The frenzy over the latest Erykah Badu video, "Window Seat," has been fascinating to watch—a cultural phenom in itself. Folks in the blogosphere have been grasping for answers, for the magic decoder to come down from on high. What on earth is Erykah trying to say? Is it a publicity stunt? Is being shot on the grassy knoll another portrait of a tragic artist? Has the black, female president of the United States of Amerykah just been assassinated? Or, if she staged the "shoot" herself, is it a suicide?
I had some of the same questions, but was more struck by the prevailing need to pin down an ultimate truth, or at least a definitive opinion. It made me think about great artists—not de facto including Erykah in this category—and how they often have their own, sometimes incomprehensible, language. Davinci's Mona Lisa is still indecipherable, for example, and if it were not, its power would be lost. Modern art itself would be dead, or at least returned to its vainglorious Medici roots.
Because doesn't art too easily understood cease to be art? It becomes a simple product for easy consumption, and robs the viewer of the right to their own experience, all the while upholding values possibly not even in their own best interest. In that other world—the world, perhaps, of entertainment—each painting, video, and piece of music, is a piece of propaganda for those who control its production; an opportunist vehicle to affirm someone else's way of looking at the world.
Like Roy DeCarava and Charlie Mingus, Eva Hesse and Ana Mendieta, Erykah Badu, aka @fatbellybella, strikes me as someone who lives in a sealed world of her own linguistic creation. She absorbs the bits that speak to her and runs it through the sieve of her own sensibility—an extremely specific (and ultimately proprietary) way of seeing. As Erykah's tattoo acknowledges, her alchemical interface with the world is ever changing, but her commitment to her inner truth, accessibility be damned, is where her process of transforming the ordinary into the transcendent begins.
And this is what artists do: we tell our truths the best we can. We try to make them epic and beautiful and ugly and lasting. We try to sear our work into the psyche of the world. Darryl Hammons made snowballs, Miles abandoned bebop, Picasso became drunk on African sculpture and created cubism, Julie Mehretu paints huge sprawling, intergalactic maps, and when Beethoven wrote his final symphony, people ran screaming from the opera house because he dared to marry the sacred and profane. The piece went on to revolutionize the form forever.
Choreographers develop a physical vocabulary. Writers develop a style. Musicians, a sound. Painters and sculptors, an experience. What's interesting are the components-what creates the resonance? I think the question here has more to do with what Erykah is working out for herself, and how able is she to fully utilize her instrument—her body, voice, mind and resources, to express her very personal evolution while pointing to a larger truth?
But looking at art is not taught at most public (and private) schools in our country, which is at least partly why so many are alienated from museums and contemporary art itself. We have been left to a cursory reaction to hard-won creative work—we like it, we don't, it's cool, it's empowering, it's meant to sell records, and so on, but what about the grainy, cinema verite style, the grassy knoll and historical references, the meaning of the tattoo, the question of whether it was a closed set, her relationship with the director, and, perhaps most important, the connections between this current work and, say, her first offering, Baduizm?
I'm interested in Erykah's ongoing tropes: grandiosity and vulnerability; eloquence and incoherence; religion and spirituality; tenderness and an almost cruel disregard of the feelings of others; personal liberation and political disillusionment; nakedness and the selling of tits and ass. And I'm interested in them because I am interested in how she negotiates them-how she solves and serves her polarity and complexity. In that way I am less judge than witness. Her work is less gimmick, more Rorschach.
While elements of the video were more or less successful, the experience of watching the piece as a whole was satisfying to me as a fellow artist watching/apprehending a piece of art. A contemporary doing it her way. I felt her. I caught her references. I felt her vibe. I had an experience. But if I didn't know that position toward the work was an option, I think I'd be pretty confused—which is where many people seem to be.
At the Van Gogh museum here in Amsterdam yesterday, I stared at his painting of sunflowers, with their sunny promise and ochre, mustard hue, and they were never more wonderfully enigmatic. I saw Van Gogh's power of perspective, his understanding of what we now call color theory. I saw his ability to manifest mature work. I saw the pull he must have felt between art and commerce: how could he be true to himself and keep coal in the stove?
Van Gogh's flowers are more than flowers-they are a portrait of a time, a place, an artist. If we let them, they are a window into another way of seeing. The point is not whether we like the painting, the point is this is the way another negotiated it all, saw it all, turned it all into something so powerful and so true.
The point, it seems to me, is that there are so many ways to see the world, and if we have died before seeing it our way, we have not lived much of a life at all.
Rebecca Walker is a regular contributor to The Root.