Who Owns Culture?

Straight Outta Compton is in theaters as I write this, and like just about everything the former Andre Romelle Young touches, from subpar headphones to white dingbats from Detroit, it has turned to gold, raking in over $100 million at the box office so far.  What exactly this means for society is a bit unclear, which hasn’t stopped anyone from writing a tedious thinkpiece about it.  However, since the role of women in culture has a rightfully expanded place in the national conversation — a role they did not have in 1988 — it has also revived the charges of physical abuse against Dr. Dre, particularly against the rapper and journalist Dee Barnes, who he jumped and assaulted at a record release party a few years later.

Because the movie has had a high media profile, because Dr. Dre is a billionaire, and because the film has seen some critical and commercial success, it is a ripe target for those who want to remind the world of Dre’s past.  How we should assess his sins in relation to the film is a difficult question; many people have suggested that, because Straight Outta Compton does not mention his history of abuse, it is a whitewashing of some fairly heinous behavior by a rich and powerful man.  Since the movie is a fait accompli, there seems to be little that can be done about it; as a result — or maybe as a predetermined position — other people have demanded that it be boycotted.  And because we live in the age of the Internet, there are even a few who claim that N.W.A.’s entire legacy is not worth exploring, that whatever good they may have done with their art is negated by their individual bad behavior.

This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time.  As I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere, time after time, I maintain an iron wall between the artist and the art; the mere fact that I’ve said it so often indicates that it’s a problem that stands no chance of going away anytime soon.  There are many reasons for this, any of which I feel should be definitive in settling the matter:  fate doesn’t care who it gives talent to; art isn’t responsible for the people who create it (or the people who consume it); people who are pure of character tend to create puritanical art; and, most of all, if we were to exile from the cultural landscape everyone who has underperformed, morally speaking, we would soon find ourselves having an awfully dull time with the music, film, literature, and other art that remained.  The history of great artists — whether male or female, black or white, gay or straight — is the history of drunkenness, adultery, abuse, infidelity, neglect, larceny, deceit, addiction, and far worse.  Crimes must be answered before the law, but beyond that, it’s difficult to ask artists to live up to any standard other than that by which we judge their art.

On the other hand, we know a lot more about the way our artists behave than we used to, and it’s often pretty ugly information.  It may be true that great artists are often people of poor moral character, but by the same token, it is probably also true that their bad behavior is not necessary for the creation of their art, just as it does not also negate that art.  I certainly wish N.W.A’s music was less resoundingly misogynistic, and if I were the author of Dr. Dre’s life, I would have edited out the parts where he beat some helpless woman half to death.  But the fact is, it happened, and it’s no minor thing; even if we forget about Dee Barnes — and we shouldn’t — an antagonistic and often violent attitude towards women is part of the group’s DNA.  It’s a quality that is literally inseparable, part of the same hostile aggression and assertion of domination that they directed against real oppressors like the police and the white community, but directed at the wrong targets.  It is a factor that may make the body deformed, but cannot be taken out without crippling the patient.

The way this particular chapter of the battle to topple that iron wall has played out has provided us with an interesting denouement.  Barnes took to the web to remind people of the suffering she experienced (literally) at Dre’s hands, and how, despite his mild legal punishment and out-of-court settlement, she has had to live with the consequences of his behavior far more than he has.  Dre, through no less ritzy a medium than the New York Times, issued an apology — he named no names, but it was clear enough who he was referring to — and seemed surprisingly mature and contrite, disavowing his younger self as a reckless, drunken, out-of-control boor who had no one to anchor him and shelter him from his own worst impulses.  The assault took place almost 25 years ago, and he claims to have spent the subsequent decades becoming a better person.  If there is any hope for humanity, we must take him at his word, and absent any further crimes or abuses, believe that there is at least the possibility of redemption.

But the thing is, we are used to thinking of cases like this, as we do most things, in a dichotomous way, a selection of either this or that which leaves us the choice of whose side we will be on; with that choice made, we must, it seems, stand with art or against women.  But as Kandinsky taught is, there is no ‘must’ in art; art is free, and leaves us to careen between infinite possibilities.  Dre has had his say on the matter, and it is true that his voice will ring out loudest because of the choice of venues his wealth and success can buy.  But people remember Dee Barnes now, too; people who never knew her before have now heard of her, and she has a platform and an audience who can now be exposed to her story, her art, her approach, which has been denied her for years.  A cynic would suggest this her only reason for speaking out against Dre, but it is likely that this is the way things should be.

Dr. Dre’s bad behavior must never be forgotten, and must be answered for, but his status as an artist has earned him the right to show that he has become a better person, and to illustrate that the mistreatment of women is not an indispensable element of his music.  Dee Barnes must earn the respect of the country through whatever medium she chooses, but she must never be silenced or ignored because of the genuine pain that was inflicted on her by one man, and — most critically — she deserves our attention because of the time that she lost to the work she put in trying to cope with what happened to her, because of the agony both physical and psychological, because of the career that might have been if it weren’t interrupted by violence from a powerful man.  We owe her that much, and we owe that much to every victim.

It is not only possible, but desirable, that we continue to give great art the status it should have despite the bad behavior of the artists who make it; it is equally possible and desirable to punish the guilty while allowing that a bad man may become a good one through constant effort and self-knowledge; and it is just as possible, and just as desirable, that we try to give back to victims of crime and oppression the opportunities and sense of belonging that they were denied.  It is our mistake that we do not do so, and continue to lose ourselves to a false binary of choices that are not truly opposed, but actually complementary.

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