A still of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing

September 20, 2017

SWAN | The Artist’s Struggle

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The last column that I wrote for this paper considered my own identity as a student of ethnomusicology and the importance of experiencing the art of different cultures. I was planning on broaching a different topic this week, but then an actual hate crime occurred in our community and to ignore that would be blissfully ignorant and cringingly self-indulgent.

In my last column — and in other previous ones — I feel as though I stopped just short of explicitly commanding everyone to go engage with black art. Well, now I would like to say it explicitly: everyone really needs to go engage with black art.

It might seem somewhat trivializing to attempt to connect these recent events to some lesson about artistic consideration. Furthermore, I readily acknowledge, early on, two things: one, that I should by no means be considered any type of authority on race relations in the United States or the rest of the world, and two, that I am the final interpreter on any piece of intellectual creativity. Nevertheless, these more violent instances obviously stem from a general sense of ingrained racism and casual moments of microaggression, and for this culture we are all certainly responsible to some degree.

Why art, right now? Chiefly, I think that the serious consideration of any art, be it literature, music or visual creations slowly but surely instills a keen sense of nuance in the person studying it. This sentiment sort of reminds me of some proverbial wisdom I once read in a Fitzgerald essay (“The Crack Up”) about intelligence: a fine cognitive ability is measured by one’s capacity to be able to hold seemingly opposing views in one’s head and still operate on a daily basis. In studying art and the many complex influences and traumas that go into creating a great piece of art, one begins to develop this specific mental capacity.

Take this gained sense of nuance and apply it to contemporary issues of identity. Perhaps it takes a bit of intellectual labor to understand the notion that, for example, gender is a social construct which exists on a spectrum. These ideas challenge the many binary and antiquated notions of identity that are instilled in Americans even as young as ourselves. Now, take the relevant issue of African-American identity and art. A common thread among black art created in the United States seems to be the conflict of possessing an American pride while simultaneously always being shunned by mainstream, white society. Indeed, early blues lyrics reflected this sentiment among the newly emancipated individuals who sung them. Nearly one hundred years later, James Baldwin, in works like Notes of a Native Son, discusses this feeling, the resigned frustration of constantly existing between love and hate. Could the identification of these complex themes be the start of some broader sympathy?

Rural college campuses, like that of Cornell, are often trapped in an insidious sort of bubble that creates an unfounded sense of safety among the individuals that live there. It is a bubble that might likely resemble the suburban havens where many of its students came from. In this light, art of historically oppressed individuals can offer stark glimpses into the realities that so many other people have to face on a daily basis. The failure to believe in the existence of these realities, for lack of familiarity or whatever reason, is the beginning of hatred. White people can never know what it is like to be black in the United States, but we can at least listen to what individuals like James Baldwin, Chuck D or Robert Johnson have to say about it.

There is a brilliant scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing where Mookie, played by Lee, confronts another character, Pino, about the racism that he has exhibited throughout the movie. Pino is white and Italian and Mookie picks on his hair, telling Pino that it is “kinkier” than his own, and Mookie then amusingly accuses Pino of wishing that he was black. The entire scene works to highlight the stupidity of Pino’s racism. On some level, this scene can be tied to a poignant quote by James Baldwin: “It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings.” I think the point of this connection is that we are all the same, tiny, insignificant people trying desperately, beautifully, to prove our humanity on a daily basis. There is no space for hate, really, as it is utterly useless in the end of it all.


Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.