Jonathan Iwry | Eye of the B-holder

The Faithless Quaker | In a world where everything is relative, what do we do about art?

· June 11, 2014, 7:37 pm   ·  Updated June 25, 2014, 3:46 pm

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A specter is haunting hip-hop — the specter of Lil B.

For better or for worse, nearly every hip-hop listener has heard of Brandon McCartney aka Lil B aka the Based God, whose artistic reign spans the farthest reaches of Myspace and Twitter. He’s like the “Ed, Edd n Eddy” of popular music: bizarre, incoherent and yet disturbingly easy to enjoy.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its weirdness, Lil B's music inspires cultish adulation. A considerable chunk of the internet hails Lil B as a genius, a harbinger of the avant-garde in hip-hop and beyond. Even Jonah Weiner wrote an article in Slate justifying the “post-Lil-Wayne deconstructionist." With music so frivolous, it’s easy to attach satirical value to Lil B’s work and enjoy it tongue in cheek.

It’s as if an inside joke has swept through the rap community. The issue is that the joke might eventually become serious.

Traditional music listeners fear that after playing devoted groupies for so long, hip-hop hipsters have conditioned themselves to genuinely enjoy the Based God. They argue that by giving so much attention to anomalies like Lil B, we starve legitimate musicians of the respect they deserve.

The defendants, however, see nothing problematic about this. They object that all music — and art, for that matter — is subjective. Who’s to say that Lil B is any less important than the likes of "real" rappers?

This debate ought to look familiar. The clash between high and popular art has long been a central feature of Western culture, with mainstream entertainment vying for legitimacy alongside the critically esteemed works of the past. Advances in technology have only complicated the debate: decentralization fosters more intricate cultures and subcultures within the artistic community, sprouting a sort of musical Singularity in which facetiousness runs rampant and nonconformity has become its own brand of snobbery.

There does seem to be some truth to the claim that artistic appreciation is relative. Yet we still acknowledge that some works possess exceptional value. There is something universally recognizable about Mozart that sets him above other musicians, but is his music truly “better” than that of the Based God? Is there a way to reconcile our conflicting intuitions? I think so.

Art is powerful for its ability to conjure meaningful experiences and offer new perspectives. It’s not a quantifiable substance, but a potential for interpretation. To call a collection of notes artistic is to assert the possibility of having a meaningful experience listening to them, and since meaning is subjective, all art is indeed relative to whoever perceives it. You might say it’s all Based on your point of view.

That said, particular tokens of artwork can satisfy a given set of criteria better than their competitors. We employ a multitude of expectations when observing art. Some of these expectations have been so prominent that they came to define entire periods of history — the Baroque Era emphasized elaborate structure and technical elegance, while Romantic artists strove to embody the sublime. Not all art is valuable for the same reasons — we must apply the proper standards when judging a work for its value.

My attitudes, emotions and preferences aren’t always the same, either. Pregaming in my apartment calls for a different ambiance than does my morning meditation, and choosing “Timber” over the Well-Tempered Clavier might not reflect ignorance so much as situational awareness. For those brief moments, the former actually possesses greater value.

Of course, some works have an absolute advantage. John Ruskin defined fine art as “that in which the hand, the head and the heart of man go together.” The most lasting works of art fulfill multiple departments at once — they are universally accessible and easy to appreciate across a wide range of dispositions. Perhaps this is what distinguishes the great composers from those who have not yet stood the test of time, that "je ne sais quoi" that even Miley Cyrus fans acknowledge sets Bach apart from "Bangerz."

Within the web of absolute relativism, we can make subjective assessments that come usefully close to objectivity. Our preferences are often well established, and some works satisfy those paradigms better than others.

The knottier question is which perspectives are most worthy of endorsing. This issue reaches beyond the scope of pure aesthetics, reflecting deeper disagreements about ethics, politics and society. In truth, it’s unclear whether a single answer even exists; our goal might instead be, as Richard Rorty says, “keeping the conversation going.”

And that’s what we’ll continue to do, Based God willing. Perhaps that was His plan for us all along.

Jonathan Iwry is a College 2014 graduate from Bethesda, Md., who studied philosophy. His email address is jon.iwry@gmail.com.

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