The Picasso of hip-hop

Aficionados of Laurel and Hardy will need no recap of this scene, but on the off-chance that there are some readers out there who are not aficionados – and such readers really should have a word with themselves – I’ll describe it anyway. It occurs quite early in the short film Below Zero. Stan and Ollie are out in the snow and ice, busking in the bitter cold, and singing, rather incongruously, “In the Good Old Summertime”. A passer-by hits Ollie in the face with a snowball, and Ollie, after stoically allowing the snow to fall from his face, sets out to confront his assailant. But at this point, Stan holds him back with the sage advice, “Ignore him: he is just one of the lower elements”.

It is a piece of advice that I am often told I should take myself. That there are bound to be, I am told, all sorts of things that will enrage me for all sorts of reasons: ignoring them is by far the best option. And the fact is, I do. Most of the time, at any rate. But every now and then there comes that proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I can no longer ignore. After all, I say to myself, I have a blog at my disposal, and the very least I can do is to go there and let off some steam about it.

And so, while instances of my forbearance pass by unnoticed, the instances of my rage do not, and, over the years, the blog becomes filled with intemperate rants. As a consequence, far from being perceived as the gentle, avuncular soul that I think I am, radiating a warm conviviality and a quite Pickwickian goodwill to one and all, I show myself instead to be a bitter and angry hothead, forever at or near the boiling point. It is all most unfortunate, but what can one do?

The straw that has most recently broken my camel-back may be considered by many to be too slight a matter to get very upset about. Well, of course it is: it is but a straw, after all. But it is nonetheless an example of the sheer witless drivel and inane triviality into which mainstream commentary on the arts has sunk, and which, yes, I confess, does enrage me. Here it is. It is taken from the arts pages of a serious and prestigious British newspaper, the Guardian, and is written by one of their regular arts columnists.

(For those of you who do not want to give the Guardian website extra hits, the headline reads “Is Kanye West Hip-Hop’s Greatest Cubist?” and the sub-heading reads “Whether West’s latest album The Life of Pablo is a homage to Picasso or not, the two artists share a genius for presenting the world in creative collage”. Both the headline and the sub-heading are entirely consistent with the gobbledegook that follows.)

Now, those readers who think that Kanye West is possessed not merely of genius, but of genius of such magnitude that bracketing him with Picasso is not incongruous, and that to question genius such as his is but elitist and snobbish, and even, perhaps, racist, may well be wondering what I could possibly have found in all this that is enraging. I won’t argue those points. “Why Picasso Is a Greater Artist than Kanye West” is a post that a blogger with greater patience than I possess may care to write: I do not wish to go there myself. Rather, I would like to focus on matters I find more interesting – such as why and how we have come to the stage where professional writers plying their craft in mainstream and prestigious papers can pen such embarrassing nonsense without so much as batting an eyelid.

Not so long ago – at least, an oldie such as I can remember those halcyon days – arts commentators had a fairly fixed idea of what constitutes “art”. Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Dante and Shakespeare, Bach and Beethoven – not only are they “great”, but they, and others like them, define what greatness is; and our part is not to question, but to take the time and have the patience and make the effort to understand. Of course, this was never going to last very long in an age such as ours that is, often for very valid reasons, suspicious of and frequently hostile to the very concept of authority. Also, it was pointed out, such an approach to the arts excluded the immense contributions made to the enrichment of our lives by popular art: it is blinkered, at best, to sing the praises of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko while ignoring a popular artist such as, say, Edward Hopper; it is foolish to consider the art of fiction by focussing on Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, but overlooking Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse; and that if we are to talk about the art of song-writing, why focus on Schumann and Mahler and Berg but leave out Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney? These are all entirely valid points: to exclude the popular, merely on the grounds that it is popular, is certainly snobbery.

But not excluding merely on the basis of popularity is not quite the same as praising on the basis of popularity. If popularity is deemed the principal, or even the sole, criterion of artistic merit, then  sales figures alone determine quality; judgement and discernment then become pointless, and there is really nothing further to talk about. And that, it seems to me, is where we have arrived: arts pages, even in prestigious publications, are filled with utter garbage simply because there is nothing further to talk about. It is not so much that discourse on the arts has become diminished – it has become meaningless. And, even taking Stan’s advice on board, it does become difficult, at least for myself, to keep ignoring this, for, after a while, constantly ignoring it is effectively to condone it. One can at least express one’s dissent – even if it is just a post on a personal blog that not many people will even read.

So is Kanye West really the Picasso of Hip-Hop? Yes, absolutely – why not? As I said, I don’t want to argue that point. So let Kanye West be the Picasso of hip-hop by all means! But only if the Carpenters can be the Proust of Easy Listening.

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17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on February 18, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Absolutely wonderful post – I *so* agree!!!

    Reply

  2. Posted by shonti mukherjee on February 18, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    I really like The Carpeners….

