Art and Morality

Kendrick Lamar released the album “To Pimp A Butterfly” to much acclaim in March of this year. I will be honest, I am not much of a hip-hop afficionado but reviews by Relevant Magazine and by a good friend made me want to check it out. From the reviews, from interviews with Kendrick, from the media reaction, it was “a masterpiece of fiery outrage, deep jazz and ruthless self-critique” (Rolling Stone) and as Relevant Magazine put it; “It confirms our suspicions about Kendrick: He is one of the most important musicians of his generation.” And honestly, I had a really hard time listening to it because of all the profanity.

Now, I want to be able to say I am an appreciator of good art, regardless. I want to say that art needs to be truthful, that art that sugar coats things and dresses everything in Bob Ross happy trees is pleasant yes, but not powerful. Redemption isn’t real without a fall, grace isn’t powerful without failure and need for grace, and art that ignores this is like a taco without salsa; palatable but not preferred. But I seem to continually butt up against this invisible line that screams to me that art needs a moral center and that art that flaunts that, especially in the area of seemingly unneccesary vulgarity loses whatever power it may have had.

With Kendrick Lamar’s album, I realize that I am way outside of my cultural comfort zone. When I read the reviews that dive into the depth of his lyrics, I am encouraged and challenged. But when I listen to them, I get distracted by the profanity and racial epithets thrown around, seemingly without regard. He says “The next time I talk about money, h***, clothes, God and history all in the same sentence, just know I meant it, and you felt it cause you too are searching for answers. I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper, I am a human ****ing being.” I wonder if I am more willing to give grace to the guy on the street that says that to me than I am to the public figure who clearly had the time to edit his comments. Is being real overrated, if not put through a filter and refined?

Which makes me wonder about art and ethics in general. When does the masterpiece become indecent? When does the painting cross the boundaries with the depiction of nudity? What makes it cross that boundary? What is a societal norm and what is truly indecent? There were days when it was indecent to have a woman have her shoulders uncovered. Have you seen the old school swimsuits? The ones that were basically like swimming in your clothes? Compare those with even the most modest swimsuit today and you get an idea of cultural norms. Or think of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; “called vulgar in the 19th century and racist in the 20th.”

I don’t have a great answer for these questions. I am a Christian and that informs and defines what I see as appropriate and not appropriate. Other people will define it different ways and honestly, things like this are pretty subjective and my definitions may change too. I do think that art should come from some sort of ethical or moral framework. Without this, I think it loses it’s power. From my perspective, art should be:

1. Purposeful. Offending for the sake of offending is about as useful as manure on a driveway. It just stinks.

2. True. Or have truth woven into it. No, I don’t mean that fiction is wrong, simply that sometimes fiction can ring true to the way we are made.

3. Made with integrity and excellence. Throwing crap up on a canvas because you know it will sell is a sell out. If you are going to make something, pour yourself into it. If it is less than, you do a disservice to yourself and to your creator.

What do you think about art? I realize I posed more questions than answers and I would love more answers.

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