Last week, I wrote about some of the ways in which my thinking and writing about culture have evolved in the five years I have been working as a critic. In particular, I think I have arrived at a sense of balance: aesthetic beauty cannot necessarily blot out the ugly ideas that show up in some work, but neither can good or bad politics render aesthetic values moot. One thing I did not discuss has been rattling around my head since: How can we productively talk about art that we like (or love) that expresses ideas we find utterly reprehensible?
This conundrum has been on my mind pretty much since I was aware of popular culture (and, as many of you know, that introduction was delayed in a lot of ways).
In high school I kept getting stuck on the fact that even though I was revolted by a lot of the things that Eminem was saying in character as his alter ego, Slim Shady, I found his music utterly irresistible. The baby feminist in me found his fantasies of violence against women abhorrent. The language nerd in me could not deny the virtuosity with which Eminem packed hard consonant sounds into a single line, like his famous threat that “I’m still loco enough to choke you to death with a Charleston Chew.”
As I have turned these and other experiences over in my mind over the course of more than a decade, I have come up with some loose, but certainly not complete, suggestions for how to make conversations about art that falls into this sour spot more productive.
1. Try to explain what about the aesthetics of the work lifts your experience of it above the ideas you, or others, object to: I cannot defend any of Eminem’s fantasies of killing his ex-wife, Kim, or the bigoted and nasty language that often pops up in his work. But after more than a decade of close listening to his songs, I can at least explain what about his music appeals to me.
He has an extremely fast and clear flow, which appeals to me in part because I did policy debate in high school, and the activity prized both of those qualities. (This also means I have a weakness for rappers who lack Eminem’s cleverness but match his pace, such as Twista). As I mentioned earlier, Eminem doesn’t just rhyme, he also repeats sounds multiple times in a single line or throughout a guest verse. His verse on “Forever,” for example, packs in a simply ludicrous number of “o” and “u” sounds. And he can be incredibly funny. “I’m Hannibal Lecter, so just in case you’re thinking of saving face / You ain’t gonna have no face to save” is a delightfully terrific putdown.
None of these things erases the juvenile aspects of Eminem’s work. But they do not have to. They coexist, and being able to articulate these qualities means I am not stuck trying to explain the uglier aspects of his music to justify my enjoyment of it.
2. Be willing to acknowledge when you like something in art that you might not tolerate in the real world: Did you get a naughty thrill out of Jay-Z’s invocation of Ike Turner in “Drunk In Love“? Do you take a certain satisfaction out of Nicolas Cage’s riposte to Sean Connery’s unprintable definition of what makes a man a winner or a loser in “The Rock”? Have you enjoyed Toby Keith’s invocations of cowpoke ethics even as you recognize how the criminal justice tactics he’s describing would work if implemented in the real world? Do you ever wish Scarlett O’Hara was not such a terrible racist so you could more freely admire her gumption, even as you acknowledge that her doctrine of self-reliance would have terrible consequences for policy more than a century later?
You are not alone. I am not a big fan of punishing ourselves for reactions to art that are not politically compliant with whatever ideologies we might subscribe to. Instead, our reactions to art can be an interesting place to figure out the boundaries of our politics and the weak spots in our beliefs. It is much more interesting to explore these reactions than to deny ourselves the opportunity to experience them.
3. Recognize that an author’s good intention with difficult ideas or techniques does not inoculate him against a failure to execute those intentions clearly and with skill: In response to my review of “Jonah From Tonga,” HBO’s new comedy from Chris Lilley, a white comedian who is playing a Tongan teenager, a number of his fans have grumbled at me that I do not understand what Lilley is trying to do. My response to them has been that I am aware that Lilley is attempting to build sympathy for young Tongan people. I just think that “Jonah From Tonga” is so grating and repetitive that he does not succeed.
I am not fond of the idea that we ought to suppress our own reaction to a work if the author says he intended something different from what we encountered. Part of the measure of artistic success is whether a work conveys to a preponderance of the people who consume it what the creator intended it to say. Alex Graves’s now-infamous rape scene on “Game of Thrones” is a great example of an artist meaning one thing and producing something else entirely.
Now, you can be convinced that people who saw something in a work that you did not are reading a show, movie, book, etc. wrong. But authorial intent or a profession of good intentions is not a defense in these arguments. Instead, refer to the first item on this list. Talk about what worked for you in shot composition, in word choice or in an actor’s performance.