    Reply

  3. Ha kanye has such an ego

    Reply

  4. Posted by John Henrick on February 19, 2016 at 12:25 am

    As the Actress said to the Bishop, “Your point is well taken, sir”.

    Reply

  5. As a character once said in Bloom County (which are the Dead Sea Scrolls of Cartoons) “a cynic is a a failed idealist” or something along those lines. I can see your inner Pickwickian Pollyanna struggling to remain optimistic, but these are dire times when Kanye West is considered anything other than a buffoon. (Having said that, I did like his first album….)

    Reply

    • Hello,
      I’m afraid I can’t summon up any strong feelings about Kanye West one way or the other – but then again, his music was never aimed for me in the first place. It’s this constant cutting-down-to-size of what is important and valuable that, I’m afraid, starts getting to me after a while! Our aesthetic preferences are no longer considered to be a consequence of judgement and of thought, or seen as answering some of our deepest needs; they are regarded as if they are no more than indicators of lifestyle choices, and the works themselves mere commodities.

      With all that, I suppose i am entitled to lose my rag at least once in a while! 🙂

      All the best, Hiimadri

      Reply

  6. Posted by Joseph on February 19, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    The point made by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian is that Picasso is still a potent force in our century. Nowhere in the article does he say that Kanye West is as good as Picasso. In fact he is at pains to point out that Kanye West’s latest album has been called confused and incoherent. But Jonathan Jones sees Picasso’s influence in it and elsewhere in hip-hop. This is not gobbledegook. It’s a commonplace. Many contemporary musicians are inspired and influenced by modern painters. Many even come from a fine arts background. Hip-hop is a mash-up medium. There is nothing controversial in what Jonathan Jones has written here.

    Reply

    • Hello Joseph, good to see you here.

      You are right, of course, that at no point in his article does Jonathan Jones say that Kanye West is as good as Picasso. But then again, at no point in my piece do I say that he does.

      If all Jones is saying is that Picasso is still a potent force in our century, then that, as you say, is “commonplace”, and one may expect arts journalists in prestigious newspapers to say more than what is merely commonplace. But of course he is saying more than that: he is, quite clearly, drawing an analogy between, on the one hand, the work of Picasso, and on the other, hip-hop music in general, and the music of Kanye West in particular. That seems to me the central thrust of his article. And I am afraid that still strikes me as “gobbledegook”.

      It may well be that many hip-hop musicians have, as you say, a fine arts background, and have used in their work what they have learnt of cubism. It so happens that I have a background in mathematics, and, inevitably, I have, in the course of my work, used many of the mathematical techniques used by some of the very finest of mathematicians. But to draw, on that basis, an analogy between me and, say, Euler and Gauss, would be absurd. For to draw an analogy is to imply an equivalence. It is not that Jones is necessarily saying that Kanye West is as good an artist as Picasso, but in drawing the parallel between them, he is most certainly implying that what they do in their respective fields have some kind of equivalence.

      I am afraid I am less than enchanted with the state of modern arts journalism. It is perhaps unfair to pick on this particular piece when there are so many others I might have picked, but it exemplifies the lack of discernment and of critical judgement that really is quite characteristic of so much of mainstream arts journalism: it elevates the trivial, and trivialises that which should not be trivialised. For I am afraid I can see nothing other than the utmost triviality in lyrics such as those quoted:

      “I wanna Rothko, no I wanna brothel, no, I want a wife that fuck me like a prostitute.”

      Not quite John Dowland, is it? Admittedly, this is from the work of Jay Z rather than of Kanye West, but Jonathan Jones, after quoting these lyrics of what seems to me to be of the utmost mindless triviality, solemnly informs us “Picasso would have recognised a fellow spirit there”. Really? We are told later that Picasso “would have envied Kanye West’s marriage to a Kardashian”. Now, it may well be that Picasso would have been guilty of both these charges: he was, from what I can gather, a flawed human being in many respects. But does any of this pointless speculation say anything at all about the nature of Picasso’s art? Jonathan Jones, is, after all, an art critic. Whatever Picasso’s shortcomings as a human being, he is recognised almost universally as a towering figure in art, but all I can only see in Jones’ article a trivialisation of his artistic greatness.

      We do not, nowadays, subscribe to what we may call the “Kenneth Clark school” of art criticism, where the value of the “greats” was a given and not up for dispute. That approach does have serious shortcomings, I agree: I said so much in my piece above. But in discarding all of it, we have, I think, lost something valuable: we have lost the capacity for reverence. Indeed, nowadays, the very word “reverence” is likely to raise knowing sniggers. But I do believe that there are and have been works of art to which we really do owe reverence, and arts commentators, with their constant trivialisation of what should not be trivialised, seem to forget that – if, that is, they ever knew it in the first place.

      In his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Saul Bellow starts by quoting Conrad:

      “… he said that art was an attempt to render the highest justice to the visible universe: that it tried to find in that universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what was fundamental, enduring, essential.”

      Towards the end of his speech, Bellow returns to Conrad, and says:

      “What Conrad said was true, art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.”

