What is Art and Why is it So Pretentious?

Childish Gambino’s This is America is a work of art. But why is it difficult to understand? Why do we struggle to understand art? I offer my take on what art is and how we can understand it.

Cover | Childish Gambino Art

“Well by gosh, this is too complicated! Why doesn’t he just say he wants guns banned?!” — Random Passerby

The Problem

Art is not easy to understand. Paintings often don’t break down into easy shapes — squares, circles, and triangles — at first glance. Books don’t always offer linear and monolithic progression. Romantic singers aren’t overt about their lust for their muse.

To a beginner, all the “artiness” of art can be very intimidating. It represents a huge knowledge gap that an onlooker must learn before they can truly appreciate a piece of work.

That gap creates room for derision. People are afraid of the unknown, and that fear inspires ridicule.

This is why multiple TV shows and movies make fun of artists, or of the fact that their protagonists cannot understand the value of paintings that others clearly admire.

The ridicule takes all the common forms you’ve encountered before: “Artists are pretentious as hell”, “There’s no skill in her work”, “ It’s just all for attention.

How do we help people reduce this knowledge gap, so that they may understand and appreciate art, and thereby enrich their lives?

The Answer

My interpretation of art is quite simple. The reason that art is so complicated is because the ideas being conveyed are big and complicated. Art is a simplification of big ideas. This is why artists “express” themselves.

Consider paintings. Photorealism has its place in great art, but not everybody aims to be photorealistic. The impressionism movement aims to capture a beautiful moment, and impressionist artists show us not what the world is, but how colourful, bright, and inviting it can be if only we use our eyes to see.

Songs (that don’t repeat themselves ad nauseam) express a multitude of feelings that the singer feels in a moment. It could be as simple as Queen’s Bicycle Race, where Freddie Mercury expresses his want to be carefree, or it could be as complex as (or more so than) Childish Gambino’s This is America (more on that below).

The interpretation of art is personal, and you will see things in it that I don’t, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, that means you cannot force someone to see something as you see it. You can teach, but you cannot always convince. You can drag the horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

Appreciation of art needs to be introduced with gentleness, not with the force of a hammer, so as to not scare or put off the person who’s experiencing it. Unfortunately, we are so used to defining who is right and who is wrong, that we forget sometimes that art offers several meanings.

I’m no expert by any means, but very recently I’ve taken to perusing reviews for any content I watch or read. It gives me another person’s perspective, which may yeild things that I didn’t see before.

I also read lyrics of rap songs, to understand what they’re trying to say. When they’re not talking about how much money they have or how they’ve defeated their haters, they can say some pretty insightful things!

A (Bit of a) Breakdown of #ThisIsAmerica

Childish Gambino’s “This is America” uses its name to point towards the idea it is trying to break down and express. What is life for a black man in the USA?

You can see the obvious references immediately — the quite alarming and very visible shooting scenes indicate the video is about the gun control debate in the US.

What is slightly less obvious is that there are no white people in the video, and that the shootings are mixed in with revelry and merrymaking, which seems to suggest that African-Americans and guns are intricately linked, as if gun violence is just a part of daily life for the “Black Man”.

For a deeper analysis along those lines, please see this wonderful article by Kitanya Harrison:

Medium.com: The Difficulty in Defining Donald Glover’s ‘This is America’.

There is also a scene with a white horse running in the background, which someone surmises can either be a symbol of white supremacy over blacks, or a symbol of the first horseman of the apocalypse, Conquest, or both.

The Genius.com page with this song’s lyrics has a number of theories, including that some of Gambino’s mannerisms reflect Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician. You can see all the interpretations here:

https://genius.com/Childish-gambino-this-is-america-lyrics

A YouTube commenter noticed that in one scene, there are a brown chicken and a white chicken in the background, which they see as an example of animals living peacefully without racial bias, unlike humans.

One more: Towards the end of the video, Gambino can be seen running in an ostentatiously strange manner, showing terror as he is being chased.

Theorists (on the Genius page) surmise that this is a reference to the 2017 film, Get Out. It mirrors a running scene in the film, and may be indicative that Gambino is running from The Sunken Place, a marginalization concept from the film.

The director of the video, Hiro Murai, also tweeted a GIF of a scene from the 2006 film Paprika by Satoshi-Kon, where a character runs in madness because his psyche has been tampered with.

 

Now, I have not seen Get Out, so as a spectator, I cannot appreciate the reference in this song. But I have watched Paprika, several times.

That scene with Dr Shima having a sudden breakdown and running and jumping out a window is one of the most powerful scenes in the film, being the first indicator of the world of dreams colliding with the real world.

I could only find a low quality clip, but the original English dub was almost as good as the Japanese audio, so enjoy.

That’s a hell of a parallel to put in your video.

The New Problem

Of course, this explanation of art presents a new problem.

Can you know all the references that artists make in their work? Of course not. Not unless you’re extremely well-versed in diverse topics and multiple cultures.

It also introduces a gap: did the artist know all the parallels they were putting in? It is tempting to think they didn’t, because it seems so big and intimidating that our mind jumps to our defense with ridicule and derision. “I couldn’t think of all that, so how could he?”

I don’t think Gambino put in the two hens to show animals living peacefully despite race/color. But then, why did he put them there? If I cannot come up with an answer, I have to give the creator the benefit of doubt.

Your view of an artist’s work is defined by your frame of reference. We tend to project our own world view on what we see. Because gun control is a hot-button issue in the US, that’s what people immediately see in this video, even if it presents a larger story.

Expanding your horizons and looking beyond yourself will allow you to see more, feel more, and understand more in art. It will introduce you to new ideas and new ways of thinking, which only serve to enrich your life.

What is Good Art and What Isn’t?

First off, who are we to judge? Well, the consumer of course!

Whether you operate within the realm of capitalism (everything must have a use and therefore a value) or not, it is useful to have a basic expectation from art — what purpose does it serve, and what feelings does it express?

Bad art is directionless. It both serves no purpose and has no flair. It is drab, dry, droll, and all other dr- words you can think of.

Good art has one of the two. It either knows the purpose that it serves, and therefore provides food for thought, or it has fantastic flair, and is hence very entertaining.

Great art has both. It shows tremendous effort, offers a cohesive message, and uses the gaps as much as the expressions. It knows what it is saying, and it says it with style, pizzazz, life.

Of Course, a Disclaimer

Maybe I know nothing. Maybe I’m completely wrong. But I wanted to get meta, and answer for myself the complicated question, “What is art?” This is the answer at which I arrived. If it made you think, let me know. 😉