's Baby. Avoiding the movie does not un-drug and un-penetrate the teenager he violated 30 years ago, so, if I feel like watching Mia Farrow get knocked up by Satan, I do.
I don't like Chris Brown but I defend him in the same way.
Since his music is bad and so is his behavior, it is tempting to believe that the two are interconnected. But there are mediocre R&B singers who don't bludgeon their paramours. With or without Chris Brown, there will be bad R&B music and there will be abuse.
Let's see. Do I have a conclusion?
Yes. I guess my conclusion has two parts.
1) Good art doesn't justify bad behavior and bad behavior doesn't vindicate hatred of art. I don't see it as a matter of "Does this art justify its creators bad personality?" I see it as a choice of "Do I hate this individual more, or do I like their art more?" I refuse to listen to Charles Manson's songs not because of an abstract moral stance but because my emotional discomfort outweighs my curiosity. If he were getting royalties from the music, I'd avoid it out of a moral stance.
2)I guess that when it comes to pure exposure to art rather than monetary consumption of it, I don't see any difference between Chris Brown and Roman Polanski. I think that, without their personal lives to inform judgment, Polanski would still be a good director and Chris Brown's music would be just as lame.
And I just noticed there's a whole article about Polanski. I'm going to read it.

Benny Paul said...

Ahh and after taking a second glance I want to add this: just as there are bad R&B singers who don't beat their partners, there are women-beaters who listen to good music. So I guess that takes me back to my original point. It's tempting to link bad art & bad behavior but ultimately futile, I believe...

Marie said...

Thanks for following this thought through to the end. I think the hate person/love art ratio is a good way to break down the thought process in deciding whether art is still enjoyable when the artist is not.