      Is not this worthy of respect, and of reverence? I think it is.

      I do not mean, of course, that cultural commentators need to be constantly on their knees before these works: that is a most uncomfortable and unbecoming posture to be in. Nothing, after all, is above criticism – though there is much that is beneath it. But I find the constant trivialisation hard to take. And, unless we are to jettison all semblance of artistic judgement and discernment, it is trivialisation to draw parallels between the works of Picasso and hip hop music, with such sensitive lyrics as quoted above.

      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

  7. What’s that’s banging sound? Oh yes, it’s Himadri once more hitting the nail firmly on the head. I will try to emulate your admirable self-restraint and refrain from taking you up on your “Why Picasso Is a Greater Artist than Kanye West” challenge (does anyone actually NEED to argue that point?). Instead, an observation: it seems to me that it is only in the world of music, or alleged music (oops!) that such ridiculous comparisons tend to be drawn.

    No serious media commentator would suggest that Dan Brown is a latter-day Tolstoy (except on April 1st perhaps). Indeed many trees have died so that columnists can mock Brown and other mass-market writers, and the same happens with films. What film critic would dare suggest that a Chuck Norris film is comparable with Citizen Kane? Yet it’s the other way round in music – critics and bloggers, with a few notable exceptions, constantly repeat the breathless refrain that pop’s-just-as-great-as-high-art-and-anyone-who-says-otherwise-is-elitist-and-snobbish-so-there.

    Thank Heaven for blogs like this that take a saner view!

    Reply

    • Hello Neil, it’s good to see you around here!
      It’s an interesting point you raise – why does this happen almost exclusively with music?

      I’d guess – and I’m only conjecturing here – that music, unlike the other arts, is often perceived as defining one’s identity. Identification with a certain type of music is seen as defining who one is, and this simply is not the case with cinema, say, or literature. Thus, people may say about Dan Brown “Yes, I know it’s poor stuff, but I like it”: no-one ever thinks that declaring a liking for Dan Brown is a comment on them as a person. But of a person sees his or her own identity in terms of a particular kind of music, then criticism of that kind of music, or even any suggestion that that music may not be of the highest quality, is taken personally. I honestly can’t think of anhy other reason!

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Yes, I think you’re right here. People often will say “this book isn’t exactly Shakespeare” when reviewing an airport thriller, because they recognise that there is a hierarchy in literature and respect it even though they have no interest in exploring higher levels. On the other hand, try suggesting to someone that the pop they like “isn’t exactly Mozart” and you’re in for a serious ding-dong.

        I think it’s all because the 60s pop revolutionaries have grown up and have positions of influence.

        Sorry, I mean that the 60s pop revolutionaries have got older and have positions of influence…

        As ever, keep up the good work!

  8. Posted by alan on February 21, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    Was “serious and prestigious” an example of irony? Prestige (or a good reputation) can last a long time and take a few blows but is difficult to recover when finally lost. You are right to say that The Guardian still has some prestige but I haven’t detected much seriousness for some time now.
    As to music somehow defining who one is: I’ve always found this curious and is no doubt due to a lack in me. My hearing isn’t great, I have hearing loss in the middle range on one side. I only became aware of this in my twenties but I wonder if it was always there to some extent and it would explain a lot. However, I do like some music, especially when it is not part of a noisy cacophony and I can hear the individual notes, like much of Bach.
    Nevertheless, I can do without music and not see its lack as a great deprivation, unlike some people I know.
    I think the following observation is a bit harsh, but I think it survives to some extent, even today:

    “The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.”

    Reply

    • Posted by shonti mukherjee on February 21, 2016 at 7:35 pm

      Music in popular mode structure and packaging is easier accessed intrinsic to everyday life and usually shorter…

      These may be a few reasons why shit is constantly labelled as high art….

      Im glad u like the Carpenters….lovely voice Karen had

      Reply

      • Yes, I agree – it’s the ease of access that makes popular music so important in defining one’s identity. But I am coming increasingly to resent the way so much of popular music, even of a most objectionable nature (“I want a wife who fucks me like a prostitute” etc) is being taken seriously, and is pushing everything else into the sidelines.

    • Well, yes, those lines about music are spoken by a character in a play, speaking in character, and is not necessarily authorial wisdom. Music is fairly indispensable to me also, but I wouldn’t subscribe to those lines. I do, however, continue to object to lyrics such as “I want a wife who fucks me like a prostitute” being taken seriously as art, and quoted approvingly by professional cultural commentators. Whatever art may or may not be, it should not be dehumanising.

      I was being serious about the Guardian, by the way: whatever we may think of the general tone of the paper nowadays, they can still boast regular writers of the quality of Rafael Behr; and while the 1990s may now seem a long way away, Ed Vulliamy’s reporting of the Bosnia War is as fine a piece of war reporting as I have seen.

      But OK, fair enough … yes, there was a fair bit of irony in my describing them as “serious and prestigious”.

      Reply

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