Erykah Badu and the Definition of “Art”

8 04 2010
Photo, Erykah Badu at the North Sea Jazz Festival 2009

CC Image courtesy of tnarik on Flickr

By now you probably know Erykah Badu‘s “Window Seat”  music video stirred a little controversy recently. In it, she strips down to nothing at the site of JFK’s assassination in front of a bunch of tourists who weren’t told it would go down. And if you don’t expect some of us to get worked up over naked bodies, you don’t know Americans very well.

Badu says she was making an artistic statement. Some of her defenders are pretty persuasive. But critics like Bill O’Reilly say the video isn’t real “art.”

The argument actually reveals the weaknesses in our use of the word “art” itself.  The appropriate question is not “Is it art?” The real question is,  “Is it good art?”

Whenever people say something isn’t “art,” they’re usually relying on assumptions that are difficult to define and often riddled with unfair cultural biases.

Consider what the mainstream “universally” recognizes as “art” —  and the way class, ethnicity, gender and even generation gaps play a role. Shakespeare and van Gogh are “unquestionably” said to have created “art,” but Zora Neale Hurston or Shepard Fairey — maybe, maybe not. Mickey Mouse? “Definitely art.” Meanwhile, anime gets racist responses like this.

And of course, Mozart and Frank Sinatra created “art,” while A Tribe Called Quest and Erykah Badu are suspect.

We should define “art” in more value-neutral ways.  In his book, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud uses a strikingly useful definition. He says art is “any human activity that doesn’t grow out of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction.” He illustrates the point here and here.

Now, you might say, “That definition is way too broad! Then almost anything could be art!”

Exactly.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf ?

Writing a word in the snow with pee?

The dirty joke on the bathroom stall?

The lady swinging on the stripper pole?

The four-year-old’s crayon scribble hanging on the fridge?

They’re all art.

Yes, they’re antisemitic art, unsanitary art, obscene art, chauvinistic art and childish art (respectively). Art can be bad, maybe even evil; but it’s still art.

There’s something beautifully humanizing and universal about this approach. It doesn’t place my culture over yours. Instead of stereotyping the unfamiliar or unpleasant as not “real art,” we have to engage in a more constructive conversation. This definition forces us to actually specify what makes a piece of art valuable or destructive.

So is Badu’s video art? Of course. But is it valuable art?

Well, I was a little bored by the “Window Seat” video. The song itself is GREAT, as is a lot of Badu’s past work. So I guess I expect a lot more from her. Disrobing may be personally brave, but vague attacks on groupthink are a little too easy, creatively speaking. And the controversy is a little too calculated. Not as good as “Bag Lady” or “Honey,” but certainly nothing to be outraged about.

Whatever we say about it, we should still remember to call it what it is. Art.

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